The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuinn
Published by Harper
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Utopian literature has a long history in Western civilization. The term itself was created by Sir Thomas Moore as the title of his book about an imagined island somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean which was described as having an ideal society. However, the concept of a deliberately created ideal society goes at least back to Plato's The Republic,, although one can also point to various religious texts, including the accounts of the Garden of Eden and the New Jerusalem in the Bible or the Golden Age in Greek myth. However, the perfection of these places were generally held to be produced by divine rather than human effort, so it can be argued that they should not really be considered.
The Dispossessed is subtitled "an ambiguous utopia," and there is a long history of ambiguity in utopian literature. There is often an undercurrent of coercion in those idealized societies -- misfits must be compelled to conform or be destroyed, because their unreformed presence creates disharmony, and thus imperfection. In "The Gernsbeck Continuum," William Gibson's first-person protagonist wonders what mechanism forcibly turned all the inhabitants of the idealized Yesterday's Tomorrow into perfect golden people, and at what horrible price. Even the word "utopia" contains an ambiguity -- its literal meaning is "no place," yet it is a homonym for eutopia, "good place" -- suggesting that such a perfect place can never actually exist, and thus the tendency of literary utopias to turn out to have an ugly underside and in fact be dystopias.
The ambiguity of utopia is present from the start of Le Guin's novel, in its deceptively simple beginning in which we are introduced not to any of the characters, but to a wall. It's not a very big wall, not impressive -- it doesn't even have a gate where the road crosses it -- but it represents a powerful idea, a boundary that is not to be crossed without the proper authorization. And in the second paragraph the narrator points out the ambiguous nature of such a wall -- it is two-faced, but which face is "inside" and which is "outside" depends upon which side you are standing on. Does it enclose the spaceport, protecting the freedom of Anarres from the big, bad outside world? Or does it wall shut Anarres and its dangerous philosophy away from the rest of the universe which wants nothing to do with it?
As we are contemplating that ambiguity, we finally see people: idlers around the tiny spaceport, the crew of the spaceship that goes between Anarres and its sister world Urras. And a mob of angry people, shouting insults, throwing things at the small company of people delivering a man into exile. He is Shevek, and this is his story.
From the earliest beginnings of Ursula K Le Guin's Hainish Ekumen we had mention of the Cetan mathematicians who designed the ansible, the device that enables instantaneous communication in a universe where physical faster-than-light travel is impossible. However, they were peripheral to the story, and all we learned of them was that they were considered the finest mathematicians in the Hainish Ekumen -- in other words, math is their Hat. As we read this novel, it becomes increasingly clear that we are reading the story behind those offhand mentions.
This novel has an interesting structure -- the chapters alternate between retrospective and forward-looking. The even-numbered chapters tell the story of Shevek the mathematician before his exile, while the odd-numbered ones tell the story of his exile. Given that this is the story of a mathematician, one must wonder whether this was a deliberate choice on the part of the author, for in the society of Urras Shevek is most definitely an odd man out, a fish out of water, constantly tripping over the unexpected differences in the smallest things, rather like Michael Valentine Smith when he first arrives on Earth in Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.
And there are parallels: like Mars as it was believed to be when Heinlein was writing the novels that made his fame, Anarres is a small, dry world where life is possible only if one is very careful with resources, while Urras is a world of abundance with large oceans and vibrant ecologies, much like Earth. However, unlike Earth and Mars, Urras and Anarres are not in separate orbits around their parent star, what we call Tau Ceti. Instead, they make up a double planet, which means that travel between them is little more comparable to a voyage from Earth to the Moon than to Mars.* In fact, the inhabitants of each world refer to the other colloquially as "the moon."
In some ways, Shevek on Urras does resemble Manny of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress during his visit to Earth, although Shevek is an anarcho-syndicalist in the tradition of Peter Kropotkin rather than an anarcho-capitalist of the Lysander Spooner tradition we see in Heinlein's Loonie society. Although Shevek's not there to foment rebellion or to secure his world's independence (Anarres has effective independence as part of the agreement that allowed the Odonians to settle it), he's a controversial figure, very much in the public eye. Everywhere he goes, he seems to run into political trouble, just by being who and what he is. He asks awkward questions at awkward moments, and is the focus of both the curiosity and the fears of a great many people.
He starts his visit to Urras in A-Io, a nation that is generally assumed by most commentators to be a roman a clef figure of Cold-War era America. However, it is a parliamentary democracy with a long history that includes the ruins of abandoned castles, and its capital resembles London as much as it does Washington DC. So it's quite possible that Le Guin meant A-Io to represent all the English-speaking peoples at once, or at least drew on the whole history of the English-speaking peoples and simplified it into a single powerful nation. There Shevek meets several of the mathematicians with whom he corresponded during his mathematical apprenticeship, as well as having audiences with important dignitaries.
During this part of his life comes one of the most telling moments, when Odonian anarcho-syndicalism is contrasted against the most common and popular ideas of anarchism and rebellion. He spends some time touring the sights with Vea, a relative of one of his sponsors at the University, and they talk at length about morality and society, even as she shows him the sights, including a museum exhibit of the long-ago Queen Teaea, a tyrant who enjoyed such horrific pleasures as flaying her enemies and wearing a cloak of their skins. As Shevek tries to explain that not having formal laws doesn't mean absence of morality or right conduct, Vea says that's the problem with the Odonians, that they haven't really gotten rid of tyranny, just moved it into their own heads where each of them carries around their own Queen Teaea ordering them about.
Meanwhile, in the alternating chapters set back on Anarres, we're seeing how Shevek became that man who struggles to explain how a society could order itself without laws, without rulers, without police or jails, yet not degenerate into the war of the all against the all. And that means starting in his formative years, when he was still a child learning how to function within society.
In Annaresti society, familial bonds are tenuous at best. Children are raised communally, and everyone is brother and sister to one another. Possessiveness is firmly discouraged by the adults of the nursery, who insist that children must share and not egoize. In a world where resources are brutally scarce, yet there is no private property, it is essential that everyone grow up with a strong sense of the common good that would serve as a barrier against selfishness and laziness. Work, and doing it well, is the source of accomplishment, and the respect of one's fellows the greatest wealth. Excess is deadly, like retaining one's feces rather than excreting them. Thus even as Shevek grows into maturity realizing that he has an extraordinary aptitude for mathematics, and for that strange intersection between philosophy and higher math that is an almost religious part of Cetan society, he also has a strong drive to make himself useful doing ordinary work.
It is of course a fictional socialist utopia, so one could argue that it works simply because it has the author on its side, and thus is able to avoid the horrors that have followed every serious attempt to implement socialism here on Earth, which have made the twentieth century one of the greatest bloodbaths of human history. However, one could also argue that all of the Primary World attempts failed because they were attempts by an elite to impose socialism upon a populace, which necessarily involved removing or destroying the portion of the population that was unable or unwilling to participate in their socialist dream, while the Anarresti utopia works because it was created as an intentional community of highly motivated people who moved to a completely new world isolated from other societies in a way possible only because of the unique astrophysics of the Urras-Anarres double-planet system. In other words, it could be argued that the Anarresti are a community of secular monastics, and should be compared instead to the various religious monastic communities throughout history that have held everything in common.
However, just because Anarres is free of the horrific massacres of Communism, the Holodomors and Great Terrors and Great Leaps Forward, this does not mean that it is without its mass deaths, as we soon see. Shevek has hardly reached adulthood before there is a natural disaster, a shift in the weather patterns that result in drought and mass crop failures. While Anarres is a world with a shirtsleeve environment, it is not a kind or gentle one, and the Odonians live on the edge of disaster, one crop failure away from famine. Workers all over their world struggle to forestall catastrophe, but in the process thousands still die, and we can ask ourselves whether this was the result of the severity of the Anarresti environment or the anarcho-syndicalist culture. Would an anarcho-capitalist or libertarian-miniarchist system have been able to better move grain from the regions with enough to those without, as a result of having markets, and thus clear means of valuation of goods and services? For instance, there was a case where phosphorus mines and mills were kept running when there was no transportation for their product, and people literally starved at their posts. Would that have been preventable if there were a better metric of the value of the product and the labor to put it into useful form?
Further complicating the question is the fact that, while Cetans are human in the broadest sense, they are not human in the strict sense of being anatomically modern terrestrial Homo sapiens. It is not really possible to discuss the relationship of the Cetans to Terrans in cladistic terms because the Hainish Ekumen universe is based upon an Ancient Astronauts prehistory which was still sort of believable when it was written, but has become hopelessly Zeerusty as a result of modern molecular biology. All the human races of the Ekumen, including Le Guin's fictional version of terrestrial humanity, are descendants of the original humans of Hain, some of whom underwent mutations in their new homes and others of which were deliberately modified by Hainish genetic engineers, either for survival or as experiments in bio-sociology. So it's possible that there are biological differences in the Cetans that make it possible for the Odonian experiment to work.
It is interesting to see how well the system of parallel chapters works to bring the two halves of Shevek's storyline to their respective climaxes in tandem. In the even-numbered chapters, Shevek's mathematical work causes ever-growing consternation among his own people, the trouble that will lead to his exile and the odd-numbered chapters, in which he is becoming increasingly entangled in the global power politics of A-Io and Thu, a socialist dictatorship clearly based on the Soviet Union, although perhaps with a share of Red China. As things grow steadily more explosive, Shevek takes refuge in the Terran embassy, and meets a Terran.
Here is where in my first reading of this novel I entirely missed one of the most obvious signs of the biological differences between Cetans and Terrans. The Terran Ambassador is described as hairless, a description that, combined with her horror story of Earth's devastation, I took to mean that she was a survivor of a nuclear war and had radiation burns or a mutation for complete alopecia. It was only on re-reading it and noting specific descriptions of the Cetans' hair naturally extending across their entire faces, rather like many monkeys, that I realized that they were a different species within the greater human family, and that the Ambassador was an ordinary terrestrial human woman of Asian descent.
And thus comes the final chapter, the triumphant reconciliation in which the seemingly unbridgeable gap is bridged. In many ways it makes me think of the conclusion of C. J. Cherryh's Faded Sun trilogy, in which humans finally grasp the significance of the Passing Game and play it together with the mri, and it is suggested that they will be able to avoid the fate of all the other worlds along the path of the mri migration, but instead be able to let go when it comes time and the mri must move on as the stones or wands or blades are passed on the next beat.
Review posted January 17, 2015.
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*Unlike Heinlein, who even in his most sociological science fiction did his best to keep to the scientific facts of astrophysics in his worldbuilding, Le Guin spends little time on the astrophysics of her double world. Although each world's population call the other "the moon," Urras and Annares are close enough in size that they would both orbit around a common barycenter somewhere in the space between them (the Earth-Moon system is considered a planet-satellite system rather than a double planet because its barycenter lies under Earth's crust). Le Guin also pays little attention to tidal effects, not only on the seas of the two worlds, which would probably be much stronger than the tides the Moon raises on Earth's oceans, but also on the rotation of the two worlds. In fact, it's quite probable that both worlds would become tidally locked to each other, such that only half of each world would ever see the other in the sky, but the text seems to imply that both worlds have days of length comparable to Earth's, and the other world is visible from any location on each world.