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Ana said she’d like to hear what I thought of ‘The Dispossessed’ by Ursula K Le Guin (I suspect she is looking forward to hearing about how I have come to my senses on the Le Guin matter – alright you were right :P). I want to put together something, especially as Le Guin is a woman writing sci-fi and right now certain parts of the UK sci-fi community are looking around, wondering where all the women are*, but I’ve read quite a few books since I finished ‘The Dispossessed’ and it is a complex book to review even when all the pieces are spinning vibrantly in your mind. So, my thoughts here are going to be focused on providing a broad outline of the main chain of ideas that I noticed when I read ‘The Dispossessed’, rather than an in depth analysis of the human relationships, the writing, or more specific components of those ideas. Let’s see how this goes shall we?

‘The Dispossessed’ follows a gifted physicist named Shevek, as he travels from his home planet Urras to a planet called Anarres. Annarres is Urras’ moon and was settled by colonists when anarchists on Urras decided they needed to follow the path of their leader Odo by creating a new, fairer society. Shevek believes he is returning to Urras to encourage the sharing of scientific knowledge between the two planets, as Anarres culture (which initially sounds much like an ideal vision of a communist society) has imbued him with the idea that sharing resources freely is fundamental to a healthy society. However, as the reader learns more about Shevek’s life on Anarres and his time on Urras, it becomes apparent that Shevek’s motivations and his current work are more subtle than this idea of sharing might imply.

Shevek has come to Urras to forge a General Temporal Theory, ‘the unification of Sequency and Simultaneity ’. Shevek is responsible for creating the Simultaneity Principle and explains the idea behind his earlier breakthrough best when he uses a metaphor about books and pages, so here are his articulate words:

‘Well we think that time ‘passes’, flows past us, but what if it is we who move forward, from past to future, always discovering the new? It would be a little, like reading a book you see. The book is all there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order. So the universe would be a very great book, and we would be very small readers.’
Shevek’s Simultaneity Theory is a perceptive metaphor for how people experience life. Each new person arrives into a fixed world, but as they grow each person feels they are discovering new things. A teenager suddenly discovers anti-capitalist theories and they think they’re discovering something new. ‘Why has no one ever thought like this?’ they wonder. Of course, as they grow they realise their brave new ideas have been well established for decades, it’s just that world economics continue to operate on a capitalist model. That doesn’t stop them from getting to their twenties, generating another idea and seeing it as revolutionary, even if again it’s been long understood. Shevek’s own life story, from his early childhood on Anarres to his decision to go to Urras, is told in chapters that alternate with chapters about his experience on Urrass. As he grows his understanding of how Anarres society operates develops. Anarres societal structures stay the same way they have been since Shevek was a child, with all their problems, but he discovers these flaws almost as if they were new. Shevek’s life story is, in its simplest interpretation, an example of the Simultaneity Principle at work in everyone’s lives.

Le Guin offers her reader a science fiction metaphor that proposes an explanation for how people experience life and presents a detailed study of one life that illustrates and humanises that metaphor. Just looking at this one strand of exploration shows that ‘The Dispossessed’ contains some thinky thoughts. If the patterns of personal development was the only idea this novel dug into it would be a satisfying novel to engage with, especially as the novel focuses on Shevek who is a strangely like able character to follow despite his remoteness and his idealism. Still, it’s fun to read a science fiction novel that contains multiple ideas, which turn up in every part of of the novels workings. ‘The Dispossessed’ is getting its intellect on and it wants readers to KEEP UP!

Shevek’s scientific principle doubles as a metaphor for Marxist theories of history. Wikipedia will now explain Marx’s theory of historical materialism to you in full. In brief, he felt that history was made up of a number of identifiable economic stages, each one characterised by particular material conditions. Each set of conditions led to circumstances that caused the destruction of each economic model and encouraged the growth of a nw economic model. Marx believed that circumstances would eventually create a dominant communist economic model. The pages that the reader keeps turning represent different stages of material circumstances. The book represents an over arching historical time line and the future time line, which Shevek’s metaphor suggests is fixed with a predetermined ending. Readers move through the book, just as society moves through history, discovering more as they go along, but the book has already been written and it has a set end point. Marx thought that he had identified all the stages that had already taken place and that he could predict which stages would follow. In his theory of material circumstances, he predicted that the state of material conditions would cease to change once a communist model of circumstances dominated the world. In Shevek’s metaphor communism would be the end of the story.

Le Guin uses her fictional societies on Urras and Anarres to set up a Marxist commentary on systems of society. First a very important caveat: I have to admit that when we ran through introductory modules to schools of historical study and literary criticism at uni, Marxist theories of analysis were the ones I paid the least attention to. I did read some of The Communist manifesto, I did study Marx’s theories on stages of history, but I did so with little joy. To eighteen year old me, The Industrial Revolution (which our introductory module focused on) seemed like a snooze fest, full of problems that my set texts were reluctant to criticise. So, when I talk about how Le Guin’s anarchist utopian society on Anarras represents Marxist theories I do so from a very shallow knowledge base. Robin Edman on the Dreams and Speculation ‘Women of Sci-fi’ discussion thread said that the anarchist society on Anarras ‘degrades into communism’, implying a separation between schools of anarchist thought and communism, or Marxism and I think I’m going to try to keep the idea that there is some distinction in mind as I write my thoughts. Otherwise I guess I’ll just hold up my hands and say ‘there may be some glaring inaccuracies here, please correct them as you find them’.

Urras contains a system of nationalist societies that in some ways represent those found on Earth. It also operates a capitalist system of trade, which influences all other areas of life. Racial, gender and class inequalities are common. In contrast Anarres operates an anarchist society where everything is shared. People generally live in dormitories, eat communally and only take as much as they need. Everyone takes part in work rotations, so that they all share in the upkeep of society. That all sounds like the standard trappings of a communist society and it’s a little complicated to explain how Urras’ system of society differs from traditional conceptions of communist societies, without going into the details of how every aspect of Anarres society is set up. The key difference between Anarres’ anarchy and a communist society from history, like 1930s communist Russia is that on Anarres people only share voluntarily.

So, women choose to share themselves with a variety of sexual partners. Parents choose to send their children to live in collective places, instead of keeping them at home. everyone shares the hard times, as well as the good. When a prolonged drought decimates crops everyone in Anarres society shares the discomfort equally. Those who don’t participate are not reprimanded, shunned, or shamed. Although Anarres society will necessarily display displeasure, this displeasure is a manifestation of how citizen’s are free to act as they wish (although culture regulates citizens from behaving in physically harmful ways, without impinging on their freedom) not an attempt to bring those who won’t share back in line. The idea of sharing freely was one of the ideas behind Russia’s communist society, but during Stalin’s rule the governing forces relied on enforcement of those ideas, while in Anarres these choices are supposed to be made voluntarily with co-operation from citizens. That’s the theory anyway, although as the book goes on the reader sees how this theory has been quietly breaking away from the early ideals.

Shevek’s science fiction theories are the centre of the novel and encourage the reader to discover the ideas I’ve outlined. However, the intellectual appeal of ‘The Dispossessed' doesn’t end with Shevek’s ideas. I mentioned the narrative of Shevek’s life seems to provide evidence for his Simultaneity Principle. As the book progresses the narrative structure is revealed as Le Guin’s attempt to plot out of the pattern of the Simultaneity Principle in her chapters, narrative lines of investigation, tense and story choices. There are two linear narrative lines. The first narrative line is set in the present, where Shevek works on Urras, which progresses in a linear manner. The second narrative line is set in the past, following Shevek on Anarres and again moves in a linear fashion. The narratives are told in alternating chapters. So, we’ve got two narratives one present, one past that through their intermingling alternate chapters come close to existing at the same time, like the present and the past do according to Shevek’s principle. The present narrative moves in a constantly linear direction, as a person traveling through the present does according to the principle. The past narrative continues to reassert its existence even as the present narrative keeps going, just like the principle.

Connecting narrative structure to ideas within the novel, transforms the structure into an active part of the novel. The revelation that the structure is connected to the science fiction ideas is surprising, as all the best meta should be, delighting the reader with a sense of cleverness and wonder at trickery concealed until the appropriate point. Once the reader notices that Le Guin has taken to connect structure and rhetoric, the crafting of ‘The Dispossessed’ takes on a newly rigorous appearance. It becomes clear how deliberate each writing decision must have been to create a structure that reflects the novel’s ideas, instead of wandering off where ever it fancies.

As ‘The Dispossessed’ comes to a close Shevek is running from the people of Urras, desperate to return to Anarres, yet through the chapters set in the past the reader has seen that Anarres utopian ideals have been gently twisted. Corruption would be too strong a word, but the society no longer operates in the pure way Odo wanted it to and Shevek is too much of an idealist (and I mean that kindly, with approval even if I never could be an idealist of Shevek’s kind) to be satisfied with a mildly flawed society. At this point he meets an Ambassador Keng from Terra, who provides some clarity on his dislike of Urras:

‘ “Now, you man from a world I cannot even imagine, you who see my Paradise as Hell, will you ask what my world must be like?”
Sheveck was silent, watching her, his light eyes steady.
“My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves.” '
There’s a clear didactic message for the reader in Keng’s comments about Terra’s fate, identified by Keng as the direct substitute for the Earth we all know by her use of Earth as a name and by the use of Terra as the Urras name for the planet. Much like Charlton Heston’s ‘You maniacs! You blew it up!’ speech at the end of Planet of the Apes, Earth was destroyed by its own people’s appetites. However, the fate of Terra is a minor note, not a major plot point. The didactic commentary that relates to the novel’s sustained metaphorical plot ideas is Shevek’s rebuttal to Keng’s idea that Urras is like paradise.

Each planet Terra, Urras, Anarres represents a stage in the development of history and how society works. Terra is an old stage collapsed, Urras is the capitalist present and Anarres the anarchist/communist future, representing Marx’s idea that collapsing stages of economic circumstances lead to the creation of new economic epochs. Shevek alludes to the importance of past and future stages in Marx’s theory in this passage:

‘ ”You can’t understand what time is,” he said. “You say the past is gone, the future is not real, there is no change, no hope. You think Anarres is a future that cannot be reached, as your past cannot be changed. So there is nothing but the present, this Urras, the rich real stable present, the moment now. And you think that it is something that can be possessed! You envy it a little. You think it’s something you would like to have. But it is not real, you know. It is not stable, not solid – nothing is. Things change, change. You cannot have anything.... ’
Then he reinforces that each stage is dependent on and leads to the next when he says later that ‘least of all can you have the present, unless you accept with it the past and the future.’ and he reminds the reader that each stage collapses when he says ‘it’s not stable, not solid’. Through the device of placing different stages of development on different planets that remain in the same universe Le Guin reminds readers that each stage continues to exist as parts of the same grand progressive narrative, as pages do in a book even after a reader has moved to new pages. Shevek’s Simultaneity Principle is in operation and nothing can be achieved without an appreciation and acknowledgment of the wider narrative.

By Shevek’s logic nothing can be created in the present without a proper understanding of the past and the future; nothing can be maintained in the present. He provides a damning savaging that could easily be seen as an argument against the sense of security and finality that capitalist systems promise to provide. Although it seems weird to talk about that sense of security during a recession I’m not sure recession has really rocked the majority’s ideas about capitalism and the end of this speech by Sheveck seems to agree that people may not really want change from this system:

‘You are right, we are the key. But when you said that, you didn’t really believe it. You don’t believe in Anarres. You don’t believe in me, though I stand with you in this room, this moment...’

None of the ‘stage planets’ matches the ideal in this book and Shevek vows to build a new society that works based on Odo’s pure ideas. As Robin Edman put forward the idea that Anarres degrades into communism, I would suggest that the reader is being shown that communism could never be the end of history’s development as Marx predicted. Instead Le Guin proposes a continuum of development that never ends, unlike the book that Shevek used to illustrate his Simultaneity Principle. A sci-fi author, with a continued interest in how the future might develop – all is right with the world then!

* just to note that there were many cool for cats women who had already noticed this and have been doing work in the sci-fi arena for a long time

Other Reviews

Asking the Wrong Questions
Dreams and Speculations

Date: 2011-06-25 10:54 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
I actually feel like a bit of a fraud here, because I have not, in fact, read this book. But you make it sound remarkably like what I've come to expect from Le Guin in terms of exploring complex ideas and possibilities. My own knowledge of Marxism leaves a lot to be desired, but I like your point about a continuum of evolution rather than any given system being the final stage.

Now you must read Lavinia! I wish my copy was here so I could impose it on you next weekend :P

Date: 2011-06-29 07:22 am (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Argh hard question! I love them both, so I'll say it depends on your reading mood. The Left Hand of Darkness is definitely a challenging read, so you need to be in the mood for that. It took me two attempts to read it, and even the second time around I had to really push myself to go on. It's not that it's boring or not well written or anything like that, and it does get easier after 150 pages or so. But the initially alien and inhospitable world Le Guin created (which serves a purpose, but still) does take some ploughing through. Lavinia, on the other hand, is incredibly accessible but no less smart.

And no, not pushy! I think all four of us are the kind of person who goes NEW BOOKS SQUEEEEEE 99% of the time :P

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