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I read this story in French, less than 10 years ago. I think it was a translation, but not necessarily from English. It was in a rather slim white paperback, no image on the cover, just the title and the author's name. Technically it might be a novella rather than a novel, by modern criteria.

It is essentially a dystopia, a "political" fiction, rather similar to Huxley's "Brave New World", Levin's "This Perfect Day," and even closer to Orwell's "1984". Indeed there is a supreme leader. I forgot how is not called, but it is not "Big Brother". Still, he is clearly his identical twin. (Whether he really exists or is just a fictitious figurehead is not clear, but neither is "Big Brother" in "1984").

Though I read it long after I read the other three books above, I do think it is in fact the oldest of the four.

There are some elements of SF. They have means of monitoring people that did not exist when it was written (but definitely do now). Also chemical and/or surgical means to access the mind of dissidents, not only to extract information but also to alter their personality. There is also a huge interplanetary (or interstellar ? probably just the former) rocket in its latest stage of completion at the start of the story.

Most of the book (or perhaps even all of it) consists of entries from the personal diary of a scientist. The latter is deeply involved in the rocket project, and maybe even its head scientist.

At the beginning, he is convinced of the positive value of this social order. But this conviction wavers, and later is shattered. The cause of all this, as can be expected in a book written at that time, is of course a woman.

I think he joins a conspiration in which she is involved. I don't remember the aim of the conspirators. Escape the domain of "Big twin-brother" ? But where to ? Destroy the rocket ? But for what aim ? Overthrow the regime ? But they were far too few. Or maybe they just hoped to live in a bubble of undetected disobedience. impossible hope, obviously.

Anyway, he is caught, submitted to the chemical and/or surgical torture/questioning/reprogramming. He betrays the others, including the woman. And at the end, just like Winston Smith at the end of 1984, he again loves "Big twin-brother". He is not lobotomised to the point of Jack Nicholson (McMurphy) at the end of "One flew.." but from the way he writes in the last entry of his diary, he will not be of very much use, anymore, for the completion of the rocket.

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    Any particular reason you chose the archaic "chirurgical" instead of the instantly recognizable, modern "surgical"? I mean, I learned a new word today, but am likely to never, ever use it...
    – FreeMan
    Commented May 9 at 14:27
  • @FreeMan “Chirurgie” is French for “Surgery”, and the OP did mention reading it in French, so it could be their mother tongue (coincidentally Russian word «хирургия» has the same root)
    – IMil
    Commented May 10 at 0:41
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    @Freeman IMil is right. I just used the French word automatically, because it is indeed my mother tongue. No particular decision behind this choice, just a mistake. I just corrected it.
    – Alfred
    Commented May 10 at 4:03
  • fair enough, @Alfred. Apologies! I saw it as archaic, but not as French.
    – FreeMan
    Commented May 10 at 16:06

1 Answer 1

17

Could it be We by Евгний Замятин (Yevgeny Zamyatin)? People don't have names, but numbers.

We is set in the future. D-503 (Russian: Д-503), a spacecraft engineer, lives in the One State, an urban nation constructed almost entirely of glass, which assists mass surveillance. The structure of the state is Panopticon-like, and life is scientifically managed F. W. Taylor-like. People march in step with each other and are uniformed. There is no way of referring to people except by their given numbers. The society is run strictly by logic or reason as the primary justification for the laws or the construct of the society. The individual's behaviour is based on logic by way of formulae and equations outlined by the One State.

....

While on an assigned walk with O-90, D-503 meets a woman named I-330. I-330 smokes cigarettes, drinks alcohol and shamelessly flirts with D-503 instead of applying for an impersonal sex visit; all of these are illegal according to the laws of the One State.

Repelled and fascinated, D-503 struggles to overcome his attraction to I-330. She invites him to visit the Ancient House, notable for being the only opaque building in the One State, except for windows. Objects of aesthetic and historical importance dug up from around the city are stored there. There, I-330 offers him the services of a corrupt doctor to explain his absence from work. Leaving in horror, D-503 vows to denounce her to the Bureau of Guardians but finds that he cannot.

D-503 begins to have dreams, which disturb him, as dreams are thought to be a symptom of mental illness. Slowly, I-330 reveals to D-503 that she is involved with the Mephi, an organization plotting to bring down the One State. She takes him through secret tunnels inside the Ancient House to the world outside the Green Wall, which surrounds the city-state. There, D-503 meets the inhabitants of the outside world: humans whose bodies are covered with animal fur. The aims of the Mephi are to destroy the Green Wall and reunite the citizens of the One State with the outside world.

....

In his last journal entry, D-503 indifferently relates that he has been forcibly tied to a table and subjected to the "Great Operation", which has recently been mandated for all citizens of the One State to prevent possible riots; having been psycho-surgically refashioned into a state of mechanical "reliability", they would now function as "tractors in human form". This operation removes the imagination and emotions by targeting parts of the brain with X-rays. After this operation, D-503 willingly informed the Benefactor, the dictator of the One State, about the inner workings of the Mephi. D-503 expresses surprise that even torture could not induce I-330 to denounce her comrades. Despite her refusal, I-330 and those arrested with her have been sentenced to death, "under the Benefactor's Machine".

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    Yes, that is indeed my story. Thanks ! I read it under the french title "Nous Autres"
    – Alfred
    Commented May 9 at 8:33
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    @sueelleker Great find! Could you strengthen your answer though, by mentioning some of the elements of the story which match details in the question? Commented May 9 at 9:51
  • @ClaraDiazSanchez Well, there is a link to a wiki page where lots of details are given. So there was no need to repeat them in the answer itself.
    – Alfred
    Commented May 9 at 12:05
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    No, it's usually better to give some key details in the answer itself (no need to copy the whole article of course). Links frequently die over time, even wikipedia articles, and if that happens the answer would be left high and dry. Commented May 9 at 12:15
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    @FuzzyBoots I don't remember how it was translated in French. But the English Wikipedia entry has a third reading which is 0.2%, on tenth on the low (apparently incorrect, translation error) value and 1/100 of the probably correct value of 20%, ar argued in your answer. I wonder where the person who wrote the Wiki page got his ridiculously low value.
    – Alfred
    Commented May 9 at 14:39

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