I read Le Guin's Earthsea
trilogy way back when I was a kid, but I am abashed to say that until now I had never read any of her adult SF novels.The Dispossessed
holds up amazingly well for a book written nearly forty (!) years ago. In fact, forget about the publication date and it could have been written this year. Except that hardly anyone writes this kind of slow-moving, thoughtful, idea-heavy science fiction any more. The Dispossessed
won a Hugo, a Nebula, a World Fantasy Award, and
the National Book Award. That was back in the days when winning a Hugo meant something.
(Sorry, John Scalzi, I like you, but... Redshirts
? A Hugo? Seriously?)The Dispossessed
takes place on the planet Urras and its habitable moon, Anarres. Urras was the original world from whence men came, with a long recorded history and an environment much like Earth. (Goodreads librarians seem to have decided that The Dispossessed
is the fifth book in the "Hainish" cycle. My understanding is that the other books do take place in the same universe, but are largely independent of one another. However, they are united by the Hainish, who apparently contacted all the races of mankind on different planets and revealed that they are all descended from common ancestors. This is a detail mentioned in this book, but not really very important.)
About a hundred and fifty years ago, revolutionaries from Urras fled that planet on a rocket to Anarres, and settled on the barren, habitable but stark and hardscrabble moon. They follow a philosophy called Odonianism, after the founder, a woman named Odo. Odonianism is true anarcho-communism, and so this book is mostly an exploration of two very different socio-political systems. Urras, as I said, is much like Earth — its most wealthy nations are essentially capitalist (what Odonians call "propertarians"), but it has a range of governments (what Odonians call "archists"). When Shevek, the physicist who is the first Anarresesti to return to Urras since the Anarres colony was founded, encounters Anarres society, he of course experiences culture shock, horror at their propertarian and archist ways, but he also realizes that it is not the authoritarian hellhole that all Odonians assume it must be.
He had been taught as a child that Urras was a festering mass of inequity, iniquity, and waste. But all the people he met, and all the people he saw, in the smallest country village, were well dressed, well fed, and contrary to his expectations, industrious. They did not stand about sullenly waiting to be ordered to do things. Just like Anarresti, they were simply busy getting things done. It puzzled him. He had assumed that if you removed a human being's natural incentive to work -- his initiative, his spontaneous creative energy -- and replaced it with external motivation and coercion, he would become a lazy and careless worker. But no careless workers kept those lovely farmlands, or made the superb cars and comfortable trains. The lure and compulsion of profit was evidently a much more effective replacement of the natural initiative than he had been led to believe.
A superficial and ideologically reflexive reader might think that Le Guin is praising socialism, that The Dispossessed
is a novel that criticizes capitalism and democracy and authority in favor of some idealistic vision of anarcho-communism. (Notice how I conflated socialism and communism there? Well, the superficial and ideologically reflexive reader thinks they are the same thing. Le Guin knows better.) But inasmuch as she portrays the Odonians in a sympathetic light, as they are the protagonists, she also takes us through Shevek's entire life and his discovery of the flaws in Odonian society, the ways in which human nature conspires to undermine every utopian ideal. And shows how Anarres is a harsh and sometimes joyless place, even without violence or authority or force or compulsion. The Anarresti consider themselves a utopia and Urrasti society to be a dystopia; the Urrasti think the opposite.
Shevek, as a brilliant physicist who holds the key to what the Urrasti believe will lead to profound technological advancement (including making weapons, naturally), is warmly welcomed to Urras, where they do their best to subvert and seduce him. But Shevek came to Urras to bring the revolution back to the planet on which it was born.
I had to think about why this book so impressed me, and made me give it 5 stars, despite its lack of razzle-dazzle or action or high concept plotting. Part of it is Le Guin's prose, of course — she's a skilled and artistic writer who delves deep into human psychology and sociology and yet also manages to make the advanced, esoteric physics, hand-waved as it is, sound plausible and high-falutin' and sciency. (Keeping in mind, again, that this book was written in 1974!)
I came to the conclusion that first of all, this is a book that is only nominally science fiction. Or rather, while it is most certainly science fiction, it's not the "science fiction" part that dominates the narrative. The story doesn't need
to be about a physicist on another planet; it just makes certain elements easier to explain that way. It's a story about how societies interact and how people interact with each other and how people interact with society. The Anarresti were interesting precisely because Le Guin put as much effort into working out the details of a global anarchist communitarian civilization - which is able to conduct advanced physics and make trains run on time - as most SF authors put into the orders of battle for their starfleets and the physics of their warp drives and the biology of their Slee'th'krin Hagaa'r aliens, etc.
Lots of folks on Earth say "Well, sure, communism is an 'ideal' society in theory
, but it will never scale beyond a small community, let alone for an entire planet." So Le Guin goes about showing how it might work. And it really does work — but it's not a utopia. At one point, one of the Urrasti lower classes tells Shevek "At least on your world, no one goes hungry." And Shevek corrects him: "No one goes hungry while another man eats
." In fact the Anarresti do go hungry during a rather harrowing global drought. Arguably the result of the environment, and the Anarresti's hardships largely the result of their having to settle on a barely-liveable planet instead of the lush Urras, but still, it's no utopia. Le Guin shows how a society in which no one has
to do anything, no one can be made
to do anything, and everyone can take whatever they like, actually works, through the mechanism of social norms and mores. People just do. And those same norms and mores also result in a slow bureaucratization, and institutionalization even in a society supposedly without institutions, and authoritarianism in a society supposedly without authorities, because people are still people.
My other conclusion, or maybe a corollary to the first, is that science fiction falls into two categories, broadly: Big Idea SF, and old stories dressed up as SF.
There can be a lot of overlap, of course, and I like old stories dressed up as SF. But as Star Trek was famously described as "Wagon Train in Space," a lot of science fiction is your basic war story, or rags to riches/orphan hero, or rebels against evil invaders, or crime thriller or detective mystery, etc., with androids and space travel and beam weapons or whatever. They are perfectly good stories, may even be great fiction, but they aren't really bringing anything new to the table. Enjoyable, but just another way to retell a story.
Big Idea SF is what science fiction, or "speculative fiction" to get all pretentious about it, is "supposed" to do when you are waxing pretentious about genres. Namely, explore ideas, posit hypotheses, construct stories around a what-if or play with science and technology in ways we can't yet in reality. This is how you come up with mind-bending stories, worldview-changers, science fiction that expands boundaries.
Most of this science fiction is built on the premise of some advanced technology, or climactic changes, or the arrival of aliens, or some other clearly fantastical element. In The Dispossessed
, the advanced technology is the minimum necessary for plot purposes, the mention of offworlders (Hainish and Terrans and others) likewise. It's a novel of societal
In my slightly snobby opinion, that's kind of what we should reward novels for with Hugos and Nebulas. With the big, big disclaimer that if you peruse my reading list, you will see I read and enjoy lots
of books for no other reason than they were great war stories or detective mysteries with androids and space travel and beam weapons or whatever.The Dispossessed
is really a thinking book that would be, should be a literary classic, even if it must always struggle against that bright orange paperback cover that says "sci-fi."