Recently read: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, is a dystopian novel where people are numbered not named, sex is managed via a pink ticket system, and every hour of the day is strictly controlled.

Can you imagine every wall being made of glass? Zero privacy?

Zamyatin did, back in 1924. Before Orwell’s 1984. Well before the Hunger Games or Divergent. We is one of the original dystopian novels. It is an incredible read… here are a few of my favourite quotes:

“And everyone must lose his mind, everyone must! The sooner the better! It is essential — I know it.”

“You’re in a bad way! Apparently, you have developed a soul.”

“There is no final one; revolutions are infinite.”

“Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one.”

As a mathematician – I really appreciated that last one and the many references to science through the novel. For interested readers, the square root of minus one is a number so special, it has it’s own letter: ‘i’ (unless you are working in electronics, where ‘i’ already means current and the square root of minus one is ‘j’). You can easily take the square root of 1 to get 1, 4 to get 2, 9 to get 3, 16 to get 4 and so on… but if you try to take the square root of minus one, or any negative number for that matter… you end up in the realm of ‘Imaginary numbers‘.

What’s so special about We is that Zamyatin talks science and poetry in the same paragraph, in such a way that you don’t have to know about fun things like imaginary numbers to understand the story. It’s polymathy in a novel. It’s brilliant.

What would it be like to read Zamyatin in his original language? I read the translation by Clarence Brown. It included an introduction, which really helped place the novel in the context in which it was written, the theories of Taylorism on efficient management, and described some of the translation choices, such as Yuny as the slang for uniforms.

Enough gushing. If you love dystopians – I highly recommend making this journey back to the source!

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