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I'm not nearly the fan of Orwell's 1984 that, seemingly, everyone is these days. Consequently, for a while I thought it might be fun to claim that Yevgeny Zemyatin's We, of which there's apparently a new translation out was actually the superior book. That's almost certainly false now that I think about it, though it's still the case that We gets relatively little recognition for pioneering most of the key themes that then pop up in the better-executed 1984. From a political point of view, the most interesting thing about We is actually its very early date -- 1921. When you read it, it seems like a parable about Stalinism but it's actually too early for that and serves as a reminder that the more discerning Soviet minds had an inkling of where things were headed even in the early days.

July 25, 2006 | Permalink


Now if someone would do a new translation of The 12 Chairs, all would be right with the world.

Posted by: ostap | Jul 25, 2006 2:54:55 PM

I found We to be somewhat less intensely polemical than 1984. In some ways that's good, though 1984 is so good as polemic that maybe it's not.

One of my formative literary experiences was making a chart of when colors appeared in We, back in 10th grade. There's this system by which the colors reflect how the main character feels about the dystopian government. In retrospect, I don't know how good this is, but I thought it was awesome in 10th grade.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 25, 2006 3:41:46 PM

We may not be as good as 1984 , but it is vastly better than Brave New World, which I'd argue is the more direct rip off.

Posted by: mc | Jul 25, 2006 4:05:31 PM

Well, I was all set to come in here and say that Brave New World was surperior to 1984, but apparently them's fighting words to mc.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jul 25, 2006 5:06:07 PM

As dystopian literature goes, We's up there. Orwell writes better narration, and 1984 has a better plot, but compared to Brave New World and especially Anthem, it's excellent. But then again, so is anything when compared to Ayn Rand.

Posted by: Minipundit | Jul 25, 2006 8:02:21 PM

"a reminder that the more discerning Soviet minds had an inkling of where things were headed even in the early days."

Solzhenitsyn proved that fact several decades ago.

Posted by: Steve Sailer | Jul 25, 2006 8:59:55 PM

All I've read of Brave New World is the John Savage / Mustapha Mond conversation, which I loved back in high school. (I thought Mond was right -- I guess my utilitarian roots run deep.)

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 25, 2006 9:33:44 PM

The Brave New World dystopia strikes me as a more interesting concept than what 1984 or We have to offer. The book itself isn't actually all that compelling, but I think the ideas are more thought-provoking.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Jul 26, 2006 12:46:35 AM

pioneering? hmmm...I have to disagree. Marx is 1848. decades of discussion and thoughts and arguments follow as do lots and lots of experimental utopian communities (not to mention lots of more serious stuff happening) with parodies of them quick to follow, as well as premonitions and predictions of how badly they would fail on a bigger level.

Jerome K. Jerome's "The New Utopia," published in 1891, immediately comes to mind. There's a good synopsis on this guy's blog. excerpt:


"....these luminaries set about setting out an agenda to bring about a new socialist world order in which everyone will be exactly equal in everything. ....our hero departs for home and bed. Only to wake up a thousand years later in a glass case in a museum. To his delight - at first - he discovered that the wonderful Utopia he and his friends had been discussing, has come to pass. But delight soon turns to horror as he discovers that everything has been bulldozed to build utilitarian dormitories, utilitarian offices and factories, and so on. Marriage has been abolished, so have personal names, and everyone must dye their hair black - because any other colour or variation would create "difference" and that is not permitted.

Everyone is forced to wear identical clothes and all have numbers on their collars - instead of a name you have a state issued number - and families no longer exist, as these are elitist and focus the attention of individuals on people close to them instead of on "The State". Everything is done in the name of something called "The Majority", which has been accorded the status of God....."


It's interesting that quite a few of the American and Brit communist/socialist avant garde circles were quick to sour on the "Russian experiment" after seeing it up close and personal. One example: the anarchist Emma Goldman lasted two years in Russia before starting to write ""My Disillusionment in Russia" in 1922, published 1923.

Betrand Russell, a similar experience:

"Russell had originally welcomed the Russian Revolution. He defended the use of violence because unlike pacifists, Russell believed that violence was morally acceptable if it removed "bad systems of government, to put an end to wars and despotism, and bring liberty to the oppressed." After the war Russell visited Russia with Dora Black and after meeting Lenin and Leon Trotsky wrote a book, Theory and Practice of Bolshevism (1919), that was very critical of communism."

Russia was all the fashionable dream circa 1917-1920, but first-hand reports of the reality being more like a nightmare soured lots on it quick.

Posted by: artappraiser | Jul 26, 2006 3:25:10 AM

p.s. I might as well throw in that the entire population of avant-garde visual artists in Russia knew exactly what was up by 1921, again, up close & personal.

Posted by: artappraiser | Jul 26, 2006 3:49:12 AM

I know we're talking about books here, but what about dystopian movies? Brazil and THX-1138 are my favorites, with Brazil portraying a society in which bureaucracy has metastasized to the point of absurdity, and THX-1138 paiting a bleaker vision of Huxley's more Western dystopia. (A friend of mine once read Brave New World and thought it was a utopia--a female friend at that, which I thought was even more surprising.)

Posted by: J | Jul 26, 2006 10:22:55 AM

Before anyone reads any dystopian work by Jerome K. Jerome, they have to read "Three Men in a Boat (Not Forgetting the Dog." A lightly fictionalized account of Jerome's fiddling about in a boat on The Thames. It really isn't about anything, thank heavens. Some of it sounds like Mark Twain. Some of it sounds like Robert Louis Stevenson's discursive work. Mostly, because it's so genial, it reminds readers that sweetness and clarity of spirit is what we are aiming for.

Oddly enough (wikipedia reports) "Three Men in a Boat" is well known in Russia where it's required reading in school.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis | Jul 26, 2006 12:04:16 PM

Matt: I'd like to interview you regarding your piece "Friendly Advice" on my internet radio show on www.wideawakesradio.com

if you're interested please contact me at my email address that you can find at my blog...thanks very much

Posted by: ric ottaiano | Jul 26, 2006 12:05:45 PM

That's funny; that same exchange has long been one of my touchstones... on the other side, of course.

Posted by: Julian Sanchez | Jul 26, 2006 7:04:13 PM

Ha! I like that, Julian.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 26, 2006 9:12:49 PM

the more discerning Soviet minds had an inkling of where things were headed even in the early days

Why were those moonbats so angry?

Posted by: Lettuce | Jul 26, 2006 9:46:01 PM

Of course, Orwell was himself a booster of Zemyatin's novel, and wrote about it on more than one occasion.

Posted by: Patrick Nielsen Hayden | Jul 26, 2006 9:52:58 PM

I've always seen "Brazil" as being what "1984" would have been if Evelyn Waugh had written it rather than Orwell. Since Tom Stoppard, who co-wrote the screenplay, lists Waugh as one of his three favorite writers (with Nabokov and Thomas Babington Macauley), that might be intentional.

Posted by: Steve Sailer | Jul 26, 2006 9:56:25 PM

What makes We superior is that it is actually possible to buy into the logic of the society, and the book actually makes a somewhat powerful effort to make the twisted society seem normal and rational. That's more interesting than 1984 where it is obvious that everything is insane.

Posted by: Gabriel Rocklin | Jul 26, 2006 10:54:51 PM

Jeffrey Davis, god bless you. Sometimes it's a random recommendation like that that makes blogs worth reading. Pure and utter genius.

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)

Posted by: Montmorency | Jul 26, 2006 11:13:01 PM

Montmorency, there's also an inferior (but still fun) sequel, Three Men on the Bummel.

Posted by: Steve | Jul 27, 2006 8:05:50 AM

Have you ever read Orwell's review of We?

Posted by: Zzedar | Aug 8, 2006 12:26:23 AM

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