The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The bed, a massive bed on four legs, with a mattress far softer than that of the bunk on the Mindful, and complex bedclothes, some silky and some warm and thick, and a lot of pillows like cumulus clouds, had a room all to itself. The floor was covered with springy carpeting; there was a chest of drawers of beautifully carved and polished wood, and a closet big enough to hold the clothing of a ten-man dormitory. Then there was the great common-room with the fireplace, which he had seen last night; and a third room, which contained a bathtub, a washstand, and an elaborate shit-stool. This room was evidently for his sole use, as it opened off the bedroom, and contained only one of each kind of fixture, though each was of a sensuous luxury that far surpassed mere eroticism and partook, in Shevek’s view, of a kind of ultimate apotheosis of the excremental. He spent nearly an hour in this third room, employing all the fixtures in turn, and getting very clean in the process. The deployment of water was wonderful. Faucets stayed on till turned off; the bathtub must hold sixty litres, and the stool used at least five litres in flushing. This was really not surprising. The surface of Urras was five-sixths water. Even its deserts were deserts of ice, at the poles. No need to economise; no droughts…. But what became of the shit? He brooded over this, kneeling by the stool after investigating its mechanism. They must filter it out of the water at a manure plant. There were seaside communities on Anarres that used such a system for reclamation. He intended to ask about this, but never got around to it. There were many questions he never did ask on Urras.

When I first tried writing up the joint Hugo and Nebula winners at the start of this century, this was the first novel I got to. Here’s what I wrote in August 2001, with my own rejoinders from 18 years later:

The Dispossessed is about the physicist Shevek, and his mathematical research which makes possible the ansible, a faster-than-light communications device. The story alternates between episodes from his early life on his home planet Anarres, whose inhabitants are an anarchist colony who have no concept of property or government, and chapters detailing his experiences on Anarres’ twin planet Urras, in a society which functions on late capitalist lines. It becomes clear that the absence of formal authority on Anarres does not mean that Shevek is free to carry out his own work, but instead that he has to fight against the hidden power structures. Meanwhile on Urras, rival governments attempt to use his research for their own advantage. Shevek gets involved in an anti-government demonstration, and flees to the embassy of Earth with the vital equations, which he then makes freely available to all factions.

Commenting on her own work in Ben Bova’s The Best of the Nebulas collection, Ursula Le Guin describes The Dispossessed as “a heavy, argumentative book”. She is a little unfair on herself. In a chronological list of Hugos and Nebulas it is bracketed by Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Haldeman’s The Forever War; the former is heavy and the latter argumentative, so she was in keeping with the spirit of the times! The tone of the book is rather distanced, almost reminiscent of Camus in L’Étranger. It suits Shevek’s alienation from his own society. Funnily enough it also works very well to convey the passion of the relationship between Shevek and his partner Takver, and also manages to portray with dismal clarity his catastrophic attendance at a party on Urras. Shevek is, basically, a geek who would certainly have been an sf reader if there had been any sf to read on Anarres; this must explain why so many fans forgive the heavy prose.

The most controversial part of The Dispossessed is the portrayal of Anarres, which is indeed viewed by most of its inhabitants as a Utopia. Some right-wing critics read the first few pages and dismiss it as an idealistic tract – “Happy campers in North Korea”, as one contributor to rec.arts.sf.written put it. They have missed a treat; one of the successes of the book is its consistent and convincing portrayal of Anarresti society. Personal pronouns are absent from the Pravic language (Le Guin probably knew that “prav” is a Slavic root meaning “true”); “work” and “play” are synonyms; children’s names are allocated at random; with complete sexual freedom, there is no rape; without property, there are no thieves; without laws, there are no criminals. (In contrast the capitalist state of A-Io, where Shevek spends his time on Urras, is a rather unfair compilation of the worst of the West, perhaps what someone starting from the 1968-1973 baseline might have feared that the USA could become.)

Alas, I was far too optimistic about what the USA could look like in the late stages of capitalism. Maybe I was naïve in 2001 – well, certainly I was more naïve then than I am now – but I think things have actually got worse, and Le Guin’s depiction looks far more prophetic now than it did then.

The lesson Le Guin puts to idealists (at least, those who read the whole book) is that the anarchist society does not work as it should. The control exercised over Shevek’s work by jealous older scholars is one of several instances of hidden lines of authority in a society which is supposed to have none. More fatal, however, is the fact that Anarres has been left alone by Urras only because of a mutually agreed isolation; contact between Anarres and the outside world is limited to a few ore freighters and the dribble of information allowed to flow between scientific institutes. Shevek pledges to “unbuild walls”, and it’s clear that he and the author expect that the lowering of the walls between Anarres and Urras will result in both coming closer to the anarchist ideals on which Anarres is founded.

I still think that this is true of Shevek, but on rereading I am less convinced that Le Guin had a didactic purpose in this, not least because she surely appreciated that communication between cultures inevitably will change both sides in completely unanticipated ways. On a slightly different tack, I found the depiction of hidden lines of authority particularly thought-provoking, given my recent experience of the WSFS Business Meeting.

In 1973, this probably seemed a reasonable call; but in November 1989 we saw how the unbuilding of a wall between two worlds resulted in the instant collapse of one of them. Le Guin clearly had no time for the Soviet Union – the least explored but most stereotyped society in the book is the Stalinist dictatorship of Thu whose claims of intellectual kinship Shevek angrily rejects. But from what we now know about the weaknesses of that system, it’s apparent that her expectation of the extent to which personal corruption, and control of the economic levers of power, could be limited on Anarres purely by social pressure, was naive.

Rereading the book, I think I got Le Guin completely wrong on this point. There is personal corruption on Annares, and a certain hidden control of the levers of economic and political power; what I missed was the point that the general resource poverty of the world limits the extent to which this is possible, because there simply isn’t all that much to steal or control. Le Guin of course knew a lot about pre-industrial societies where co-operation a much better survival strategy than coercion, and was reading across here to a partially industrialised planet that tries to apply the same principles. It’s not naïve, it’s tremendously imaginative.

A lot of people seem to not only dislike The Dispossessed but bitterly attack it, perhaps for lacking or failing to inspire in the reader a “sense of wonder”. To contrast it again with the spaceships-and-aliens in Rendezvous with Rama and The Forever War, Le Guin’s spaceships are dull devices for getting from planet A to planet B, and her aliens turn out to be from Earth, and not very different from the narrator. I can see why those who prefer their sf good and hard find it a difficult book to identify with. However I happen to believe that sf at its best is a literature of ideas, and that The Dispossessed is an important milestone in that respect. It is good to see that the Libertarian Futurist Society, who presumably agree that sf is a literature of ideas, eventually voted the book into their Hall of Fame.

The “lot of people” were those whose comments came up on a Google search for reviews of The Dispossessed; in those days, the Internet was considerably less than half its present size. But I must say that on rereading, I was blown away by a “sense of wonder” experience. I really do think that this is one of the best SFF novels about politics out there, which is why I recommended it at my recent Worldcon panel on politics in sff. I suspect that a lot of you agree, given how many of you recommended it in my poll earlier this year, later recycled for a Five Books article. You can get it here.

One small incident in the book particularly moved me, the description of Shevek’s first encounter with the statue of Odo in Abbenay. Apart from the sculptures that his partner Takver makes, which are treated as toys, this is the only example of the visual arts we see on Anarres. Odo, the prophetess, is depicted reading her own words of wisdom, in the middle of the greatest city in the world which follows her ideals, a world she never saw (the last hours of her life are depicted in Le Guin’s story “The Day Before the Revolution”, which won a Nebula that same year). Shevek of course identifies with her as an outsider in her own society.

The city of my birth boasts an ornate parliament building, outside which there is a grandiose statue of the founder of the statelet making a defiant gesture towards the southern enemy. The only way to cope with its appalling pretension is to laugh at it. The only statue I have seen that moved me in the same way as Le Guin’s Odo is Imre Varga’s statue of Imre Nagy near the parliament building in Budapest. Rather than put the martyr of the 1956 rising on his own pedestal (as they did with an earlier failed revolutionary across the square), he is depicted on a small footbridge, wearing a raincoat, porkpie hat and thick glasses, gazing rather wistfully across the square towards the building that encapsulates his country’s democratic traditions.

I was very very sad to learn at the end of last year that the statue of Imre Nagy has been cut up and taken away, to be replaced by a reconstruction of a monument from the inter-war far-right Hungarian regime. I was writing, of course, in late August 2001, when the world was about to become a less innocent place. Carson remains outside Stormont, despite the massive changes that have taken place there.

Other novels shortlisted for 1975 Best Novel Hugo: Fire Time, by Poul Anderson; Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick; The Mote in God’s Eye, by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven; Inverted World, by Christopher Priest. I have not read Fire Time, but I like all three of the others, especially Inverted World.

Other 1974 nominees for Best Novel Nebula: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick; 334, by Thomas M. Disch; The Godwhale, by T. J. Bass. As noted above I have read the Dick, and I also bounced off 334 a few years ago.

Other winners of 1975 Hugos: “A Song for Lya”, by George R. R. Martin (best novella); “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W”, by Harlan Ellison (best novelette); “The Hole Man”, by Larry Niven (best short story)

Other winners of 1974 Nebulas: Born with the Dead, by Robert Silverberg (best novella); If the Stars Are Gods, by Gregory Benford and Gordon Eklund (best novelette); as noted above The Day Before the Revolution, by Ursula K. Le Guin (best short story)

The following year saw three out of four Nebula and Hugo fiction categories go to joint winners. I will start with “Catch That Zeppelin”, by Fritz Leiber, Jr.

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