A new version of an old book you should have already read.

Do you ever wonder what George Orwell would’ve thought about the real 1984, as opposed to his 1984? There were some futuristic events in 1984: the shuttles Discovery and Challenger zoomed to outer space, the first Apple Macintosh computer came out. But I’m talking about all that other stuff. For instance, that year launched both the Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” commercials as well as Hulkamania. I wonder if Orwell would’ve liked that Ghostbusters song or if he would’ve watched Miami Vice?

The point is, science fiction is for nerds, and I think that’s because the real 1984 came around and it wasn’t futuristic enough. It turned from a grim view of the future into nerd fantasy. With a little scrutiny, you can find some quality work in the genre. Along with 1984, there is Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Ayn Rand’s Anthem — all great novels of dystopia. But We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, is the forerunner to them all.

We (which Modern Library is publishing this month, newly translated from Russian by Natasha Randall) is narrated by D-503 — oddly, outnamed only by Yevgeny Zamyatin. In D-503’s future world, “The only means of ridding man of crime is ridding him of freedom.” This world is about productivity and about logic; there is no room for irrationality, i.e., love. Even the poets compose beneficial tomes, such as He Who Was Late to Work. D-503 works on a rocket ship during the day. The totalitarian regime is sending their totalitarian “happiness” to other civilizations out in space somewhere. At night, he cashes in a pink coupon for a night of passion with whomever he chooses; the coupons eliminate envy in the future, you see. One day, D-503 meets I-330, who happens to be revolting, politically speaking. D-503 finds his irrational number, his square root of negative one, his love for I-330. We is D-503’s fight for choice. Zamyatin pushed this book in Russia in the 1920s. It didn’t work. Luckily, they let him go die in poverty after booing him out of the country, rather than just shooting him like they did everyone else. — J.D.R.