Novel * Ursula K. Le Guin * An Almost-Utopia * 1974
Reading is hard. There is just an incomprehensible number of books and authors out there and no matter how hard one tries some big names are just going to get lost in the shuffle. This is how I justify only just now reading Le Guin. I read a lot of sci-fi, and have made an effort to look back as well as reading contemporary stuff, but for whatever reason I just never got around to reading her work. It’s probably some unconscious sexism on my part which is shameful so I picked up this book – part of my many year project to read all the Hugo winners – and well surprise it’s great. Like, legit great. For one, this is hard science fiction. There are a lot of physics and things I don’t understand happening here, and I’m going to assume she knows what she’s talking about because it all sounds very smart. The other thing is that this is a novel of ideas, and those ideas get put through their paces via the narrative and are lived out by the various characters. The story is fine, and the characters are just well-rounded enough to enact the social scenarios envisioned by Le Guin, but expect your intellect to be challenged. This is not a rollicking space-opera with lasers and shit.
The Dispossessed is a story about a social experiment. The story takes place in the distant future after humanity has been dispersed from Earth for some time. There are some interesting notes about that which I’ll get to later, but for now our focus is on one of these colony planets, Urras. This planet is fairly Earth-like, with big oceans and varied continents and large human populations. Like Earth, Urras has a big moon which is slightly more habitable than our own satellite. It’s unclear how long humanity has been living on Urras, but it’s clear that many centuries have passed since the colony ships showed up and staked their claim. Contemporary Urras is also Earth-like in its social structure as there are various nations of varied governmental and social ideologies. The focus of Urras in this story is the United States Analogue, which is based in the fundamental inequality of capitalism. As on Earth, when capitalism runs rampant the have-nots get tired of it and begin to cook up new modes of government and social structure. In this instance, a woman named Odo began to speak about anarchism and created a movement. This movement eventually exiled itself to the moon, Anarres.
The moon is not a nice place to live, but at least it has oceans and whatnot so creating a hardscrabble human society there is at least possible. The followers of Odo then set to creating a world rooted in their beliefs. They are nearly pure anarchists, in that they created a human society with no central organizing system. Not only is there no government, but there are no corporations or any other kind of abstract organizing system to facilitate trade. The principals that those on Anarres live by are relatively simple. There is no such thing as ownership. Anyone who presumes to “own” something is condemned as an “egoist.” Life on Anarres is hard, since the land is almost entirely desert. Therefore, producing and distributing food and other necessities – such as the mining operations needed to keep Urras off their backs – have to be fairly distributed amongst the population. While there is no official governing body, there is loose organization required in ensuring things get to where they need to go. Nobody is ever forced to perform work they don’t want to do, however the vast majority of people are born and raised in a society which exacts pressure on people to willingly do what is needed. The only official governing function is social disapproval.
The story of The Dispossessed is based on the forced conflict between Anarres and Urras which arises when a scientist from Anarres named Shevek starts pushing at the boundaries of his society. There is a heavily enforced rule (in a society with no written laws) which forbids the societies to speak to one another. Urras ignores the moon people because it is convenient for the capitalist state to ignore a successful anarchist society. Anarres ignores the planet people because their ideals are toxic and repellant to their utopian vision. What makes The Dispossessed so good is that Le Guin takes great pains to depict both of these societies realistically. This is not a situation where Anarres is objectively good and Urras is objectively bad. Both societies have their issues. What’s so intriguing about the novel is that while something like Anarres seems impossible on Earth, the society described might actually be able to function and thrive. Yet their anarchism is not sugar-coated, and the fact that it’s a closed society works against it. Thus we get Shevek, who is the first person to leave the friendly confines of his home and travels to Urras. Ostensibly, he goes planetside to talk about his physics, and while there is quite a bit of science, the novel is mostly about the difficulties of being an anarchist moon man living in a capitalist society.
Ideals are important. Everyone should have something that they believe in to help them order their lives and to assist in directing behavior. Hopefully, these ideals lead people to try and better not only themselves but their fellow humans as well. That said, we need flexibility in our lives. When people start strictly adhering to their ideals, when they start overlooking practicality and begin demanding others adopt their ideals, well, people end up dying. The major underlying conflict in The Dispossessed is this very human tendency to put the ideals over practical living. This conflict is not only found between the two societies of Anarres and Urras, but within the heart of each society. The people who live in on either planet have no frame of reference for each other, because their experience and their reality are based on ideals which are, on the surface at least, incompatible with each other. The citizens of Urras cannot comprehend a society in which there is no money, and women are seen as equal to men. Never mind that there are ingrained, fundamental problems baked into their social model, almost nobody can envision a future in which the values of capitalism aren’t the ideals that Urras is based on. The same can be said for Anarres. When Shevek decides to go to Urras in order to advance science, some of his fellow citizens would rather see him dead than leave their society.
Humans are short-sighted and selfish. They act in immediate self-interest and consider the needs of their neighbors as distant secondary priorities. They’re obstinate and succumb to self-delusion and usually pursue the path of least resistance. Most people don’t want to describe themselves like this, but they will happily agree that other people absolutely are. How many times have you heard your dumbass D student buddy proclaim how much he hates “stupid people?” Add projection and deflection to the long list of terrible traits that humanity has harbored since the beginning of history. Yeah, I know, we also aspire to beauty and peace and you know, our ideals. However, most high-minded idealistic social systems fail. And fail spectacularly. This is almost directly because when ideals are held above human nature, there are massive blind spots that are easily exploitable by someone who could give a shit about your ideals. That’s pretty much why every single time the have-nots become the haves, they just start the cycle of oppression once again. The Dispossessed is about a group of people who embraced anarchy as their ideal society, and it takes an extremely specific set of circumstances to make this even a little bit plausible.
Shevek is a generational intellect, the one person in the two-planet system who can push physics forward to eventually revolutionize communication and travel technology, but the man is in a difficult position. His planet, Anarres, is a supposedly utopian society in which everyone is free to do whatever they prefer, and to pursue their talents as far as they wish. Yet these ideals are curtailed by the same human limitations that are found in any group of people. Shevek is kept from achieving his potential on his home planet because some people are assholes. So he does a radical thing: he defects from the home that he loves, which upholds the ideals that are ingrained in him, and goes to a place he looks down on because they at least will allow him the freedom to complete his work. Shevek’s experience on Urras is one of internal conflict. Much of what he sees disgusts him. However, there is plenty there which entices and intrigues him. Shevek doesn’t really care about possessions and he’s repelled by quite a lot of what he sees, yet there is a personal freedom to achieve that is lacking on his home planet, a variety of beliefs and ideals which are absent in his homogenous society.
In the end, it’s clear that Le Guin’s sympathies lie with the anarchists on Anarres. Yet she doesn’t let them off easily, and she faces the serious issues such a society would have head on. There are plenty of people on Anarres who display all of those negative human traits which have been limiting human progress for millennia. Yet the problems of Urras are manifest and are clearly worse. The U.S. analogue wants to hijack Shevek’s discoveries for sheer profit, and attempt to swindle the man out of his knowledge so that they can further oppress everyone who isn’t the 1%, basically. This is where the extra-planetary societies come in. The Terrans, who still live on ancestral Earth, end up giving Shevek safe passage back to Anarres and in so doing save the man from being imprisoned on Urras. While this is happening we learn about what happened to Earth – it was decimated by humans doing destructive human shit – until the colony ships split off and made for the stars. The Terrans finally got their shit together, and are now trying to facilitate human communication throughout known space. Shevek’s discoveries might very well help with this, but the conflict on either planet demonstrates is that this is always going to be a tall order.