Review of The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
by Ursula K. Le Guin
The success of The Dispossessed lies in Le Guin’s presentation of two distinct visions of utopia. Each feels that the other is an aberration. Both are superior to the contemporary government of Earth, which at this stage has just barely managed to avoid destroying Earth's biome. Yet both are dysfunctional, have strayed from whatever utopian ideals may have founded them. They are not failed experiments, but they are not entirely successful either—owing to human nature—and Le Guin shows us the best and worth of both, all the while commenting on humanity and present-day social organization.
On Anarres, society is anarchistic and government no longer exists. Yet administrative work must be done, and the institutions in place to do that work have become more bureaucratic with each generation. Those who seek power over others will find positions in social structures, even if such structures aren’t explicitly authoritarian, that allows them to assume that power. While the system of non-government on Anarres works well some of the time, the harsh climate of the moon makes it difficult to eke out a living some years, resulting in a hungry, weary population.
On Urras, there are a few different models of government. Most prominently featured is the capitalist A-Io, and there's also mention of the authoritarian Thu and the war-torn dictatorship of Benbili. Shevek visits A-Io, where Urrasti are “profiteers” who exist only to make money and revel in their superiority over others—or at least, that's what Anarresti learn in school. The truth is, as usual, far more complex. In fact, A-Io is a heavily class-based society, one in which women are relegated to the role of decorative, carefree wife and the lower classes toil ceaselessly to support the elite intellectuals and businessmen. Social mobility is nearly non-existent, and A-Io is just as closed-minded about change and new ideas as Anarres (and this may be the only thing they have in common).
My descriptions over-simplify, of course. Le Guin manages to make both nations seem viable, but it's clear that neither are ideal places to live. There is no utopia, Le Guin proclaims. This is the common theme of utopian literature, of course, but The Dispossessed stands out because it's discrediting two visions of utopia. And each has different flaws, different vulnerabilities. On Anarres, society the pressure on the individual to conform with social norms replaces laws. The danger of this, however, is that it stifles the very foundation of Anarresti society: "we didn't come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we're no better than a machine." On Urras, we see classical forms of government with classical flaws: the individual becomes subordinate to the State and the Economy, slave to the twin whips of Authority and Profit. Despite these obvious flaws, however, it's clear that these are visions of utopia. And that's where it really gets interesting.
Through the Terran ambassador, Keng, Le Guin expresses her fears of what Earth may become if humanity doesn't wake up and change how it's behaving. The Terra in The Dispossessed is functional, but only just. Keng refers to the planet Urras as "Paradise" because it still has green space and its people have some form of choice, even if it isn't perfect. She sees Anarresti society as desirable in theory but no longer attainable in practice:
“My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed our world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is…. We failed as a species, as a social species…. We can only look at this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside. We are capable only of admiring it, and maybe envying it a little. Not very much.”
"Then Anarres, as you heard me speak of it—what would Anarres mean to you, Keng?"
"Nothing. Nothing, Shevek. We forfeited our chance for Anarres centuries ago, before it ever came into being."
This conversation occurs toward the end of the book, by which time Le Guin, through the eyes of Shevek, has us convinced that both Anarres and Urras have pretty undesirable societies. And here is a Terran expressing her admiration for both—one which she envies and the other which she considers just so far beyond her reach it's no longer relevant. What may be Hell for one person is Paradise for another.
These notions of subjectivity and cycling, the idea that Anarres is Shevek's present, perhaps Urras' future, and Earth's past, are linked to the physics that Le Guin explores in other parts of the novel. Shevek seeks a grand unified theory, one which reconciles “Sequency” (cause and effect) and “Simultaneity” (laws of relativity) and allows for such marvels as faster-than-light travel. While he doesn’t quite get that, it does lead to the reification of the ansible, which allows people to communicate instantaneously across several light-years. Before I look at the implications of Shevek’s research, however, I want to examine this theory of time in closer detail.
Shevek’s theory about time is central to any reading of The Dispossessed, as it influences his outlook on life. We get a sense of this from the repetition of a common idea. Here are two quotations that demonstrate this, first from when Shevek meets his eventual partner, Takver:
It is now clear to Shevek, and he would have thought it folly to think otherwise, that his wretched years in this city had all been part of his present great happiness, because they had led up to it, prepared him for it. Everything that had happened to him was part of what was happening to him now. Takver saw no such obscure concatenations of effect/cause/effect, but then she was not a temporal physicist. She saw time naively as a road laid out. You walked ahead, and you got somewhere. If you were lucky, you got somewhere worth getting to.
and then from the end of chapter 10, when Shevek and Takver reunite after four years of postings on opposite sides of Anarres:
So, looking back on the last four years, Shevek saw them not as wasted, but as part of the edifice that he and Takver were building with their lives. The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.
The point is pretty clear, thanks to Le Guin's writing. I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencing frustrating evenings when I look back on the day's events and think about how much time I wasted not doing anything productive. Shevek would advise me to take that in stride: everything that happens, has happened, and has formed part of your life, part of who you are. The acceptance of this inevitability may seem deterministic. Shevek admits, later in the book, that such thinking is inherent in Simultaneity, and that one reason for his search for a grand unified theory is to keep the Simultaneity without the need for determinism. Accepting the inevitability of the past is still necessary, but it makes it all the more important to strive for a better future.
And that’s why Shevek wants everyone to have his theory, wants everyone—Terran, Hainish, Urrasti, Anarresti—to be able to construct an ansible. Because communication is one of the most necessary and most worthwhile activities. Freedom of speech is paramount, and Le Guin makes a strong case for open source information and academic freedom. As a student and academic, these themes are close to home for me. I empathized with Shevek has he ran up against the walls of bureaucracy and reactionary thought on Anarres and corporatism and capitalism on Urras. Ideas, especially scientific knowledge, should belong to no one person, corporation, or country. They should belong to the species at large. However, freedom of speech is not something that flourishes untended, like a conifer in a boreal forest. It must be constantly maintained.
Le Guin demonstrates this in a very creative way, through the Anarresti language. Pravic is artificially constructed, mostly by computer. Even Anarresti names are all 5- or 6-letter names assigned by computer. There is only one Shevek at any given time, and the names themselves are gender-neutral, which helps contribute toward the gender equality we see on Anarres. If language shapes our perception of reality, then the use of an artificially-constructed language is the ultimate shaping of reality.
There are more themes in The Dispossessed than I could do justice to in such a brief discussion, so I'll only briefly touch on gender relations and political allegory. In the case of the former, the distinction seems obvious at first: women and men are social equals on Anarres; on Urras, at least in A-Io, women are considered inferior. As Shevek learns during his visit, however, A-Ioan women don't see themselves that way; they think they run the men! While I envy the equality we see on Anarres and condemn the attitudes of Urrasti men toward women, again Le Guin reminds us that the situation is never as clear cut as we want it to be.
The political allegory is very transparent but still relevant even thirty years after publication. Analogues for the U.S. and Russia are hostile toward each other but do not openly invade the other's country. Rather, they fight proxy wars in other countries. This is the face of warfare in the late twentieth-century, still the face of warfare in many senses, although guerrilla warfare and terrorism are beginning to get an edge. Through Shevek, the traveller from another utopia, Le Guin can express her scorn for war, for the military, for the unnecessary aggression and conflict she sees in her contemporary world.
And central to all these themes, all these many entwined points of light, is Shevek. He's just this guy, you know? Trying to do the right thing. He's got a woman he loves, two daughters he loves, and a cause in which he believes. He has a choice: do nothing, or do something, anything, even if it's dangerous … just to spark some change. He chooses the latter, and that makes him more than just a mouthpiece or an ideologue. Shevek is a hero. Not a gun-toting, smart-mouthed, badass action hero. Just a hero. And that is enough.
For such a small, compact book, The Dispossessed is a political and social force to be reckoned with. This is a novel that can be read in a day or two, as I did, but it's something that needs a lifetime of thought. Every so often, a book comes along and shakes me up, surprising me with is verisimilitude. It reminds me that this light, bound work of paper in my hand has the ability to profoundly influence people, including myself. The Dispossessed is what a book should strive to be, more than just words on a page, but the encapsulation of ideas sublimely expressed.