Much greater and more important than simply a SciFy space-opera. This is a story about utopia, dystopia, and the spark of human beings and societies.
The cover of my copy of The Dispossessed features a spaceship, a planet with a disk of fire spinning narrowly around it, and a scene with a man in a funny coloured robe walking towards a futuristic and utopian city. What can you do: my copy is from 1991. Do not let the science fiction goofyness and marketing strategies put you off from this book, nor underestimate it.
This is more of a thought experiment that plays out in a novel. It is a brilliant unfolding of human psychology and this psychology as it plays out in large-scale human society. We are very much in the territory of Plato’s The Republic, Moore’s Utopia, and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I mention these titles because this is not a dystopian book (like Brave New World). You would not guess it from the title, but LeGuin is out to find out what it would take to make a true human utopian society.
This is an alternate universe, but one which is familiar: it’s the future, and some space travel, but we are not in Star Trek here. There are no scientific miracles, no teleportation, no self-aware robots, etc. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects (and probably part of what makes this book so good) is that technology plays almost no role here. Any role that it does play is clearly seen as a tool of human design; the technology reflects the society.
There is the planet Urras and its desert moon, Anarres. Urras is much like Earth: it’s an ocean planet. But more than that, it depicts the international political situation of the Cold War. There is the rich, capitalist society which has shades of both the US and UK. Then there is a monolithic, very soviet-esque rival-nation, followed by a large, yet incredibly poor nation that stands in for the Third World (and is the sight for proxy wars between the capitalist nation and the soviet nation).
Here is where it gets interesting: on Anarres, anarchists, having fled Urras one hundred and seventy years before the start of the book, have set up a utopian, communistic society. There is no government, no authority, no police. No violence, no ownership, no property. Sexual relations are very open. And yet you have a fully functioning society with a high level of social organisation.
These settlers follow the teachings of Odo, and one gets that sense that her teachings had both an academic Marxist bent, but also a naturalistic and philosophic standpoint. A Marx meets Gandhi figure. LeGuin’s utopian society thus displays an interesting mix of high European far left academic anarcho-communism (Proudhon, Marx) as well as a host of less intense and academically-rigourous-but-maybe-not-so-successful-in-real-life-influences. There is definitely a hint of Amish, Henry David Thoreau, and some Buddhism.
Life is hard on Anarres. And so while there is no property, the flip side is that there is not too much to own anyway; the Odonians are doing okay, but the climate is just too harsh. This is part of the reason that the governments of Urras have decided to leave Anarres alone: there is just nothing there, no reason to settle there. The interesting exception (which reveals the depth of LeGuin’s intelligence) is that there are minerals that can only be mined on Anarres that is crucial to the Urras economy. But because the Odonians are happy to mine and trade the ores for a variety of cheap supplies, the reality is thus that it is cheaper for the governments on Urras to have these anarchists do the mining.
Anarres thus escapes the vortex of capitalism by a trick of luck (or rather they too, are stuck in the vortex because they must mine the ores or they would be invaded).
The book is about Shevek’s journey from Anarres to Urras. Shevek is a brilliant physicist who is closing in on the Theory of Everything which would enable faster than light travel and instantaneous communication over any distance. This is his value and importance to society. His personal journey is to bring the spark back to Odonian society, which has become bogged down in tradition, politics, and general small minded-ness. Thus Shevek is looking to re-ignite the Odonian revolution by going to Urras, though this does not become clear until later.
To what extent is this (leftist) utopian society vulnerable to the conservative/free market criticism that an egalitarian society would crush individual achievement and create a world where everyone is poor (as opposed to some being rich and some being poor)? A little. LeGuin does not create the two worlds equally, remember. Urras is a rich planet. Anarres only supports a handful of species of plants; thus the ossification of Odonian society is not totally based on the lack of incentive. However, this is clearly an anxiety of Shevek and LeGuin (tellingly, Shevek starts up the Syndicate of Initiative in a rebellious move in Oxonian society).
I wonder who LeGuin considers the eponymous dispossessed of the title? The Odonians, who are dispossessed of their home planet (and its abundance), or are they dispossessed of their capitalistic initiative? Or does the title refer to our own personal quest for happiness and meaning in life? Journey and travel is a major theme in this book: being dispossessed implies a search for what has been lost, I think.
So what is this spark that LeGuin is after? I would answer that it is the same thing that Any Rand attempts, and fails, to capture in her books (let’s not call it a philosophy: that would be depressing). It is something more complex than “initiative”. It is that peculiar mix of true freedom, true justice, and true personal growth that truly enriches a society. The fact that we can understand LeGuin’s conclusion of an un-bitter, gentle rejection of both power/capitalism and anarcho-communialism in favour of a sort of personal growth that grows the whole society (not a defined political project, I admit), says a lot about the quality of this book and LeGuin’s thought.
The next time you see someone reading Ayn Rand, insist that they read this book. This is the only depiction of a utopian society where I thought “this actually makes sense; it could actually work”. LeGuin has really explored the subject, and depicted the problems of both societies extremely well.
Brilliant, and well written. Perhaps not for everyone, but I would say this is a must-read.