The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed
by Laurence Davis
Review by Ernest Lilley
Lexington Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0739110861
Date: 28 October, 2005 List Price $24.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
I loved The Dispossessed when I first read it, and still do, a trick not every SF title from years gone by manages. It was my first LeGuin, though far from my last, and she immediately went onto the short list of authors I'd recommend to anyone who'd give me half a chance. Once while driving along I heard the author being interviewed and nearly drove off the road when I heard her say that when she met men in bookstores with her books they invariably shied away from admitting they were buying the books for themselves, but for someone younger, and probably female. I may have those details wrong, but I clearly remember my distress. Hey! I'm here. I like your work and wouldn't ask you to change for the world. Honest. Ok, I never was able to get into The Left Hand of Darkness, and the fourth Earthsea book made me wish for more stories where Ged was center stage, but really...I love your stuff. The Lathe of Heaven totally rocks. Even the PBS TV Movie version, lost for decades but found again at the turn of the century, rocks (See Review).
So, when this collection of essays about The Dispossessed came out I stood at the front of the line to read it. Despite the seminar I read it in, I know I really read it as a novel, not a political study. I read quite a few utopian novels that way, quite unaware that I was supposed to be analyzing the utility of their political theories. To me, they all seemed pretty unlikely from a practical standpoint, generally depending on "common sense" to keep all manner of bad things from happening. As for anarchists, I always say, "Lie down with anarchists, get up with warlords" or in the case of socialist anarchists, even worse...nannies. As I said, I'm sure I'm missing the point, and my apologies to slighted groups. Compared to the authors of these essays, I'm a bear of little brain...but one who really would like to understand a little more.
So I waded in, genuinely curious about where the "utopia" part came in, however ambiguously. Which planet is the utopia? The dry, harsh moon world of Annares, where everyone is free and acts like a slave to the state or the lush world of Urras, where consumerism reigns, and the world suffers from the traditional diseases of plenty? The only unambiguous utopia I found in the book was the one inside the central character's head. Shevek the dissident physicist who is able to see beyond the paradoxes of simultaneity and linearity in time, both for physics and for the peoples of the two cultures he travels between. Like relatives who have had a falling out, each appears to be all too eager to deny their relationship with the other, to isolate themselves in the moment where there is no common past to draw on, or any shared future to look forward to. I remain tremendously engaged by Shevek's ability to look past the artificial boundaries of both physics and society to grasp the whole at once. Indeed, this view is also explored in the essays.
Does anarchy require scarcity to flourish? One might have naively thought otherwise, but a fair amount of thought is given to this notion, and the idea that book is a thought experiment to examine this. I can see how it might be so, where the common goal is both clear and desperate one might think that a community might self organize equably. It's just a good thing that Annares doesn't have oil or other precious resources. Or maybe, as discussed by Douglas Spencer, the two worlds are set up as models to examine the relationship between possessions and persons, with two extremes in close proximity specifically to generate tensions, both dramatic and philosophical. One of the things that I got out of this collection was a deeper respect for the author's methods. I'd no idea that she'd immersed herself in both writings on anarchy and temporal theory, until it poured out of her fingers back onto the page, but here, folks who know something about pay their respects for her own contribution to these fields. And it goes on and on and on. There's just a lot here to read and ponder, and though I've been through it at least once, I'm looking forward to going through it again...as soon as I finish re-reading the novel that spawned all this discussion in the first place.
I was delighted to find that these essays deepened and expanded my appreciation of both work and author, and to find that my own thoughts on it were often not far off their mark. Rather than coming away thinking that I'd missed the whole point, I put this volume down feeling that I'd come to understand an old friend better, and respected him (gender apologies to Ms. LeGuin) all the more for it.
The best moment for me came at the end, where a communication from the author herself appears in an essay entitled, "A Response, by Ansible, from Tau Ceti". She too found that the essay's offered her more understanding of her own work, without taking it's identity away. She also graciously confessions that she too reads utopian literature as novels, and (though I find this suspect) that "her capacity for sustained abstract thought is somewhat above that of a spaniel." Were my capacity as great as the spaniel to begin with.
So, recommendations. If you've read The Dispossessed and I fancy you have, or you wouldn't have gotten this far, by all means read this as well. Then go back, as I'm doing, and reread the novel. Rest assured that this will not tell you everything there is to know about the story, time, anarchy, utopia, or Ursula LeGuin. Rather it will build a stronger house for you to open the doors too, so that more ideas might wander in and out. Also, keep in mind that you don't have to be temporal physicist or political scientist to get a lot out of this book. Even if the novel was just a "good read" for you, you'll find that the ideas in it have probably sunk in deeper than you realize. Deep enough so that some of the ideas in this collection won't so much surprise you as affirm your own ideas.