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?
The winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, The Dispossessed has its faults, but is a revelation nonetheless. The novel, subtitled “an ambiguous utopia,” follows Shevek, a physicist across two timelines, brilliantly interweaving the themes and events of the two toward the seminal events of the story, a departure and an un-narrated return. This is a narrative technique I have a fondness for and Le Guin executes it well, but the brilliance lies in that the technique mirrors Shevek’s research on Sequency and Simultaneity. Content and form are matched, but I am getting ahead of myself.
At its heart, The Dispossessed is a story of exploration. Shevek is raised on the “anarchic” moon/world Anarres where, a hundred and fifty years before the story, the most fervent followers of the revolutionary preacher Odo fled to found a new society. Their language is constructed to do away with prejudices and superstitions, their names assigned by a computer, and their society based on the principles of individualism and equality. Society is governed by economic “syndicates” that are voluntary associations for people to pursue vocations. While everyone is free to do as they wish, the behavior is regulated by community and traditional pressures. Everyone pursues what is best for them and their community and everyone makes sacrifices. Shevek finds out that there may not be a hierarchy, but some people are able to exert power over others as he is repeatedly thwarted in his scientific pursuits by a petty, conservative scientist. Even beyond influentially located opponents, he comes to realize how much power the entrenched bureaucracy has. This may not be problematic for the individual who can seamlessly integrate into society as needed, but is devastating for one whose social fabric requires being knotted with a particular set of people.
When Shevek tries to live the revolution, he learns that there are social consequences–particularly when he decides that his purpose includes becoming the first person in nearly 200 years to go back to the land of the “profiteers,” Urras, whence their ancestors fled all those years ago. Yet, once he manages to make this journey, Shevek finds that his study of temporal physics is easier, but also that there is gross inequality and that there are as many or more limits on his personal freedoms.
The Dispossessed is bursting with ideas. In the Anarres timeline, there are questions of love, family, and intimacy in a society based on extreme socialization, the problem of communal subsistence and sacrifice in times of hardship, power and influence in a society formally without hierarchy or religion. In the Urres timeline, there is an issue of gender equality, inequalities based on wealth, and money. Spanning the two are the ultimate issues of freedom and happiness, combined with the way in which language governs how people interact with the world around them. Framing all of these, as well as the story as a whole is the very basic idea of walls. The story begins:
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of a boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.
Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the port of Anarres…It was in fact a quarantine…It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.
Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.
Though he never addresses it directly, Shevek seems to hate the wall, but nevertheless must decide which side he wants to be on.
I have owned this book for a while now, but had it independently talked up by several people whose literary opinions I respect, so I moved it up my list and was immensely rewarded. I was swept away by The Dispossessed, which quickly became one of my favorite science fiction novels. That said, there were times that I found Urras, the Earth-analog, to be a little bit too on the nose with its Cold War parallels (the novel was first published in 1974). Le Guin does transcend this in the end, and notably manages to tell the story from the point of view of an outsider plopped down into the middle of the conflict, while also positing a different sort of stalemate between the two worlds, both of which sometimes refer to the other world as their “moon.” Shevek has his preferences between the two, but both may be considered an “ambiguous utopia.”
Next up, I am about halfway through Yasushi Inoue’s Tun-Huang, which is fine, but not nearly as exceptional as a lot of what I’ve read this year thus far. My expectations might be high at this point, but it is disappointing me nonetheless.