Thursday, February 28, 2013

8. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin

Another near-masterpiece of science fiction and political speculation, here LeGuin examines two opposing ideals that we know all too well here on earth: the egalitarian collective society versus the hierarchical individualistic society.  I know, it sounds kind of boring, but in LeGuin's expert hands we get a compelling, moving story about the only man who had the opportunity to live in both worlds.  The setting is the planet Urras, similar geographically to earth and its habitable but resource-limited moon, Anarres.  Centuries past, a group of rebels broke off from the society of Urras and instead of causing a civil war, were allowed to go to Urras, where they created a functioning anarchic society.  Both societies mutually decide to break off all contact, except for one rocket ship that goes back and forth with basic trade goods and minimal communications.

Shevek, a physicist on Anarres, has succeeded in getting his theories put on that rocket ship and they are so groundbreaking that they garner him an invitation to Urras.  The beginning of the book is him getting on that rocket and leaving everything he knows behind.  The narrative then breaks off into two threads.  One traces his experiences on this vastly different world (the material wealth alone is mind-blowing, but Urras also has mammals and rich geographical diversity) as he begins to conflict with its political realities; the other thread goes back in time to his own upbringing and the conflicts he faces on hishome planet against its own hidden political rigidity.

Both stories are equally engaging, though it is the present one on Urras (the wealthy planet) that really grabs the reader's attention at first. It reminds somewhat of The Man Who Fell to Earth, though Shevek is not here to plead for anything other than increased communication between the two worlds.  He enters this wealthy place a hero, but soon learns that he is in the proverbial gilded cage.  The government of the host nation (and the wealthiest one on the planet) wants his knowledge as it may be the key to instant inter-galactic communication, thus giving them a huge advantage with the other worlds they have just started to meet.  Shevek tries his best to navigate the choppy waters of this highly social world and badly fails in the book's turning point.

Here the origin story starts to get more interesting.  We are feeling critical of Urras, but we soon see that Anarres has problems of its own.  Shevek's mentor, who controls access to the rocket ship, is jealous and close-minded.  When it becomes known that Shevek may be actually going to Urras, political adversaries mount an aggressive attack against him and his clique.

The ending of the book is not explosive, though it threatens to be.  Rather, LeGuin zooms out and we suddenly see these two worlds from a new perspective and it is quite enlightening, both for the way we think about what we read and for the way we think about our own world.

It's quite easy to see how these two worlds can be seen as communist Russia and the capitalist west.  The parrallel doesn't quite work, because LeGuin is examining these political ideals more abstractly.  Divorced from the realities of our earth, she can push both philosophies to different outcomes - but especially the collectivist one, which works much better here.  It is cool to see how a collectivist, anarchist society could actually work, what the pros and cons would be, especially given significant material constraints.  While I was reading it, I was thinking to myself that I would be pretty unhappy to not have beautiful oceans and mountains and to only eat sweet food once or twice a year.  But as you read on, she does a pretty convincing job of making the positive human elements of this society, the true freedom to pursue what you want while being deeply connected to the greater community, very appealling. 

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