Let’s just say it all together: Ursula K. Le Guin is god.
Damn, girl can’t help it, but when she writes Science Fiction she fucking writes masterpiece-top-notch-blow-your-mind literature. So thanks to you Ursula, cause your SF novels are awesome. Oh, and your Fantasy novels of course. And your short stories. And the way you handle issues of “race” and gender in your writing (most of the time). You totally deserve your own religion. Or something.
Anyhow, the tangled title of this very post is my lame attempt at cleverness, because I am about to review The Dispossessed, a SF novel by Le Guin that was published in 1974.
For many people SF seems to be all about spaceships and aliens and questions of “is it not only escapism, because it has nothing to do with the real world?” That’s when my eyes glaze over and I wanna shoot the person uttering this abomination before god (who is Le Guin, of course). Cause in how far is any sort of fiction closer to reality? To whose reality anyway? And what does reality even mean in the context of SF? I’m ever so puzzled when people feel disconnected to characters and events in SF stories because the surroundings and the technology are not what they expect – since they obviously expect to find their world in a novel or story, or at least the idea they have of the world and the things they’d like to see in it. And it makes me wonder: isn’t that even a graver form of escapism? That characters and actions become so very irrelevant because the whole attraction boils down to only the physical surroundings?
Because great SF comes up with characters and developments that we in our conditio humana can relate to: Characters who are presented with dilemmas that inform our own existence and their ways to deal with said dilemmas.
In the case of The Dispossessed we are presented with a political dilemma of our times: what sort of society do we want to live in? Is capitalism a road to go down or does anarchism and its communal structure present a valid alternative? The narrative takes us on a journey that alternates between chapters set in the now, on Urras, a planet full of nations, many of which are capitalist, some democratic, others socialist and repressive. That is not to say that A-Io, the nation that protagonist Shevek finds himself in, and that is apparently democratic, would not be repressive. There are mass-demonstrations and the government shooting the demonstrators out of helicopters. There are privileged people and an angry underclass. And Shevek, brought up in a distinctly non-capitalist mindset, realizes that despite all the beauty and lushness of A-Io, capitalism does indeed produce a dichotomy: within society, but also within the personality. You need to think of yourself in terms of market value, and at the same time, perversely, your performance in the market determines your value as a person. And yes, this sounds all too familiar for a reason. People do demeaning jobs and accept humiliation and abuse, because the system produces positions that can only survive by putting up with the ugly side of things.
Anarres, the planet that Shevek originates from, is the antithesis to that. It is the moon to Urras (or Urras the moon to Anarres), and while Urras is rich in water, history, nature, cultures and people, Anarres is not, it is more like one huge desert with little vegetation and a constant challenge to those 20 million people who came to Anarres some 150+ years ago, because that way leaders on Urras removed the threat of an anarchist revolution. Those who adhered to the principles and teachings of Odo, an anarchist writer, were able to set up a society from scratch on Anarres, based on their anarchist thinking. That means that everything is organized communally, people do the job that they would like to do and unpleasant tasks are done by everyone on a rotational basis. There is no possession. The things you need are there for you to take, if you need a room or an apartment you ask if there is something free and you get to use it. You eat in dining halls where food is rationed for everyone.
But the wonderful thing about Le Guin is the ability to be critical about one’s preferences. There is no question that she sympathizes with the Odonian society where people share and have a responsibility towards one another, grounded in neither religion nor nationality, but in the simple acknowledgement that as a society, every human is part of it and profits from it, but also has to contribute. And while Shevek in the flashback chapters where we learn about his life’s story on Anarres sets out with an uncritical appraisal of Odonian society he comes to learn that much of the unity and civility comes from having to work together to sustain the people on the bleak planet of Anarres. He encounters hierarchies in his field of physics and in the society in general, even though the first rule of Odonian thinking is that there are no hierarchies, that everyone is the same, that there are no nations, states, and that all administrative bodies are open to anyone and are not to be understood as authorities. But as structures tend to do, they take root and habits and hierarchies develop, and over time Shevek learns that many people might claim that they are Odonians, that they carry the revolution in their hearts, but that in reality they are fundamentally opposed to having their conveniences and habits questioned and thus seek to protect their petty interests, masking it with anarchist rhetoric. And of course all of that too sounds familiar for a reason.
Late in the novel Shevek has an encounter with the Terran ambassador to Urras (yeah, she is from our Earth, y’all, only far in the future). By then humanity has pretty much overpopulated and destroyed beloved planet Earth and being impressed by the anarchist (or as she’d probably put it: communist) mindset of Shevek she remarks about Urras:
“To me, and to all my fellow Terrans who have seen the planet, Urras is the kindliest, most various, most beautiful of all the inhabited worlds. It is the world that comes as close as any could to Paradise. … Now, you man from a world I cannot even imagine, you who see my Paradise as Hell, will you ask what my world must be like?”
Just to remind you once more: Le Guin is god. And here’s why: Cause right and wrong is nothing set in stone, but is for 99.9 percent of the time a matter of perspective. And perspectives change and are pre-conditioned by how we are socialized and thus the rights seem very wrong to others while the wrongs might seem very right to others and all it boils down to is that it’s probably a little more complicated than we think and at the same time not, cause why not work with our differences, we’re all just human after all. Granted, there is a catch though, cause obviously despite all its flaws, Anarresti society based on Odonian principles of solidarity is much closer to take the individual as a being to be treated and met with respect and is therefore a pretty spot-on comment about what many people in our day and age (and before that and probably after us too) find wrong with capitalism and the permeation of society and state with capitalist thinking and pseudo-reasoning. However, a constant revolution does not mean invoking revolution through words, but make revolution happen in actions. When they are needed. And they are needed often, and going through a revolution is never easy. Especially not when you meet fierce resistance from those who claim to be living the constant revolution, when really, they’re not.
Ursula K. Le Guin has time and again proven her ability to create and construct believable political entities and situations, remarkably so in her novel The Left Hand of Darkness. But what she is also famous for, especially with the latter publication, is her ability to comment on gender issues and come up with thought-provoking takes on the whole thing.
In the case of The Dispossessed she does so too. The society in A-Io is divided strictly along gender lines. Women are not in politics and many of them are not supposed to be working at all (though in reality, they do, especially in the working class), and they do not attend universities. They carve out their own spaces nevertheless, though the worth of this remains questionable. Once more, this situation represents a heightened version of what we encounter in our Terran societies these days (and probably even more so back in the 70s when the novel was published). And again Anarresti society based on Odonian anarchist principles functions as a comment on the situation. Shevek falls in love, deeply and thoroughly, with a woman who is of her own mind, who, like all other women on Anarres, is equal to men in every respect. And the profound attraction stems from the fact that he can see her as an individual, as the character she is, rather than the societal position that she inhabits or the gender role she performs. Which is really a marvellous concept in terms of attraction and true affection.
Another interesting gender-subversion is Sheveks short-lived gay relationship with Bedap. The text clearly states that Shevek is heterosexual and that Bedap is homo, but Shevek, because he values the friendship moves in with him and even has sex, even though it doesn’t particularly excite him, but because he feels it to be a natural part of their friendship that is kind of a duty he meets, cause he knows that it is important for Bedap. It’s a peculiar construction within the novel, cause on the one hand I find it to be touching, this concept of deep affection within a friendship that leads one to perform sexual acts that don’t correspond to one’s orientation. However, it is also questionable to the extent that we may of course ask why even go there and have sex, when there is no real sexual attraction. And if there is, why not stick with the bisexual label instead of creating restrictive hetero and homo categories. I admit, the thing kinda puzzles me, because although I see the potential issues, I still think it is kinda heart-warming. Which probably has a lot to do with me not having any problem whatsoever with friendships that involve sex but are not romantic relationships, while, I guess, that does not meet a lot of understanding from other people.
Ah, ‘nuff said. The Dispossessed is a veritable classic, and IMHO anyone should have read it. Just like anyone should have read something by Le Guin (and praise her as god). There is a short story connected to this novel called The Day Before The Revolution, which is about Odo, the principle figure shaping the anarchist movement and society we encounter here, but it is less about her theoretical works and rather about her in old age and how she deals with it. All in one day and all right before the revolution that starts the settlement on Anarres. I’ll review it these next days. Until then: Go pick up your copy of The Dispossessed.
Didn’t you hear me? Go and read it!