Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We was sold to me as the primogenitor of sci-fi dystopia, a subgenre of books that include my all-time favourites 1984, Oryx and Crake and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This proved to be an entirely accurate and even complete description of the story, as it reads as an early draft of 1984 might have done. The main difference is the main character starts out entirely devoted to the system, otherwise the bare bones of the plot are the same. Man is in threatening authoritarian world. Man meets woman and rebels with her. Regime knows this and crushes man.
This difference does allow for a substantial difference in tone for most of the novel, however. Zamyatin’s takes the approach of damning the regime with faint praise. Many passages have the protagonist praising the order that surrounds him, while the author is somewhat transparently inviting the reader to see the horror of the mechanical tyranny that has been wrought. However I would not say this is used to full effect, as instead of the sinister doublethink of 1984 we are presented with the inner workings of a mathematician according to the author’s imagination. The result is a quirky style that serves as a parody of those who would draw upon the ideals of engineering and Plato to design an ideal society by elevating efficiency to the highest goal. But to flatly disagree with what Orwell said about this novel, I would say that Zamyatin fails to show off the irrationality of totalitarianism. Efficiency seems to be both the stated goal and the actual goal, which I guess is fine if you’re into that kind of thing. This is the exact same transparency of motive that completely prevented Brave New World from being chilling.
Overall this was a good read and it may be responsible for the existence of perhaps my favourite genre of novels. Later books do a lot more with the format, however, and most of the draw here for me was historical.