Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed is a murmuring tale whose circular, interwoven structure echoes Shevek’s paradigm-shifting research into temporal physics while examining the moral consequences of two interlocked societies, one capitalist, the other communist.

The setting is the twin worlds of Urras and Anarres, each of which looms in the sky as the other’s moon; a symbolical relationship. Urras, a land of abundant resources and beauty, is the homeworld. Anarres, in contrast, is a dry, geographically dull, inhospitable place whose people work hard to survive.

Shevek is a brilliant theoretical physicist born on Anarres, which was colonized by the followers of Odo who abandoned Urras many centuries ago to found their own revolutionary anarchic society on Anarres. The reader is initially perplexed by the structure of the book, which alternates chapters form Shevek’s early life with chapters from his later life, written as if they were happening in the present time, telling parallel stories of this one man’s origins and later development. After a few such chapters the reader grasps the format and climbs happily onboard, and soon glimpses the rationale for this structure, as Shevek lays the mathematical groundwork for understanding the non-linearity of time, and thus proving the feasibility of time travel. His intellectual passion leads him toward political heresy in both Anarres, and later, Urras. Finally, he performs the first act in bringing Urras and Anarres together, collapsing their distance as his tale arrives full circle, at his simultaneous departure and arrival.


Do Shevek’s physics make sense? As I have scant comprehension of theoretical physics, my impression is far from authoritative, but I had the sense that his research, presented in gauzy generalizations, is a fictional fancy. For the sake of science fiction, emphasis on the “fiction,” I was willing to embrace it, though I felt uneasy about it, as it is a core premise of the book. We can agree, however, that such semi-scientific creations are part of the genre.

Le Guin has created a meticulous account of a successful communist society in which there is no private ownership, and no hierarchical institutions or individuals who exert power over others. I find this to be her tour de force in this novel, that she brings such a society to life in a way that seems plausible, because while it is faithful to its founder’s pure precepts, its own dark side is evident in its isolation of exceptional individuals, and its rejection of new forms of art and thought that may threaten the social harmony.

For the duration of this book you may hold at arm’s length your disbelief in a functional society of non-self-centered people. You might also arch an eyebrow at the notion that self-interested actions will be overcome through the use of computers: labor is assigned algorithmically through The Division of Labor, known as "Divlab."

Shevek’s friend Bedap, who tries to comment artistically on the consequences and habits of their society, observes:
“You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change.”
Shevek’s work is being coopted by Sabul, his supervisor at the Abbenay Institute. How can this happen in Odonian society?
“[Through] Public opinion! That’s the power structure he’s part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.”
Le Guin spends less time correspondingly on describing Urras, which resembles our own world in a less compassionate and less hypocritical mode.

The Odonians refer to their own socio-political system as “anarchism,” opposing the “propertarianism” of Urras. I’m not sure why Le Guin prefers this term and avoids the term “communist” except that “anarchism” is a less meaningfully fraught term. This book was published in the early 1970’s, when communist revolutions were generally recognized as failures that devolved into the same hierarchical power structures and totalitarianism that they claimed to have abolished.

This is a book that examines moral courage in the character of Shevek, and moral failures in the individuals whom he encounters, and in society at large. I hesitate to call this a polemical book, as I’m not sure what point Le Guin is making beyond that each of these opposed societies are unable to be what they are without each other, as an “Other” to be suppressed, and that the only meaningful development, however threatening, is to bring them back into dialogue with each other, rather than to maintain a pretense of isolation.

The Terran ambassador from our own Earth of the future makes a prophetic appearance:
“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 the world first.”
The reward in reading The Dispossessed is in the clear minded, carefully considered rumination on the relationship of the individual to society. I highlighted so many thoughtful passages, evoking Buddhism, philosophy of being and becoming, and reflections on the function of law and the pursuit of pleasure, that I don’t know what to include in this review; there are the seeds of many books in this one book. There are references throughout, both oblique and obvious, to Shevek’s effort to reconceive time as non-linear.
“It was the verbal mode of the Nioti, past and future rammed into one highly charged, unstable present tense.”
“… and all the parts of the song were being sung at one time, in the same moment, though each singer sang the tune as a line from beginning to end.”
The theme of freeing the mind permeates, and the theme of suffering.

This is not a warm book; while the reader will feel close to Shevek, there is little sense of drama in the strangely alternating chapters, and the whole has therefore a sense of being a literary experiment, a kind of anti-novel, which is utterly faithful to its theme. The language is cool and the characters dispassionately though sensitively observed, and this conceptual consistency throughout creates a work whose cohesion, sophistication, and literary artistry is rare in science fiction.

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