Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


The reason I had to borrow this from the library is that it may just be the only Ursula Le Guin book that my second kid does not own. Last year, a legal colleague was downsizing his library due to a move, and let us take whatever we wanted. (Free books? Hell yes!) My kid is into SciFi, and grabbed all the Ursula Le Guin books he had. The Dispossessed, however, was not among the ones available. So, I had to go borrow it from the library or try to find it used. Since the only reasonably priced used ones were all cheap trade paperbacks, I decided to just go with the library. Maybe someday I spring for a new Library of America set of Le Guin…


Anyway, having devoured the Redwall books, followed by Harry Potter and everything Neil Gaiman ever wrote, she took to Le Guin with gusto. Last school year, all her classes were on Zoom, which worked fine for her, but she had to settle for giving digital pushback at her English teacher, who somehow managed to leave out all the female authors in the required reading. (Said teacher is female, and not exactly ultra-conservative, so how this happened is a mystery.) My kid’s most pointed critique was to choose Le Guin for her author profile, the big paper in second semester. And dang, did she put her heart into it. She must have read a dozen of the books, including the non-fiction stuff, and gave what I think was a college-level paper on Le Guin and her feminist views. Her teacher agreed. (I get to do proof-reading on my family’s school stuff - including my wife’s papers for her current classes, so I got to read this one.) This is the kid who could probably run a mid-size country already - takes after her mother. 


So, reading this Le Guin did mean a fun discussion with a kid, but I will confess that she is so far beyond me with this author that I am the learner now. 

The Dispossesed is part of the “Hainish” series of books. Sorry, “cycle.” I need to use the correct SciFi terminology, I suppose. Le Guin herself, however, didn’t consider them a cycle: "The thing is, they aren't a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones." Perhaps better to understand them as taking place in the same universe, but not having a particularly connected history. 


There are a total of six novels in the Hainish Cycle, written between 1966 and 1974. The order in which they were written does not in any way correspond to the order of the internal chronology. For example, The Dispossessed was the last written, but the first in the chronology, which becomes apparent near the end of the book - the physics created/discovered by the main character leads to a key technology that appears in the earlier (or is that later?) books, namely the “ansible,” which enables instantaneous communication across the cosmos. (Basically, the “subspace” communication that Star Trek uses.) 


The central idea behind the world of these books is that earth (named “Terra” in the books) is not where humans arose. Rather, it was one of many interstellar colonies planted by the residents of the planet Hain. After the colonies were planted, something went wrong and Hain was unable for thousands of years to resume interstellar travel. Later, it resumed again, and established a sort of Federation of Planets that its colonies were free to join - or not - as they desired. In the meantime, each of the colonies has undergone millennia of physical and social evolution, leading to differences in the races and in the social organization (aka government) of each. This is certainly apparent in The Left Hand of Darkness, which I read several years ago. In that book, the hominoids are hermaphroditic - they display sexual characteristics once a month, and do not know if they will be male or female. Le Guin imagines both the social consequences of this, and also two warring governments on that planet, which kind of resemble ones we might know. 


Likewise, in The Dispossessed, there are some fairly recognizable governmental organizations, and some rather familiar political issues. 


As usual, I think Le Guin’s greatest strength is in imagining different worlds that are still recognizably human. There are no true utopias or true dystopias in this book, but a variety of human societies that differ greatly but seem entirely possible - even plausible. 


In this book, there are two planets, more or less. The home planet, Urras, has a variety of countries, but is dominated by two superpowers. One is A-Io, a capitalist and patriarchal system, which seems kind of like what you would get from the Republican views of the 1970s combined with Bill Gothard’s views of women. The result is that women are entirely relegated to the home, inequality and caste are the norm, and the government is (mostly) benignly authoritarian. I think “authoritarian capitalism” would be a good way to describe it. Markets are more or less free, but the military kills thousands of dissidents. This book was written in 1974, so before China moved away from a communist economy. A-Io in many ways sounds to me like current China, with single party rule and brutal crackdowns on dissent. 


The second superpower is Thu, and it is described in a way that makes it sound like a form of authoritarian communism, Soviet or Mao-era Chinese style. However, Thu is barely mentioned in the book beyond that, and we never get to actually visit it, so to speak. Very much like the cold war of the era in which the book was written, A-Io and Thu fight proxy wars in the various third world countries on Urras. 


The other planet, or moon perhaps, Annares, was originally uninhabited. It had a few mining bases, but no permanent population. At least until a visionary female philosopher and radical, Odo, started an anarchist movement in A-Io. Eventually, the way peace was established was that Odo’s followers chose self-exile on Annares, and created their own anarchist utopia, more or less. Because of the harsh living conditions, in fact, some sort of mutuality and cooperation was necessary, because survival was not assured, and a war or two would mean extinction. 


The Odonians didn’t do things halfway either. They invented their own language, their own system of computer-generated names, a computerized system to handle the mechanics of the society, making sure food was distributed equally, jobs were available to those who volunteered (with the social understanding that everyone needed to take turns at the essential functions of the society.) There is no private property, so therefore nothing to steal. Sexuality is by consent only, with no other regulation. (Although, in practice, Odo’s suspicion of enforced monogamy as part of a male power play against females meant that the society was structured in a way that made life harder for couples who wanted lifetime commitments - as the story amply demonstrates.) Other than the administrative functions, however, they had no government, no policing, no laws to enforce. Anarchy in the sense of “no hierarchy.” And, to a degree, it works. It isn’t Utopia, though, because it is inhabited by humans. And thus, social pressure turns out to be as stultifying as rules, bureaucracy stifles innovation and ideas through inertia, certain individuals somehow end up wielding disproportionate control on an unofficial basis. And, of course, xenophobia and fear of change get in the way of positive evolution. As the subtitle (later added) of the book indicates, this is an “Ambiguous Utopia.” 


One thing I felt wasn’t addressed in Le Guin’s exploration of an anarchist society is how the society deals with certain sorts of people. Specifically, how does it handle narcissists and sociopaths? Recent events here on our own planet really brought home that a significant number of human beings, for reasons I personally do not understand, are drawn to narcissists, and are more than willing to band together with sociopaths. Presumably, the book was too small of a medium to flesh out every part of the society, which I understand. But I am curious how, in practice, an egalitarian and common-good society handles those who are incapable of understanding, let alone acting, in the common good. 


Anyway, that is the world, but the story itself centers around Shevek, an Odonian physicist, based in part on Robert Oppenheimer (who was a good friend of Le Guin’s parents.) He is brilliant, idealistic, a bit antisocial, and never fits into Odonian society completely. He is close to a breakthrough in a new kind of physics, in which time is a circle, not a line. If this were to prove true, it would lead to both instantaneous communication across the universe, and possibly faster-than-light space travel. 


The Odonian society has no interest or use for Shevek’s ideas - they prefer their near-total isolation from the rest of the universe. (There is a ship from Urras which picks up minerals from the mines, and drops off things that cannot be grown or made on Anarres, but the people never really interact.) The most influential physicist on Anarres blocks Shevek’s work, takes credit for some, and generally covers up the fact that he has no original ideas. 


Shevek eventually manages to get his book published, however, and even sent to Urras, where it becomes a sensation. He wins a prize, but is unable to receive it due to the lack of communication between the planets. 


Eventually, having reunited with some of his childhood friends, they start their own press. This leads to social stigma for them as “egoists” and even “traitors.” Eventually, Shevek decides to go visit Urras himself, even though some Odonians threaten to kill him if he tries to return. 


On Urras, he is taken in by the wealthy intellectual class of A-Io. He teaches a class, and is given carefully curated tours of the highlights of that planet. One of the things that was most poignant about this part of the story was Shevek’s first experience of animals - particularly birds. These do not exist on Anarres, having not evolved there. Some plants can be transplanted - and have been - but for the most part, the ecosystems are so different that they have little in common. Shevek also marvels at the forests, and the abundance of water. 


As much fun as this is, Shevek realizes that he isn’t actually free on Urras. Rather, the two superpowers are playing a deadly game, each determined to get a hold of Shevek’s revolutionary physics. The problem for Shevek is twofold: first, he, as a non-propertarian, does not wish to sell. Second, he wants his ideas to benefit everyone, not be used for war or profit, as the Urrians wish. 


After a catastrophic drunken - and non-consensual - sexual encounter (alcohol isn’t a thing on Anarres, but Shevek violates the most serious rules of his own society), he decides to escape his prison and meet up with the anarchist movement in A-Io. After the military massacres the protesters, he is smuggled to the Terran embassy - due to the blockade, he had no idea that the Terrans and Hainish had contacted Anarres. This allows him to return home, but we never know exactly what his reception ends up being there. 


The book is structured in a way that matches Shevek’s concept of time. The book opens with his journey to Urras, and from then on, the even numbered chapters recount Shevek’s life on Anarres prior to the trip, while the odd numbered chapters tell about his experiences on Urras. The final chapter is his journey home, which, as I said, ends without closure. 


This particular type of ending is also used in The Left Hand of Darkness. The planet there meets the Hainish for the first time, but we never learn what happens next. I feel kind of like Le Guin loved to build the world, but didn’t know or didn’t wish to end her stories. The hanging ending could be seen as a cop-out, or as an invitation to imagine what happened next. In this book, there is a bit of what feels like a deux ex machina in the existence of the Terran embassy, which we do not know about until it has to save the day. It is defensible, but it feels a bit of an easy out. 


Another thing that feels a little off is that Le Guin, despite unquestionably being a feminist, and generally writing with feminism in mind, is that the main characters in both of these books are male, and female characters seem shunted to the side for the most part. I will admit that I am looking at this from the point of view of someone nearly a half century after the book was written. Now, nobody blinks at women writing SciFi, or at female characters being blockbusters. (Hunger Games, anyone?) Perhaps one of my older readers who read SciFi back in the day might have a bit of an idea if Le Guin felt she had to write male leads in order to sell books. 


One of the best parts about reading Le Guin is her thoughtful writing. While the language is easy to read and has a pleasing clarity, it is far from simplistic. She has thought through what she writes carefully. Here are the passages that stood out to me. 


Walls are a continual metaphor in the book, and they are used in various ways. 


Like all walls, it was ambiguous, two faced. What was inside it and what was outside depended upon which side of it you were on.


In this book, as in life, this is true. We keep ourselves imprisoned when we build walls to keep others out. 


As Shevek prepares to depart, a mob of protesters (the xenophobes of Anarres) gather, and the Urrian captain asks the female foreman about it. He is confident at least in his own safety. 


He patted the thing he wore on his belt, a metal object like a deformed penis, and looked patronizingly at the unarmed woman.


A bit relevant, perhaps?


Here is another zinger, as Shevek tries to understand Urrasti society. 


“You admit no religion outside the churches, just as you admit no morality outside the laws.”


This, in a nutshell, is fundamentalism. And authoritarianism. This is the moment when I realized that A-Io was in some ways the goal of the theocratic culture wars, and the justification for them. Fundies cannot imagine that a person could be governed by morality unless they admit the existence of a higher power. And they cannot imagine that humans might be connected with the Divine outside of an authoritative structure. It is almost as if they never even heard of Jesus Christ or something…


I also found a lot of my own experience in Shevek’s analysis of his own position. 


He was alone, here [on Urras], because he came from a self-exiled society. He had always been alone on his own world because he had exiled himself from his society. 


That’s kind of the way it feels to be an exvangelical. My former tribe (wrongly, in my view) chose to cut itself off from others in society. At the time, they were a majority, persecuting a minority, but the demographics, they are a’changin’. Because I was raised in a self-exiled group, when I was myself exiled, it felt - and still often feels - like I am a man without a tribe, without that connection. It’s not exactly true, but it isn’t untrue. 


Another interesting bit is the recounting of the history of Anarres. Once Urras depleted its own mines, it became relatively cheaper to mine the uninhabited moon of Anarres. 


In the Urrasti year IX, 738 a settlement was founded at the foot of the Ne Thera Mountains, where mercury was mined, in the old Ans Hos. They called the place Anarres Town. It was not a town, there were no women.


This is an interesting observation. Out here in the West, there are a lot of old mining “towns” that are now ghost towns. Some of these became genuine towns as Le Guin means it - they had women and families and children. But others were just settlements - they could not sustain themselves in any real way. 


There are a number of humorous passages about Shevek trying to understand and adapt himself to life on Urras. Everything about the culture is foreign, from the caste differences to the use of honorifics, to, well, the whole concept of money. 


At first all this seemed funny to him; 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 the 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. 


So much in that passage. One does wonder if the indigenous peoples of the Americas felt the same way on encountering European colonizers. And, I agree that it is a deeply impoverished worldview that assumes that people are only motivated by greed, laziness, and envy. In that sense, I think Odonian society is plausible - most of us do want to contribute to the good of society. We just don’t particularly like doing boring and unpleasant tasks for starvation wages so that other people can get filthy rich. And that is mischaracterized as “laziness,” particularly by the truly lazy wealthy when talking about the poor. 


I also thought that the analysis of Odonian society by Shevek’s friend Bedap is fascinating. It is easy to forget that most of our society isn’t governed by policing and laws, but by social pressures. Bedap explains to Shevek how Sabul, the lead physicist, is able to maintain control. 


“No. We have no government, no laws, all right. But as far as I can see, ideas never were controlled by laws and governments, even on Urras. If the had been, how would Odo have worked out hers? How would Odonianism have become a world movement? The archists tried to stamp it out by force, and failed. You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you where he can, and where he can’t, he prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. Right? In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn’t any. Not from intellectual excellence, he hasn’t any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That’s the power structure he’s part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.”


Bedap goes on to say that even the educational system feeds this. Children learn to parrot Odo’s words as if they were laws, which is, of course, counter to the whole point. And then this:


“It’s always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don’t make changes, don’t risk disapproval, don’t upset your syndics. It’s always easiest to let yourself be governed.” 


The irony of Fundamentalist/Evangelicalism is that it purports to believe in “grace,” to believe that Christ abolished the law, and so on. But what really has happened is what Bedap describes. Instead, it has taken to parsing every word of the humans who wrote the Bible and treating them as laws. Which is, as Bedap notes, counter to the whole point. And Bedap is right about why. It’s just easier to find a nice safe hierarchy and let others tell you what to do then to actually be morally brave and take responsibility for what one believes and does. (And man, is it scary to have no inscrutable god to give moral cover for bad behavior and bigotry…) 


Later, Bedap explains more about how this works. People rarely refuse a posting for a job, even if they do not want to do it, and even though they are in theory free to refuse. (This is how those with power who are threatened by Shevek’s ideas get him posted apart from Takver for years.) 


“[W]e’re ashamed to say we’ve refused a posting. That the social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience, instead of striking a balance with it. We don’t cooperate - we obey. We fear being outcast, being called lazy, dysfunctional, egoizing. We fear our neighbor’s opinion more than we respect our own freedom of choice. You don’t believe me, Tak, but try, just try stepping over the line, just in imagination, and see how you feel....We have created crime, just as the propertarians did. We force a man outside the sphere of our approval, and then condemn him for it. We’ve made laws, laws of conventional behavior, built walls all around ourselves, and we can’t see them, because they’re part of our thinking.” 


This really is the paradox, the tension between the good of the community and the good of the individual. As Jonathan Haidt put it, the question of the good of the bee versus the good of the hive. In bees, the hive always wins. Humanity is more complex - both matter, and matter a lot. And we humans know that. Where we have issues is typically in how we expect these two necessities to resolve. Right now, the problem the American Right Wing has is that its idea of “good of the community” is in following fundamentalist rules that don’t really work in our society, while refusing to act in the common good in other areas, such as, say vaccination and masks to stop Covid, or civil rights laws to protect LGBTQ people. 


Le Guin sees both sides here. Clearly, Anarres has some issues. Individual freedom is true in theory, but the society has ossified, leaving choice an illusion, and change difficult or impossible. Urras, though, is also problematic. The capitalistic system excludes the lower classes from a decent life, and its patriarchy denies women freedom to follow their callings. And both are better, in the view of the Terran, who destroyed their planet and nearly caused their own extinction, through out of control capitalism and war. No system is perfect. And, perhaps most importantly - Le Guin makes this clear - no system can or should be fixed and permanent. Change is essential, or you stop growing. Which means you stop living. Societies must grow and adapt and change and incorporate new ideas. Otherwise, ideas become laws, and laws prevent adaptation.  


There is a fairly extended musing on the nature of sexual freedom and choice, found in relation to Shevek’s life partnership with Takver. As usual, Le Guin writes both sides of the question, from the point of view of those who thrive on monogamy (like me) and those for whom “experiment is the soul of sexual pleasure.” Particular kudos to Le Guin for pointing out something obvious (yet widely denied or ignored): as many men as women prefer monogamy - and as many women as men prefer non-monogamy. Also, women are every bit as sexual as men, even though individuals of both sexes vary widely. My favorite part, however, is the description of what commitment - promise - means in a truly egalitarian and free society. 


An Odonian undertook monogamy just as he might undertake a joint enterprise in production, a ballet or a soap works. Partnership was a voluntarily constituted federation like any other. So long as it worked, it worked, and if it didn’t work it stopped being. It was not an institution but a function. It had no sanction but that of private conscience. 

This was fully in accord with Odonian social theory. 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. As Odo pointed out, if no direction is taken, if one goes nowhere, no change will occur. One’s freedom to choose and to change will be unused, exactly as if one were in jail, a jail of one’s own building, a maze in which no one way is better than any other. So Odo came to see the promise, the pledge, the idea of fidelity, as essential in the complexity of freedom. 


That is about as good of a description of how my wife and I approach our marriage as any. Yes, we pledged monogamy, because we wanted to. And at the same time, I have been clear that if marriage to me makes her miserable, I would release her from any promise. Marriage to me is not so much an institution as a function. Marriage was made for humankind, not the other way around, as someone famous once said. 


So many great social questions in this book too. At one point, there is a drought and mild famine on Anarres - they aren’t entirely uncommon, and are dealt with through rationing. While the central computer tries to make sure everyone gets food, if a train breaks down, things go awry. (If you think our own society is immune from this, you are delusional. Particularly after the first Covid surge last year, when supermarkets were cleaned out in a day - you literally could not find meat or eggs or many staples. For weeks!) In the midst of one, Shevek wonders whether Odonian society would be able to weather a worse famine without a breakdown of the solidarity which is the society’s strength. Would things erupt into violence? Would people choose their own children over others? And, as he noted, it wasn’t just violence, but violence’s “most devoted ally, the averted eye.” Which is all too true of our own society. 


I mentioned above the use of proxy wars. Here is the amusing exchange between Shevek and fellow physicist Pae. 


“I see. So your army and Thu’s army will fight in Benbili. But not here?”

“No, no. It would be utter folly for them to invade us, or us them. We’ve outgrown the kind of barbarism that used to bring war into the heart of the high civilizations! The balance of power is kept by this kind of police action.”


Mic drop. This is precisely the Cold War and its proxy actions. Just like so many of our current wars are, to a significant degree, proxy actions for influence between the greater powers. Yes, including the “War on Terror.” Those third world people are expendable, right? Go get that oil…


This is my second Le Guin book, and I must admit that I refer to the first one all the time. I suspect this one will be the same. Her ideas - and her thoughtful working out of those ideas in nuanced and non-simplistic ways - are unforgettable. Because they draw on human psychology, they never seem fantastic, but instead potentially realistic. This true imagination of what might be, what could be, is the very best kind of utopianism. Her societies are far from perfect. But she encourages us to think of a future that we might create. Perhaps one where gender roles are abolished. Or one where mutuality and cooperation replace hierarchy. Or even just one where we understand that we cannot destroy the nature that we are part of without destroying ourselves. In our present time, we are so in need of a willingness to work toward what might be, to imagine, hope for, and create a better tomorrow. 



  1. One of my all time favorite novels. Really appreciated your commentary on it - especially as a fellow "exvangelical".

    1. It's always good to find another Le Guin fan, and an exvangelical.

  2. The variations in science fiction are huge & interesting in themselves.
    The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin is a story of economic dichotomies.
    Voyage from Yesteryear by James Hogan is similar in theme but vastly different in detail.
    Hogan wrote hard SF.

    Voyage from Yesteryear is a 1982 science fiction novel by British writer James P. Hogan.

    Since The Dispossessed was from 1974 there is no influence from the microelectronic revolution. But VfY is from 1982 and Hogan knew computers so the future society cut off from history is more technologically realistic. However in the real world that we must live in we have technology but are stuck with the dead hand of history.