We know George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, at least by reputation, and we’ve heard both references tossed around with alarming frequency this past year. Before these watershed dystopian novels, published over a decade apart (1949 and 1932, respectively), came an earlier book, one truly “most relevant to our time,” writes Michael Brendan Dougherty: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written in 1923 and set “1,000 years after a revolution that brought the One State into power.” The novel had a significant influence on Orwell’s more famous political dystopia. And we have a good sense of Orwell’s indebtedness to the Russian writer.
Three years before the publication of 1984, Orwell published a review of Zamyatin’s book, having “at last got my hands on a copy… several years after hearing of its existence.” Orwell describes the novel as “one of the literary curiosities of this book-burning age” and spends a good part of his brief commentary comparing We to Huxley’s novel. “[T]he resemblance with Brave New World is striking,” he writes. “But 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.” The earlier Russian novel, writes Orwell, in 1946, “is on the whole more relevant to our own situation