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WE
Yevgeny Zamyatin
Avon Books, 232 pages

WE
Yevgeny Zamyatin
Yevgeny Zamyatin can be thought of as a dissident in his own way (he didn't renounce Marxism but opposed Stalinism on an artistic rather than political level). In his collection, A Soviet Heretic, the reader can see his resistance to the struggle and the cause of his exile from his homeland. In another collection of 15 short stories, The Dragon, from earlier this century, there is a letter he wrote to Stalin in which he asked to be allowed to "go abroad... with the right to return as soon as it becomes possible in our country to serve great ideas without cringing before little men".

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A review by Colin Cooke

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WE is probably the oldest 'new' release that you are likely to pick up at your local SF haven this year. In the early 20s, Yevgeny Zamyatin foresaw some of the excesses the Russian Revolution was heading toward, and he explored them in a brilliant satire that has become a classic in the genre of Utopian literature. Recently re-released in English translation by Avon Eos, this precursor to (and influence on) both 1984 and Brave New World is a must for anyone who enjoys facing the complex questions of human society in a thoroughly enjoyable and readable story.

WE shows the reader the world of the 26th century where people are satisfied citizens of the One State and where virtually every movement and thought is controlled by the State. The population has traded the archaic notion of freedom for that of measured, controlled happiness. Living quarters are made of glass; people are referred to by number; movements are controlled by the Table of Hours; sexual intercourse is by appointment. Mathematics is king and logic divine. Even poetry and music are created and manipulated to further the goals of the system. The reader enters in at the stage where humanity is about to set off to generously spread the 'good news' about its way of life to other planets. Then, a typically human thing happens -- someone breaks the rules and tries to do things differently.

D-503, the designer of the spaceship that will take the One State to the stars, has his world turned upside down when he meets a mysterious woman. Nothing is quite the same thereafter and the story follows his descent into the madness that you and I would probably consider normal. Visiting a doctor for help, he discovers that his ailment -- he has developed a soul -- is incurable.

Zamyatin creates a world where nothing is sacred. He challenges our perception and thinking on everything from relationships to governance. WE is a philosophical treatise in the form of a good tale and is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago. At the time that it was written, it was also a warning, but one that was never heeded. Only now is Zamyatin entering into the consciousness of the Russian people. 1999 marks the first year that many Moscow students are studying this previously banned book.

The author once gave a metaphorical definition of good books:

"There are books of the same chemical composition as dynamite. The difference lies only in the fact that one stick of dynamite explodes only once, but one book explodes a thousand times."
This is an excellent way to describe WE. Like 1984, it is not the lightest read of the year; it is, however, one that will challenge you on many levels. Definitely a good read for the cold winter nights ahead!

Copyright © 1999 by Colin Cooke

This is Colin Cooke's first review for the SF Site. He has recently returned from a visit to Moscow.


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