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The Dispossessed (Book Review by “The Instant Librarian”)

Posted: Sat, November 03, 2012 | By: Ursula K. Le Guin



Anarchists on the moon…

I just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, which gave new meaning to the passage below. Fortunately, in Ursula K Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed, there are no evil computers out to destroy humans on a mission to Jupiter. Instead, there’s a fiercely independent physicist named Shevek, and he’s about to leave his home planet Anarres, an anarchist settlement.

The world had fallen out from under him, and he was left alone. He had always feared that this would happen, more than he had ever feared death. To die is to lose the self and rejoin the rest. He had kept himself, and lost the rest.

What happens

Shevek is an Odonian. He was born and raised on Anarres, which was settled by followers of Odo, an anarchist philosopher and revolutionary writer who lived her entire life on the planet Urras. Urras resembles earth: a lush planet rich in resources and beauty, but full of greed, war, and oppression. The ‘profiteers’ who inhabit Urras are constantly at war with each other and with other planets. Odo inspired a separatist movement which defected to the moon Anarres, a dusty, desolate world devoid of life other than the human settlers, some fish, and the ubiquitous holum plant which they use for food, clothing, fuel, and paper. (Kind of like hemp in the US before the cotton monopolies.)

Life is difficult but peaceful and satisfying for the people on Anarres. Le Guin’s skillful rendering of this anarchist utopia fascinated me. Odonians say ‘the partner’ and ‘the room,’ ‘the mother,’ instead of my partner or my room. Computers generate names for the newly-born, so only one name is needed, unique the planet over for the course of the person’s life who uses it. Computers also portion out the less-desirable work, so everyone rotates in every 60 days or so, for ten day shifts.

Otherwise, Odonians are free to do the work of their choosing, the work they do best. For Shevek, this is physics. He is exceptionally gifted in the field from a very young age, and by the time he’s twenty, he has surpassed his planetary peers in intellectual achievement. Under the tutelage of Sabul, a grumbling university physicist, Shevek begins working on a complex new theory. Sabul advises him to learn Ionian, the language of Urras, so he can read the work of physicists there who are far more advanced than those on the young planet Anarres.

Hungry for intellectual exchange, but hindered by the settlement agreement which forbids exchange with Urras beyond the most essential goods, Shevek soon discovers the limits of his society and the hypocrisy of his fellow Odonians. They have become locked into patterns which ostensibly celebrate freedom while actually oppressing and restricting. Bureaucracies have developed under the guise of collectivity and equality.

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 they 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 ideas by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change… Public opinion! That’s the power structure [Sabul’s] part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.”

Ultimately, Shevek contrives to leave Anarres for Urras, to develop his theory and share it with Urras and the rest of the universe.

Why I loved it:

As I set out to write this post, I realized I had underlined so many passages that to reproduce them here would spoil your reading experience, because I sincerely hope you’ll read this book. It is beautifully written, a far cry from the idea of science fiction I held previously: literature too overburdened with logistics to soar as lyrically as work anchored in history.

I’m sure there are as many examples of bad writing in sci-fi as there are in non-genre fiction. But I’ve really missed out on some great writing by assuming science fiction couldn’t measure up.

Moreover: this work is anchored in history. Once you’re familiar with the “new” world, you start to recognize its doppelgänger, the “old” world. Truths told in the language of fiction shine like they’re brand new. As Shevek explains to his neighbors on Urras:

You are rich, you own. We are poor, we lack. You have, we do not have. Everything is beautiful here. Only not the faces. On Anarres nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces. The other faces, men and women. We have nothing but that, nothing but each other. Here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes. And in the eyes you see the splendor, the splendor of the human spirit. Because our men and women are free– possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes– the wall, the wall!”

The mistake I made by avoiding science fiction was to assume that because it wasn’t ‘real,’ it wasn’t relevant, it had nothing to teach me. The Anarchist Fiction event at Powell’s intrigued me, and I wanted to see if these assumptions were valid. In this case, I was happily proved wrong.

What I’m still thinking about:

Here you think that the incentive to work is finances, need for money and desire for profit, but where there’s no money the real motives are clearer, maybe. People like to do things. They like to do them well. People take the dangerous, hard jobs because they take pride in doing them. A person likes to do what he is good at doing… But really, it is the question of ends and means. After all, work is done for the work’s sake. It is the lasting pleasure of life. The private conscience knows that. And also the social conscience, the opinion of one’s neighbor.”

The passages I’m still thinking about revolved around work, specifically the idea that the best work is that which is suited to a person’s ‘cellular function,’ what the individual does best. A healthy society should be able to offer that work and the freedom to pursue it.

I immediately remembered a conversation I had with a high school teacher in France, when I was working as a language assistant. He asked me if I’d be interested in teaching an extra ten hours in a school the next town over, where they had no assistant. I answered, “Sure, if they pay me,” to which the teacher responded, “Spoken like a true American.”

The subtext was that monetary motivation as primary motivation is a specifically American attitude, and that this was a lamentable attitude. I felt embarrassed but resigned: What was I supposed to do? Teach for free, taking the bus an hour across the bridge to the next town each way, planning lessons for these plus my current classes?

I sat there in the lunchroom with the other teachers, all older than me, in their thirties and forties. The lunch was inexpensive and good; there was a hot vegetable and grain dish, a choice of yogurt or dessert, fruit, crusty bread, cheese, and coffee. The professors and the students had a full hour to talk and eat. There were several strikes while I was there, and loud debate in the lounge and cafeteria about Sarkozy’s educational reforms– reforms many claimed were going to ‘Americanize’ the system. Some saw this as a good thing and some saw this as a bad thing.

As a high school student in the US, I don’t remember ever having more than 20-30 minutes to find food and swallow it down before the next class. Some of my friends who now teach high school in the US don’t really take a lunch break at all, just eat a yogurt or an apple while making photo copies in the staff room. There’s no time, the classrooms are too crowded, the workday too long. When was the last time you and your co-workers, in any profession, sat down over lunch to discuss reform?

As a university student in France, I was struck by the bare-bones aesthetic of the campus. Classrooms were rooms with chairs and tables, period. The teacher and students entered the room, the teacher lectured, and everyone left. I was often disappointed in the lack of discussion, but this is the cultural difference between these two educational systems. The biggest difference is this: French students can get a university education for free or very close to it. Of course the Grands Ecoles cost more, but nowhere near the exorbitant price paid for a private university education in the US. I would gladly give up fancy lawns, state-of-the-art lecture halls, and pricey dorm rooms for the right to a quality, free education.

Back to that lunchtime: I sat there watching this teacher I respected as he spread a piece of bread with Camembert. Implied in his snort of contempt was the sense that if you’re doing what you enjoy, you should do it for free.

Maybe for him it was that simple. Under a more socialist state, in a culture more capable of dissent, more comfortable with discussion, where a university education is free, perhaps the concern of money was less important. He had affordable, quality health care. He was relatively well-paid and worked around 30 hours a week. I don’t suggest that the French state is perfect, but the French in general seemed much more confident in the fulfillment of and their right to the basic needs of living.

For me, the year taught me that teaching in fact isn’t what I really want to do, at least not in an ESL capacity. So for the purposes of his implied argument, it made sense that I wouldn’t want to do it benevolently in that situation.

But I continue to wonder what it would be like not to calculate the worth of doing something based on an hourly wage. “This meeting is worth $28 before taxes.” What does that really mean?

What’s the point?

We’ve gone from the fictional non-state on Anarres, to the socialist/capitalist French state vs. the corporate US state. What am I trying to say? What does the novel have to say?

That work can be more human– freely chosen, shared, fairly supported.

That societies begun in revolution must continue to criticize, challenge, and renew themselves to avoid becoming what they set out to break down.

That there are other means of living together besides force.

What keeps people in order?”Oiie asked. “Why don’t they rob and murder each other?”

Nobody owns anything to rob. If you want things you take them from the depository. As for violence, well, I don’t know, Oiie: would you murder me, ordinarily? And if you felt like it, would a law against it stop you? Coercion is the least efficient means of obtaining order.”

That there is truth to be learned from fiction.

Comment Below by Ursula K Le Guin:

I particularly like your description of how the French run their universities, their lives, and their lunches — and was delighted to watch you stepping so gracefully and easily over the imaginary wall between “science fiction” and “literature.” Welcome to Anarres, ammar!. — Ursula

This essay was first published HERE



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