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IEET > Rights > Vision > Bioculture > Directors > George Dvorsky > Futurism > Technoprogressivism

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Revisiting Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” (1921)


George Dvorsky
By George Dvorsky
Sentient Developments

Posted: Apr 6, 2011

Everybody knows the dystopian novels Brave New World and 1984, but few remember Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal work, We.

The Russian Zamyatin completed We in 1921, a book that was largely written in response to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and his work in the Tyne shipyards during the First World War. The result was a characteristically unique vision of the future, one that in turn spawned the satirical science fiction dystopia genre.

There’s no questioning Zamyatin’s influence on 21st Century writers like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut and even Ayn Rand. In fact, Orwell himself said that it served as the model for 1984. Like the writers who followed him, Zamyatin took the burgeoning totalitarian and conformative elements of modern industrial society to an extreme conclusion, conveying a surveillance state that considered free will as the cause of unhappiness—and who in turn took it upon itself to control and direct the lives of its citizens.

The novel is set in the future where the protagonist, D-503, lives in the One State, an urban nation constructed almost entirely of glass and which serves as a kind of Benthamite Panopticon; the configuration allows the secret police and spies to inform on and supervise the public more easily. Society is thus portrayed as a kind of prison.

Life in this society is organized to promote maximum productive efficiency along the lines of the system advocated by the hugely influential F.W. Taylor. People march in step with each other and wear identical clothing. Names have been replaced by numbers; men have odd numbers prefixed by consonants while women have even numbers prefixed by vowels. The story itself follows the plight of D-503 as he struggles to reconcile his obligations to the state with his discovery of a nascent revolt called the Mephi.

Like 1984, the dystopian society is presided over by the Benefactor (who Orwell called Big Brother) and every hour “The Table” offers instructions to citizens (a precursor to the telescreen).

Needless to say Zamyatin’s book was immediately banned in the Soviet Union. His literary position quickly deteriorated during the 1920s and he eventually fled to Paris in 1931. The novel was first published in English in 1924, but its first publication in the Soviet Union had to wait until 1988, when glasnost resulted in it appearing alongside 1984. A year later We and Brave New World were published together in a combined edition. In 1994, the novel received a Prometheus Award in the “Hall of Fame” category.


George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.
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COMMENTS


thanks George for the recommendation!

Frankly, I think Francis Fukuyama got one thing right—that our world is much closer to Brave New World than 1984.
Every time that an audience laughs at mention of “sex” in an otherwise normal, banal talk, I just cannot help but think how people in Brave New World laughs at words such as “Father,” and “mother…”

Huxley got so many things right—let’s hope the better of his future vision “The Island” will triumph over “BNW” as we build the future.





I read this when I was nineteen before I’d ever read Orwell or Huxley. Of course I was aware of those authors and what their works represented. So I was thrilled to find this dystopian fable which, though written in a more distant past, attempted to look further.





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