Friday, May 13, 2011

Book Review: The Dispossessed (Part 1 of 2)

Ursula K. Le Guin
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –


So far, this is my favorite of Le Guin’s novels.

I have criticized some of her other books for having too obvious a message. This one is obvious about its real subject matter – different governmental philosophies – but it is subtle about delivering any simple message or judgment about them.

I also liked the main character very much. He is a smart guy going through a difficult time, learning hard truths about the way he was brought up.

And her writing, as always, is clear and flowing - if maybe a little dreamy.

This book is about two worlds: the planet Urras and its moon Anarres. Urras is a densely-populated analogue for Earth; its main superpower nation is a prosperous capitalist country with a comfortable upper class and struggling lower classes. Anarres is a dusty, barren, barely hospitable mining colony.

Several centuries ago, a small group of Urrasti anarchists were banished to the moon Anarres. After the freighters brought the last group of them up, the exiles built a wall around the spaceport. They kept the port operating for a handful of cargo shipments each year, but resolved that no one else from Urras would ever be allowed up. Then they set about building a non-authoritarian communist utopia based on the teachings of their philosopher Odo.

As a result, today, on Anarres, there are no governments, no bosses, and no wages. Clothes and other necessary goods are available free to anyone at communal depositories. Food is served for free at communal refectories.

Jobs are dispensed by a central computer. You feed in your skills and your requests for location and the computer comes back with a suggested placement. You do not have to accept the placement, although pretty much everyone does.

You have no obligation to do anything in particular. You have the freedom to learn or work at whatever you want at any time. You are owned and governed by no one.

The catch, of course, is that no individual can own or govern anything. No one can become rich or powerful. If you are found to be “egoizing” – keeping goods for yourself or doing things solely for your own aggrandizement, you are isolated and ostracized.

Anarresti children are brought up to see themselves as part of a whole; as a single cell in the body of society. Their role is to find their own best individual cellular function and do that – the idea being that if they do what they do best, that is the greatest contribution they can make to society.

The plot centers around an Anarresti physicist named Shevek. Shevek is happy; he has a loving partner, children, and friends. He is always willing to do his part. He grows up trusting his countrymen and assuming unquestioningly that everyone is working together. He grows up distrusting and fearing the profit-driven people of Urras.

But as Shevek gets closer to developing a General Temporal Theory, which will enable faster-than-light space travel, he discovers that instead of being freely exchanged, his ideas are being stifled.

For one thing, his work is threatening to his advising professor, Sabul. Sabul has been discouraging the publication of those ideas of Shevek’s that he doesn’t understand and, contrary to Odonian teaching, has been publishing the ideas that he does understand under his own name.

Shevek’s work is also a threat to his society; it threatens to break down the walls that protect Anarres from Urras. His university will only permit him to teach basic courses, claiming that not enough students are interested in the more complex ones. The job-posting computer starts to send him to godforsaken places to do mining or agricultural jobs that have nothing to do with physics and separate him from his family for long periods.

An Odonian society is supposed to be in a state of permanent revolution, encouraging of initiative and freedom of thought. But Shevek starts to realize that, little by little, in spite of itself, Anarres is developing a bureaucracy that functions very much like a government and serves to limit radical thinking.

So Shevek reaches out to physicists on Urras, sending them letters via cargo shipments. His correspondence often gets “lost” in transit but the few responses that come back show him that the Urrasti physicists are intensely interested. Thinking that this could be a way to reunify the two worlds, he smuggles himself off to Urras.

The Urrasti receive him with open arms. At first, he is astonished by how luxurious everything is and how happy the people are. But he gradually realizes (mainly through clandestine little notes slipped into his pockets by servants) that he is being coddled by the elite, who hope that they will profit from his General Temporal Theory. They have carefully prevented him from seeing any slums or poverty or other downsides of Urrasti capitalism.

Shevek eventually goes on the lam, gets caught up in a street protest, and is almost shot by the police, before coming up with a solution that serves his needs – and almost everyone else’s, whether they realize it right away or not.

But here I’ve gone on and on about the plot and I’ve hardly talked at all about the real reason to read the book, which is the subtlety and thoughtfulness with which Le Guin, through Shevek’s eyes, compares the Anarresti and Urrasti systems. Any review of The Dispossessed should really include an insightful, complex discourse on capitalism versus socialism, on anarchy versus government, and on how it is impossible to be an ideological purist about any one system.

I feel that this is, alas, beyond my analytical abilities but, to at least show my appreciation for what Le Guin has done, I will try to address it in a small way next week.

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