The Steampunk Satire Of The Bolshevik Revolution “1984” Was Based On
Yeah, that headline is a doozy, but strap in. This is big.
George Orwell is commonly attributed as being the pioneer of dystopian fiction. If a piece of fiction is dreary, featuring totalitarian omnipotencies and automaton people, it’s described as “Orwellian.” However, very few people know that Nineteen Eighty Four, arguably Orwell’s most famous work, is based very tightly on another author’s work: We by a Russian author named Yevgeny Zamyatin.
Coming of age during World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, two major events that shaped modern Russian literature, Zamyatin proved to be a fervent activist. During the political upheaval, Zamyatin was one of many Russian revolutionaries who were arrested and sent to exile in Serbia. After leaving the country years after his internal exile, he drafted the manuscripts for We around 1919, only to have it banned in his home country (fun fact: We was never published in Zamyatin’s home language of Russian until 1988, fifty seven years after his death in 1937). The first publication of the novel was an English-translated version in 1924.
The novel received immense praise, but none so interesting as the review Orwell wrote for a French translation of it in 1946. Orwell wrote that “the first thing anyone would notice about We is the fact–never pointed out, I believe–that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World must be partly derived from it” which was denied vigorously but unconvincingly by Huxley. Natasha Randall, who offers the best English translation for many reasons, holds the opinion that Huxley was deeply inspired by We but, while admitting to reading the book, refuses to acknowledge its importance. Even better than the direct comparison, however, Orwell goes on to say that “though Zamyatin’s book is less well put together–it has a rather weak and episodic plot which is too complex to summarise–it has a political point which the other lacks … Zamyatin’s book is on the whole more relevant to our own situation.” While the structure of the book may not have impressed Orwell for a few reasons (poor translations and narrow-minded Western expectations of literature probably being the biggest) the content sure did.
In a biography on Orwell, Gordon Bowker reports him as saying that it was “a model” for his next novel which would turn out to be the blockbusting Nineteen Eighty Four. The conversation in which this statement occurred happened only eight months after Orwell finished reading We. Eight months is not that much time for inspiration to kick in after the first reading, so I can feel pretty confident in saying that Orwell must have been really impressed.
The novel follows D-503, an engineer in charge of overseeing the construction of The Integral, a giant spaceship meant to carry the message of The One State across the stars. The ship sounds like the most steampunk-y spaceship ever designed. It has a glass dome filled with gears and pulleys and runs on vapor propulsion. In We, humans are kept inside The One State, which is covered in a great glass dome, similar to the dome over The Integral, and live in glass houses. Just as in 1984, the protagonist is broken out of his obedience to the state by love, which seems to eternally be at narrative odds with efficient political states in dystopian fiction.
We is a direct response on Zamyatin’s part to the Taylorization in post World War I Russia, and as such is perfect source material for dystopias the world over. Not only did it influence Huxley (try as he might to convince people otherwise) and even Vonnegut (who based Player Piano off of Huxley’s interpretation of the novel), but it managed to be the direct seed for the work which everyone associates with dystopia.
There are a few English translations out there, but I’ve mentioned before that Natasha Randall offers the best.