An Ambiguous Utopia
I just finished The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, and despite the fact that I am probably not going to contribute much to the body of criticism surrounding it, I wanted to write down some thoughts. Also, this is my book club’s book for June, so any other members who read this will be somewhat spoiled on my thoughts.
The first thing to note, as always, when talking about something by Le Guin, is the quality of her prose. She is almost certainly the finest writer (in terms of mechanics of prose, diction, etc.) in the science fiction firmament (or at least is in the discussion), and that’s worth pointing out.
A quick summary, in case you haven’t read it and still want to know what the heck I’m talking about:
The main character is a physicist named Shevek. He lives on a planet called Annares, which is either a moon or a twin of another planet (Urras), although which is never quite clear. The Annaresti are all descendants of colonists from Urras who left 170 years ago to found a radical anarchist society. That society is built around the sort of left-libertarian ideals of the 60s and 70s (the book was printed in 1974) – a stateless society, eradication of gender roles, free love, communitarian sharing of work, and so on.
Shevek’s work centers around radical ideas in the science of time. These ideas are not welcomed by the other Annaresti members of his profession, because of their radicalism, and he is barred from publishing or engaging in the limited modes of communication that exist between Annares and Urras. Eventually Shevek manages to convince the Annaresti to let him travel to Urras, where he finds the right-wing (or “propertarian”) society from which his ancestors fled: capitalist, but also brutally militaristic and with rigidly defined gender roles.
I won’t spoil any more, because I think you can see the main conflicts here.
What strikes me most about this book is that Annares feels real. We all grew up with books like Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty-Four or (shudder) Anthem, which are more anti-Communist (capital C) than anti-communitarian – although you can make a good argument that Animal Farm is closest to The Dispossessed’s natural enemy. We have this image of communitarian society as the kind of thing that’s inextricably tied to the state, whereby the state transforms into a murderous enforcer of orthodoxy.
For those of us who envision a kind of non-statist left, this has always felt… hollow. I know that I’m inviting a chorus of “no true Scotsman” or “Soviet Russia wasn’t really communist”, which is not exactly what I intend to do. My point is only that of course marrying communitarian ideals to the state is horrifying; marrying anything to the state is horrifying. The state itself is horrifying, regardless of what you attach to the side of it.
So if The Dispossessed succeeds, and I think it does, it’s by confronting what happens if you can somehow detach the state from a communitarian society. I like that the subtitle of this book is “An Ambiguous Utopia”, because Le Guin is willing to take a hard look at that ambiguity. The Annaresti do build up a sort of quasi-government based around the fact that they need some kind of central administrative body to handle who is doing work on which part of the planet. This body gradually accretes the power to ostracize individuals who are insufficiently communitarian (called “egoizers”, which I love), culminating in the hamstringing of Shevek’s work for its failure to comply with society’s notions of the “right” kind of physics.
There is a nice warning embedded in here about the character of social power. This is roughly the same warning embedded in Animal Farm, for what that’s worth, but Le Guin is more sympathetic to the idea that this can work if we’re sufficiently willing to keep trying. Shevek makes several references to the notion of constant revolution, which underlies any anarchistic idea of social arrangements. Human nature being what it is, we must constantly be on guard against conformity and control.
One of the scenes that struck me the most was near the beginning of the book. There is a flashback to Shevek as a baby, in which he refuses to share a toy with another baby. This is, perhaps, a perfect instance of “egoizing”, and it is pure reflex. I think it says something about Le Guin that she is willing to write an ode to left-anarchism in which her own main character’s first (chronologically speaking) action is fundamentally propertarian. It probably also says something about the rest of us that we think teaching children to share is one of the key points in their development.
One last thought: Le Guin’s characters regularly refer to themselves as “libertarians”, in direct contrast to the propertarians. It’s an interesting look at how that word’s popular meaning in the U.S. has changed over the last 40 years.