Wed, 19 Nov 2014
An Ambiguous Utopia

The Dispossessed,
by Ursula Le Guin

A very pleasant surprise, I bought this on a whim and it turned out to be a gem! This is the first Ursula Le Guin I've read but I'll definitely try and pick up others now.

There are two planets, one the moon of the other (or vice versa?). The moon Anarres is a revolutionary, anarchist settlement that broke away from the planet Urras two centuries before. This break-up was so Urras could forestall a revolution. Urras is a planet more like our own: nation states, some capitalist, some authoritarian. inequality, war and private property. In contrast, Anarres has no private property, no government, a language that precludes the possessive case (which implies ownership) and a radical egalitarianism.

Shevek, the protagonist, is a physicist on Anarres working on a grand theory of time and space, with a potential for instantaneous communication. Quite a prize! He has an independent streak and feels unappreciated and increasingly shutdown on the anarchist world. He travels to Urras (the "propertarians!") with the hope of working on his mathematics in a spirit of scientific enquiry with fellow academics. Unfortunately he discovers that the Urrastians have their own agenda. Le Guin tells Shevek's story from childhood, through work and marriage and how he came to such a momentous step as leaving his wife and child, and whole life. The freedoms of Anarres can also stifle the non-conformist. People are people everywhere, good and bad.

Being classed as a science-fiction book, The Dispossessed will not get the audience it deserves, which is a shame because it is well written, sparse and effective, the story moving, intelligent and, in parts, very poignant. There's also a great deadpan humour as the characters grapple with unusual (to them) situations.

The themes are big: the organisation of society and its power structure, the way language impacts how we see the world and the place of the individual within the social fabric.

But don't let that put you off because Le Guin engages these ideas through sympathetic characters, using a fantasy to better explore our own world and society. This is a book I enjoyed a great deal.

I used the title "Ambiguous Utopia". Quoting wikipedia on the book :

When first published, the book included the tagline: "The magnificent epic of an ambiguous utopia!" which was shortened by fans to "An ambiguous utopia" and adopted as a subtitle in certain editions. The major theme of the work is the ambiguity between different notions of utopia. Anarres is not presented as a perfect society, even within the constraints of what might define an anarchist utopia. Bureaucracy, stagnation, and power structures have problematized the revolution, as Shevek comes to realize throughout the course of the novel. Moreover, Le Guin has painted a very stark picture of the natural and environmental constraints on society. Anarres citizens are forced to contend with a relatively sparse and unfruitful world.