The other day I picked up Ursula K Le Guin’s science fiction masterpiece The Dispossessed. It was the only novel of her Hainish cycle that I’d never read (for shame!!), although it’s been on my radar for years. My friend Misty warned me after I was a few pages into it that her copy was seriously underlined (she’s a great highlighter of quotes) and that I was going to enjoy it.
I loved it much more than I could have anticipated. In fact, at many points during the second half of the novel, I literally found myself thinking, “This book is about ME!,” like some teenage girl finding her first pop-music love. In this case it was clear I’d stumbled upon exactly the book I needed at this moment in time. As I finished the final exhilarating chapters, I was already composing this post in my head: what would become the first entry in my One Person Book Club. If you like reading, go ahead and join me, and come back to this post later! If not, read on for my reactions, thoughts, and analysis of the themes and characters. Or don’t, I’m not your mom. But I do hope you find this interesting and relevant. I know I did.
Read on!… and on!… and on! (It’s a long one, folks!):
[Note: A hearty THANK YOU! to all my friends willing to provide some much needed constructive criticism! Dennis, Misty, Steve, Kate, Lex, and Ally, I appreciate your time and suggestions. It’s still a bit of a mess, but hopefully not quite as disorganized – thanks to you.]
Background: The Hainish Cycle, Background of The Dispossessed, and Political History of Urras
The Hainish Cycle
This book takes place in a universe that LeGuin has been slowly fleshing out since the mid-70’s with novels and short stories. It is not a saga or cycle at all, she has mentioned, and her soft approach to science fiction (‘soft’ interpreted as having primarily anthropological or sociological themes) avoids call-outs and references to other worlds, peoples or technologies. Each story is centered on a world or two and take time expanding and elaborating on the customs, politics, and other ‘soft’ sciences practiced therein.
The basic story of this universe is that a long, long time ago the Hainish people seeded many sectors of the galaxy with their genetic code, which was sometimes manipulated in some way. Connections between worlds were eventually lost and, after a dark period, humans and their genetic descendants are starting to build bridges between their homes once more. In the meantime, things have changed for many of the Hainish’s genetic offspring….
The Dispossessed is the first book, chronologically speaking, to occur in this universe, and contains the invention of one item that has come into common usage, the ‘kleenex’ of the science fiction writing community: the ansible. This concept eventually leads to the creation of a League of All Worlds in this universe.
Background of The Dispossessed
Le Guin already had a reputation as a brilliant and insightful writer by the time she published The Dispossessed in 1974. Much of the book’s narrative can be directly traced to roots in the 60s and 70’s, including reform movements in America, the Cold War, and Vietnam.
From the ideologically opposed nations (A-Io (on Urras) and Annaras, mirroring the Soviet-American relationship) to anti-war riots in the streets (Kent State and the Student Anti-war movement), and even a broad interpretation of Benbili (another country on Urras) standing in for South-east Asia at the time, Le Guin’s novel is a clear response to the current political events.
Political History of Urras and Annaras
Almost 200 years ago, the nation of A-Io, located on the planet Urras, banished a political dissident and her followers to the moon in exchange for peace (the Odonians). The 170 years since that moment to the beginning of the book, not one person from either planet has ever set foot on the other. The revolutionaries named their new home Annaras and were allowed to set up a government as they wished. All ownership was banned and the language was modified to eliminate the concept. There are several severe materials shortages, but the society persists until the present day.
Meanwhile, the political situation on Urras. From Wikipedia:
Urras is divided into several states which are dominated by the two largest ones, which are rivals. In a clear allusion to the United States (represented by A-Io) and the Soviet Union (represented by Thu), one has a capitalist economy and patriarchal system and the other is an authoritarian system that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat. Further developing the analogy, there is in A-Io an oppositional left-wing party which is closely linked to and supporting the rival Thu, as were Communist parties in the US and other Western countries at the time of writing. Beyond that, there is a third major, though underdeveloped, area called Benbili — when a revolution supported by Thu breaks out there, A-Io invades, generating a proxy war. Thus, Benbili comes to represent south-east Asia, an allusion to the Vietnam War.
I probably couldn’t really say it much better, so there you have it.
Let’s get into it!
Journeys and Traveling
First and foremost, this is a book about traveling and culture shock. The main character, Shevek, takes a lonely, politically divisive trip from his planet Anarres, the habitable moon of a larger planet in the Cetian system, to the planet his society’s settlers originated from 170 years prior, Urras, in order to finish his life’s research. Early in Shevek’s childhood a friend points out the inverted nature of their relationship to the home planet and the power of perspective:
“I never thought before,” said Tirin unruffled, “of the fact that there are people sitting on a hill, up there, on Urras, looking at Anarres, at us, and saying, ‘Look, there’s the Moon.’ Our earth is their Moon; our Moon is their earth.” “Where, then, is Truth?” declaimed Bedap, and yawned. “In the hill one happens to be sitting on,” said Tirin.
Both the philosophy of Shevek’s traveling and the coming structure of the book is summed up in his thoughts as the interstellar freighter lifts off the ground and his travels to another planet/culture commence, “He would always be one for whom the return was as important as the voyage out. …that indeed the very nature of the voyage, like a circumnavigation of the globe, implied return.”
This basic realization grounds him and makes leaving his friends, family, home, and culture possible. Without it he might not be able to leave, no matter the power and importance he attached to his (admittedly important and powerful) research into time. I agree – I may never move back to Chicago, physically, but my friends and family there are my ultimate end point. How could they not be? My journey is like Shevek’s, a circle that contains the end in the beginning. His end is a physical point in space, but the idea is no less valid for an emotional journey. In a conversation he has with a fellow Odonian (the political group that founded Annares), he explains the ultimate end point, revealing an understanding of this circular journey and giving credence to his need to travel and have new experiences, no matter how scary:
And in the end we’ll die. That’s the condition we’re born on. I’m afraid of life! There are times I — I am very frightened. Any happiness seems trivial. And yet, I wonder if it isn’t all a misunderstanding — this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain. … If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could … get through it, go beyond it.
He finds himself challenging conventional thinking about life itself and new experiences, a character trait that serves him well throughout his life. I try to emulate this desire to feel more and push through. Every experience I have, I must have – without it I could never reach the place beyond it
The structure of the book alternates between planets and timelines in each chapter – chapters 1 and 13 concern Shevek leaving Annares for Urras and returning, respectively, and take place on and between both worlds.
Even-numbered chapters begin with Shevek’s childhood in this anarcho-communnist society and proceed linearly to the moment that he and his partner-wife, Takver, decide jointly that the only thing he can do is to leave their home and go to Urrass – following this monumental decision, we have chapter 13 where Shevek returns to Annares, this time with an interplanetary visitor, to reunite with his wife-partner and children, the circle and his work complete.
Odd-numbered chapters in between take place on Urras as Shevek struggles to survive in his culturally alien home, and also attempts to wrestle his grand unified temporal theory into a workable system. It’s in these contrasts between the past and future, both literally leading to the time of his departure and return, that the reader finds each piece of Shevek’s experience – not always in linear order. It’s a sublime structure that reinforces many of the main themes of the book, and also serves as a fitting description of Shevek’s view of time (which, in his theory, contains both the past, present, and future at any one time while also involving ethics, philosophy, and human intention). He tries to distill his idea of Time in a conversation with Takver, “…unless the past and the future were made part of the present by memory and intention, there was, in human terms, no road, nowhere to go.”
As we learn about Shevek’s memories and intentions, we understand his experience and the future he envisions while spending time on Urras, and both his departure and return to Annares become more weighty. The journey itself becomes a final part of a much longer journey, the journey of Shevek’s life. It becomes inextricably bound together, leading out, out into the vastness of space and the rest of humanity, which will soon to be linked together as never before due entirely to his work as a physicist.
My journey will have no such profound consequences, unless you imagine that my own edification and new experiences are the ideal end result (and I do). I believe that I could never have come here to Vietnam if the past 31 years hadn’t happened just so. Like the leaf that blows into Clara’s father’s face in the past season of Doctor Who (UGH I KNOW, DEAL), every individual event of our lives is sacred and important. The success and failure I’ve had in the past has only served to bring me to the happiness of my present point, and each choice I make in this stage of my life will bring me to the future. It seems entirely not worth talking about, and yet paying attention to the future (intentions and all) will inform my actions in the present, which are supported by my actions in the past. Ok, I think I’ve bs-ed about this long enough. Let’s get on with it!
Government, Politics, and Ownership
This book also dealt with the breaking away of one segment of a population that dissented to the political system on ethical and moral grounds. 170 years later, these two planets are at odds again, as A-Io attempt to “purchase” Shevek and his imminent temporal theory (he’s already revolutionized physics on Urras from his home on the moon twice by the time the book starts) with a cushy job, great apartment, an esteemed professorship, and money – all of which means less than nothing to the Anarcho-communist physicist, who is wholly unaccustomed to owning material goods.
He describes his first jarring encounter with an A-Io citizen [where the concept of private property reigns supreme]: “He had no right to tease them. They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed.”
NAME OF BOOK… sort of. He weighs this love of ownership against his own culture, where even the language has been carefully constructed to eliminate My, Yours, and the concept of ownership itself. No one on Annares eats without his neighbor eating, and there is no centralization of government – the culture planet-wide is regarded as a “social organism.”
These Odonians were a anarcho-communist faction that proceeded to set up a society on the habitable moon and invent a language to express their ideas and moral imperatives:
Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise: for though only the society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person, had the power of moral choice — the power of change, the essential function of life. The Odonian society was conceived as a permanent revolution, and revolution begins in the thinking mind. [emphasis added]
Urras itself is a large planet consisting of three major nations, as noted in the Introduction – the capitalist propertarians of A-Io, the communist country of Thu, and the Benbili, who are invaded by the Thu and seem to stand in for Vietnam. The A-Io government becomes involved in a proxy war, attempting to stop the spread of communist ideas into Benbili, and the lower-classes of the population eventually rise up against the war effort, supported by Shevek and his popular ideas about property and the brotherhood of humanity. It’s a bloody affair that results in his seeking asylum in the Terran Embassy.
Vietnam is a special place: it is, in name, a socialist republic, it speaks like a communist government, and it acts like a capitalist wonderland. People here will do anything for a buck, and shame? I’m not sure shame is even recognized where money is concerned. Shortly after I arrived I paid 5 dollars for a coconut that was worth .50, TOPS (I hadn’t seen one for sale yet – total newbie). I was cheated, but as I handed over my money I thought, wow, the guy sure knew his mark – I was half delirious with sweat, heat, and humidity, and I basically would have given him my entire wallet right there if he gave me enough water.
The idea of property ownership is very strong here – Viets don’t generally rent, or so I have been told. When you own something, it’s yours, and while there are certain social safety nets, they don’t always function that well for the very poor. The very rich, however, have a secondary, better system that suits them, so this arrangement will likely go on in perpetuity, until someone makes a big enough stink about it. As a foreign teacher, I can’t really get involved – I can have no stake in this fight. But it sure is interesting to watch and learn about. Vietnam is a pretty intriguing place.
Communication and Distance
Another major theme I found myself identifying with was the invention of the Ansible, which is an interstellar communication machine. Shevek invents the theory behind it in order to spread ideas freely, equally, and instantaneously throughout the universe, serving all of humanity’s descendants. Here Shevek describes his rather floral ideas about the nature of ideas, which also contains the seeds of the idea for his ultimate revolution – releasing the ansible to the entire galaxy and all humankind: “…is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass, It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”
The idea that communication should be free, easy, and instantaneous made me think. I mean, obviously, right? But I live in a country that is literally on the OTHER SIDE of the PLANET from my home – roughly ~13,500 miles away. It’s not Mars or Ceti, but it’s farther from my friends and family than I’ve ever gone.
And yet – all I have to do is pick up Skype or Viber and I can talk, in real time, for any length of time, to anyone on the other end of the line, all for free. Presumably, I have complete freedom of speech. The reality, however, is that I am an American living in a Communist country, which means that I’d better watch what I say doubly.
The United States has made many attempts to destroy, hide, or obfuscate ideas they disagree with (and the people that disseminate them) in recent years, which runs counter to the nature of ideas that Shevek describes, and arguably against the very ideas our country was founded on. These are only a smattering of the existing examples:
- The case of Aaron Schwartz releasing taxpayer-funded scientific papers to the public domain, for which he was found guilty of computer hacking crimes and subsequently committed suicide;
- The Federal government’s attempt to seize the 3D printer plans for a printed gun (leading to the inevitable question: do they actually understand how the internet works??);
- The Federal government’s blatant spy machine turning on its own citizens;
- The Federal government’s prosecution of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden.
The Urrasti government does not want to use Shevek’s research for an ansible – their goal is to control the technology and use it to transport troops and dominate trade, not share with their fellow humans.
The Anarrasti do not want his research because of the potentially politically polluting influences such freedom of information and communication could bring to Annares (they accept no new settlers and have no wide-spread contact with any other world or government. Shevek’s departure to Urras to finish his research is a political crisis, the results of which we never see).
Shevek’s only option (after helping validate an enormous A-Io uprising of New Odonians against the war effort), in a deeply ironic plot point, is to release the information via the Terran [Earth] Ambassador, who describes her [our] planet thusly:
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. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert… We survive there, as you do. People are tough! There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion.
What is an ansible, she asks? He responds:
An idea.” He smiled without much humor. “It will be a device that will permit communication without any time interval between two points in space. The device will not transmit messages, of course; simultaneity is identity. But to our perceptions, that simultaneity will function as a transmission, a sending. So we will be able to use it to talk between worlds, without the long waiting for the message to go and the reply to return that electromagnetic impulses require.
The coming communications revolution is described by the ambassador, “We have been held apart by the years, the decades between leaving and arriving, between question and response. It’s as if you had invented human speech!”
Or maybe the intergalactic telephone. Our ability to communicate and act on that communication is predicated on the fact that here on Earth, no enormous stretch of time will pass between sending and receiving. We can only hope that as we travel into space and spread among the stars that we retain the ability to communicate freely. Without a healthy give and take, and the ability and willingness to let the grass of ideas be trod on and thrive, we will become isolated and lose our connections to our roots. I intend to maintain that connection as I travel across the face of our own planet – I’ve got it much easier than Shevek.
In some ways this book is an attempt to write a utopian novel in the vein of Erehwon, which is a genre that has seen little interest in the last 60 years – a solitary traveler goes to a new community with a different system of governance and ethics, and struggles to comprehend and document his feelings and experiences. As we learn from the chapters dealing with Shevek’s past, however, Annares is decidedly no utopia, enduring rising political bureaucracy, the seeds of authoritarianism, and several serious material shortages. She ends the book by suggesting that such a utopia is not possible, but that systems that take moral and ethical considerations into account are, on the whole, better able to serve their citizens. As Bedap notes, each step a government takes is twice as hard to undo:
Bedap was right: every emergency, every labor draft even, tends to leave behind it an increment of bureaucratic machinery within PDC, and a kind of rigidity: this is the way it was done, this is the way it is done, this is the way it has to be done…
As we Americans deal with the fallout of our beloved Patriot Act, enacted 12 years ago in a national jingoistic freak-out and at this point seemingly unstoppable, we must remember what Le Guin points out here: even in a culture that supposedly values independence, freedom, and expression of the individual, there will be entities to whom those values run counter to their own goals and will try to curtail them for their own benefit (which is actually fairly American, I’m ashamed to admit). The worst, however, is how we police ourselves:
…we’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.
There is hope, however, as Shevek notes before his decision to depart for Urras:
Sabul [a character that attempts to subvert Shevek and his research for his own gain, contrary to Odonian ethics] chooses for us. Our own, internalized Sabul — convention, moralism, fear of social ostracism, fear of being different, fear of being free! Well, never again. I learn slowly, but I learn.
I often feel the same way. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, though… I’m not learning fast enough.
The Arts and Language in Annaresti Culture
Interestingly, the only art recognized as Art on Annares is that of theatre – all other forms of artistic expression are regarded largely as functional areas dedicated to the health of the social organism. As Le Guin describes:
Painting and sculpture served largely as elements of architecture and town planning. As for the arts of words, poetry and storytelling tended to be ephemeral, to be linked with song and dancing; only the theater stood wholly alone, and only the theater was ever called “the Art” — a thing complete in itself. There were many regional and traveling troupes of actors and dancers, repertory companies, very often with playwright attached. They performed tragedies, semi-improvised comedies, mimes. They were as welcome as rain in the lonely desert towns, they were the glory of the year wherever they came. Rising out of and embodying the isolation and communality of the Anarresti spirit, the drama had attained extraordinary power and brilliance.
Can’t say I disagree with her ideas – theatre’s always been the only thing, to me, that is so fully inextricable from itself that attempting to make it serve any function but spiritual edification is nearly impossible. It’s simultaneously the most versatile and most difficult of arts – if only because it depends so utterly upon purity of human communication to succeed. You can muddle through the act of creating theatre, but it’s a damn awful experience.
It also plays well into the constructed language that the Odonians invented to express their cultural values. The invention of Pravic (the constructed language of Annares) has a number of artistic-yet-exact uses after 170 years, including the use of new and interesting metaphors shaped by the social organism and by, in this case, by the complete lack of animal life on Annares:
The word he used was not “wallowing,” there being no animals on Anarres to make wallows; it was a compound, meaning literally “coating continually and thickly with excrement.” The flexibility and precision of Pravic lent itself to the creation of vivid metaphors quite unforeseen by its inventors.
Regarding possessions, the language has been altered to eliminate the very idea of property, for instance, “You may use the handkerchief I use” rather than “Use my handkerchief.” Someone who keeps things is often labeled with the derogatory term ‘propertarian.’ Le Guin seems to support the idea of linguistic relativity, or what is popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis (a misnomer) – that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories. Her clear and consistent application of these ideas in the story is summed up in an episode of young Shevek’s life, where his classmates and he discover the concept of ‘jail’ and intentionally imprison one of their peers (at his insistence) in a makeshift cell.
I have yet to visit the theatre here in Vietnam, but I see examples of public arts daily, incorporated into the fabric of this city. Public sculpture is highly encouraged, but at the behest of the national/local governments. I hope to view and document more of this side of life as I see it, and to explore how the arts in different political fertilizers take shape and grow.
To know this book is to better know your world through the creation of others, as I feel all the best science fiction does. And although Le Guin tends to write from an anthropological standpoint rather than technology and rayguns (not that I don’t like raygun scifi!), it was a fantastic entry point for my “scifi books about the developing world” and when you encounter statements like this: “They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?” then it’s easy to feel that you’re doing something right, as a traveler and as a thinker.
As Shevek asks the very first outsider to visit Annares in 170 years, just as he himself is about to return home and complete his journey, “You’re sure you want to walk through this wall with me, Ketho? You know, for me, it’s easy. Whatever happens, I am coming home. But you are leaving home. True Journey is return…”
Indeed it is. Both emotionally and physically. I’ll keep writing about the journey, and I hope you find it as interesting as I do.
Thanks for reading!! It was much longer than I anticipated. Discussion warmly welcomed in the comments.