I bought The Dispossessed at the recommendation of a student; all I knew at the time was that it was a science-fiction utopia. But it is more than that; the novel explores a breadth of themes in philosophy, ethics and politics, which probably explains the enduring appeal of the book. There’s also physics and mathematics, but those were as alien to me as the twin planets on which the story is set.
The novel tells the story of a physicist named Shevek, who makes a journey from his native planet of Anarres to the nearby Urras. Anarres is Urras’s moon and a group of revolutionary anarchists from Urras have seceded and settled down on Anarres, establishing a utopian, classless, communist society based on egalitarianism and solidarity. They follow the principles of the prosecuted (originally Urrasti) political philosopher Odo, the mainstream ideology on Anarres therefore being Odonianism. Anarres is inhabited by one homogeneous society whereas on Urras, there are different political and economic systems. There’s A-Io, which is apparently an allegory of the US, and there’s also Thu, which represents the Soviet Union. As our man Shevek gains more and more success in his area, his research outgrows his little planet. So he gets sent to Urras, the mother planet, to meet colleagues and further his studies, but his mission also has an ideological aspect: to re-establish some sort of mutually beneficial interaction between the two societies. His trip turns out to be quite an adventure, narrated in every other chapter of the book. Alternating chapters recount the events leading up to his decision to leave.
I like the fact that the plot doesn’t overly romanticize the communist utopia; I feel that the author has struck a good balance between description and criticism. Anarres is mostly arid: it doesn’t rain enough, so no grass for herbivores and therefore no herbivores for carnivores – they only have fish to eat, plus leaves, grain and fiber from holum trees and shrubs. The population is stricken by famines. You would think that the absence of a drive for the accumulation of private property and profit would diminish stimulus in social life; on Anarres though, the quest for survival provides the necessary motivation. There is also art, and an implicit rivalry with capitalist Urras. On the other hand, self-righteous moralizing and bureaucratic structures are those features of Anarresti life that the author criticizes. The Anarresti parliament is basically a debating society, and they achieve very little progress in each session. The main reason why Shevek considers leaving the planet is that he’s frustrated again and again by the domineering figure of Sabul, a senior scientist, who sustains a personal rivalry with him and imposes a kind of hierarchy, although these two are eschewed in Odonian society. Odonianism is supposed to be built on revolution, but once you try to step out of the convention in true revolutionary spirit, you get ostracized. Stagnation: I guess this is the insidious result of moral and intellectual scrupulousness which has plagued many worldly revolutions.
Many sci-fi novels set on imaginary planets are actually social/political commentaries on our world, and in The Dispossessed, the criticism leveled against Urras carries many parallels with the ills of our capitalism. Actually, our world, “Terras,” features as a separate planet in the storyline, 11 light-years away and complete with its physicist “Ainsetain,” who has come up with the theory of relativity 😉
“At first, all this [the capitalistic mode] seemed funny to [Shevek]; then it made him uneasy. He must not dismiss as ridiculous what was, after all, of tremendous importance here. He tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him past endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream. He could not force himself to understand how banks functioned, and so forth because all the operations of capitalism were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary. In a human sacrifice to a deity there might be at least a mistaken and terrible beauty; in the rites of money-changers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men’s acts, even the terrible became banal. Shevek looked at this monstrous pettiness with contempt, and without interest. He did not admit, he could not admit, that in fact it frightened him” (130-131).
The following paragraphs (pp. 131 & 132) read like a primer on Marx’s Capital. Later in the book, Shevek discovers the underbelly of Urrasti society, which constitutes a stark contrast with the glitz of privileged life he was surrounded with as an interplanetary guest.
The critique of our society isn’t only expressed through its reflections on Urras. More explicitly in the book, the human population on Terras is described as “intellectual imperialists, jealous wall-builders” (278) who have depleted the natural resources of the planet. The “wall” symbol is employed throughout the book. The walls surrounding the spaceport on Anarres bear the only “No Trespassing” signs on the planet and the author wants us to think whether those walls protect or imprison the ones on either side. Shevek goes to Urras with the purpose of “unbuilding” walls. Ironically, he ends up walled in at the Terran embassy.
Gender inequality is another big theme. In A-Io society, women are inferior to men and a male character called Kimoe considers equality between the genders to be tantamount to the loss of male self-respect. Shevek the Anarresti thinks to himself: “This matter of superiority and inferiority must be a central one in Urrasti social life. If to respect himself Kimoe had to consider half the human race as inferior to him, how then did women manage to respect themselves – did they consider men inferior?” (18). Interesting though, that Ursula Le Guin refers to the indeterminate sex as “he” – I guess that was the norm in early 1970s, despite the feminist thrust of the book. This feels anachronistic now, just like how Anarres is administered by computers but there’s no talk of the Internet 😉
Which brings me to the topic of language… The Anarresti speak Pravic, an artificial language designed to reflect the ideal egalitarian society. The possessive pronouns are kept to a minimum and male and female first names are not distinguished. According to Wikipedia, the book explores the implications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which suggests that the language we use shapes the way we think. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis didn’t occur to me as I read the book, but as a translator, I am already too aware of the intimate link between language and thought. Nevertheless, such explorations on language came across as naïve to me. For example, the words for “work” and “play” are identical in Pravic – but surely people have cognitive categories for responsibility and pleasure. (I can’t imagine equating the two activities). Swearwords are limited: “Pravic was not a good swearing language. It is hard to swear when sex is not dirty and blasphemy does not exist” (258).
Some toponyms in the book sound decidedly Latin, e.g. Tau Ceti, Nio Esseia, Ieu Eun, Amoeno etc. On the other hand, some character names struck me as sounding Hebrew, e.g. Takver, Sadik, Pilun and Efor… I mean, someone was called Sherut. There’s also the word kleggich, which sounds Yiddish… I don’t know if Ursula Le Guin knew Hebrew, but that left me wondering whether Jewish culture was a convenient source of exotica back in early 1970s… I don’t know.
The book is full of these very interesting discussions in philosophy (I should probably read more philosophy). For example, fidelity and freedom: people do not formally get married on Anarres, but they form partnerships (heterosexual or homosexual) based on mutual trust.
“The validity of the promise, even promise of indefinite term, was deep in the grain of Odo’s thinking; though it might seem that her insistence on freedom to change would invalidate the idea of promise or vow, in fact the freedom made the promise meaningful. A promise is a direction taken, a self-limitation of choice” (244).
And then there’s shame. While travelling on desolate land, Shevek goes a couple of days without food. In cities, they eat at common rooms and everybody takes only what they need. On his return,
“Ravenous still from the journey, he took a double helping of both porridge and bread. The boy behind the serving tables looked at him frowning. These days [there’s a drought] nobody took double helpings. Shevek stared frowning back and said nothing. He had gone eighty-odd hours now on two bowls of soup and one kilo of bread, and he had a right to make up for what he had missed, but he was damned if he would explain. Existence is its own justification, need is right. He was an Odonian, he left guilt to profiteers [capitalists]” (261).
There’s also a passage on peace-time pacifism and war-time heroism on page 286, but it’s quite long and this post is already long enough. There are also very nice depictions of extraterrestrial nature.
Science fiction is growing on me 😉