We is the precursor for books like 1984 or Brave new world, set in an undetermined dystopian future, some 1000 years after an event know as “the 200 years war” which wiped out all but 0.2% of the population. The world (or, this world) is now ruled by a Benefactor, the head of the One State and is separated from the outside (a wilder world, as we later find out, populated by animals and people primitively dressed in fur) by the Green Wall. All the people in this state are identified only as a combination of letters and numbers; each woman starts with a vowel, each man with a consonant. Every activity they partake in is controlled and prescribed by the state: work, lunch, walks, lectures, “spare time” (2 hours a day, the same every day), artistic and scientific activities (programmed literature, supposed achievements in a pre-determinate period of time), clothing (the uniforms they all wear), manifestations of any kind, sex and procreation. The last two are delved into a bit more, since the book is the diary of D-503 and chronicles his affair with I-330.
D-503 starts out by being a perfect instrument of the state, the builder of the Integral, a new ship that would carry the message of the One State to other planets and in a registered “relationship” with O-90. When he meets I-330 though, his world is turned upside down – she is some kind of anarchist, wears clothing belonging to the old world (dresses, stockings), smokes and drinks and will have sex with him in a non-programmatic fashion. D soon falls in love with her – a reaction he interprets as a disease – and will try to help her carry out a plot to bring down the state. In a world where everything is made of glass, where privacy is unheard of, where men and women are grateful to the Guardians (a sort of secret police) for keeping them safe and keeping their thoughts on the prescribed tracks (D goes so far as to compare them to the antiquated guardian angels) it’s very hard to rebel and to keep it to yourself. D starts spiraling downwards, starts losing control and acts like an obsessed man, driven only by the desire to see and be with I. In the end, when the State promotes a new Operation, that will apparently turn humans into perfect, obedient machines by extirpating their imagination, D-503 (along with the rest of the population, since the operation is mandatory) is subjected to it and the proof of its success lies in the fact that he will assist to I-330’s torture and execution completely devoid of any sentiment except those directed at the State and the Benefactor. D essentially goes back to what he was – just another number, part of the great We. There’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome in his attitude, at least initially.
What I think is truly unsettling about D is how entrenched his belief in the State is; how he was scared and cried when he learnt about √-1, because it’s an imaginary number and imagination is, of course, something to be frightened of. The Unanimity, the annual election day when the current ruler was (unanimously, of course) re-elected doesn’t take much to picture; it’s something that a lot of people have since lived through: massive demonstrations, rigged elections (is it even rigged when everyone already knows the outcome?), unquestioning obedience breeding what is advertised as happiness. At some point D pretty accurately compares this “happiness” (a blissful ignorance, rather) all the numbers have to Heaven before the fall, which would make I-330 his Eve and S-4711 the snake (he’s even described as twisted, with a double smile and flashing eyes).