Friday, November 27, 2015

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin is a highly acclaimed classic science fiction novel. The story alternates between the twin planets of Anarres and Urras. It is a detailed and thoughtful examination of culture, both of the alien cultures that the author has fashioned and, indirectly, of our own human cultures.

Anarres is an anarchistic society. Its inhabitants call themselves Odonians after the founder of their movement. The main character is Shevek, an Odonian physicist who is working on a type of Grand Unification Theory that seems to be symbolic of some of the book’s themes. The narrative concerns Shevek’s groundbreaking visit to Urras. Shevek is the first citizen of Anarres to visit Urras in centuries.

In comparing anarchist Anarres to traditional human societies, Le Guin has fashioned a complex and nuanced novel that digs deeply into human society, economics, poverty, violence, gender and more.

The society of Anarres is anarchist, but unlike the libertarian visions so popular these days, it is extremely community orientated. Social pressure keeps most people from harming others and prompts them to contribute to society in the form of work, creativity, etc. As envisioned by its founder,

“There was to be no controlling center, no capital, no establishment for the self-perpetuating machinery of bureaucracy and the dominance drive of individuals seeking to become captains, bosses, chiefs of state”

Anarres is very flawed. Nevertheless, based on both the novel’s narrative and on the commentary by Le Guin herself, it is clearly meant to represent a culture superior to traditional human ones.

Urras is composed of multiple nations, and it is roughly parallel to the situation that prevailed on Earth in the 1970s, with two power blocs, a capitalist and a communist, in opposition. There are also third-world nations, rich nations, revolutions, etc.
Le Guin effectively uses the nations of Urras as a counterpoint to the anarchist society of Anarres.

The chapters of the book alternate between a narrative of Shevek’s life on Anarres and his historic stay on Urras. Over the course of the story, we are given a close look at the inner workings of the societies on both planets.

Based upon history and economics, I do not believe the Odonian society would actually work. Le Guin does convincingly portray how social pressure to work and to not harm others can be at times very influential. However, I think that in a society without an effective government or monetary rewards for work, more and more people will act in anti-social ways, or at least choose not to contribute to society through work. Eventually, things would fall apart.  With that, Le Guin portrays a nuanced, well thought out system that is, at the very least, plausible.

Shevek’s characterization is also fairly strong. He is somewhat of a loner and an outsider in a society that values community above all else. At times, he rebels against his culture’s rules; at other times, it is illustrated that these rules are a part of who he is. He is shown to be a multifaceted person. He is thus described,

“The social conscience, the opinion of others, was the most powerful moral force motivating the behavior of most Anarresti, but it was a little less powerful in him than in most of them. “

This book is really suburb. Those interested in the examination of society will likely get a lot out of it. One does not have to agree with the principles of the anarchist society that Le Guin has fashioned in order to appreciate this insightful critique of humanity.

In one or more future posts, I will be delving a little deeper into the ideas and social criticism contained in this novel.



33 comments:

JacquiWine said...

Sci-fi novels are not my usual fare, but I do think they can tell us something about the human condition. This one sounds very good. Le Guin explores several fundamental themes here: the society, living conditions, economics and various behavioural traits. That's quite a lot - it must have made for a rich reading experience.

Caroline said...

I'm very much in the mood to read this and others of her novels. She's so thought provoking.
I think the themes you mention are recurring in her books. So far, I've only read her short fiction.
The Sci-Fi Experience starts on December 1st and I'm very tempted to participate this year. Which of LeGuin's books do you like the most?

Lory said...

I think LeGuin is brilliant in how she can create an idea-driven narrative in which polemics don't overwhelm the story. I really need to re-read this one. Looking forward to further commentary!

James said...

I love the novels of Ursula K. Le Guin and this is one of my favorites. I also enjoyed your commentary even though I am not as skeptical of the reasonableness of a successful libertarian society.
I would appreciate further elucidation of your remark, "Anarres is very flawed." And if it is flawed how the lack of a centralized power (what may be called the State) necessarily leads to these flaws.
You also reference a "libertarian vision" that is not community-oriented. While it is true that some libertarians emphasize individualism to an extreme degree, the vast majority of the contemporary libertarian movement embraces voluntary associations of communities. A fundamental principle that libertarians of all perspectives share is opposition to the massive central power of the state.
That having been said, I agree that Le Guin's vision and her exceptional literary abilities provide the proverbial food for thought when considering the differences in the organization of human (or alien) societies.

Hibernators Library said...

I loved this book. But I agree, the society probably would not work. No one (or few) people can really invent a societal structure that would work anywhere near how they expected it to because the world (and humans) are too dynamic for that. But people can put forth visions: our Founding Fathers, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand. None of those suggested worlds work out quite how they were envisioned by the "great minds." And, of course, some of them don't work at all. ;) My rambling point is: LeGuin may have a good idea that could yield a functional society, but it wouldln't turn out anything like what she expected.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Thanks for your great comment. it has gotten my brain cells working!


The flaws that I think Le Guin herself referred to in regards to the society that she described manifested themselves in several ways. For instance, families were separated for long periods of time, with very painful results, as folks were called into community service.

It was also shown that people who had ideas that dissented from the majority came under enormous and unfair pressure to conform to community standards.

What I referred to as a "non community orientated libertarianism" I was thinking the popularity of Ayn Rand and her writings these days. For instance, in the Fountainhead she excoriated community pressure to conform to norms. This type of community pressure is one of the central drivers of the society that Le Guin fashioned. I should point out that while i am often critical of Rand, on this issue I am closer to her then I am to Le Guin.

It seems that Rand was highly critical of all forms "Collectivism", not just centralized government. I think that she would not have approved at all Le Guin's society which was shown to be fairly hostile to the idea of individualism.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui - There are indeed so many ideas packed into this book. I could write many blog posts about the different aspects of the human condition that it explores. I will be posting more thoughts going forward.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - It is true that this book, was not overburdened with long philosophical musings that some other idea driven books are. Le Guin integrated these ideas very well within the story.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Though Le Guin has written a lot of books and I have only read a handful, I think that my favorite if The Left Hand of Darkness. This one comes really close however.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Rachel - Indeed, I think that we have the human societies that we have now because they actually work.


Though in many ways it did not turn out to the way that a lot of them envisioned, out of your list, I think that some of America's founders, particularly Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, came the closest to figuring out a workable society could function.

i will be writing about Madison in this regards in a future post.

James said...

Thanks for clarifying your remarks in response to my questions. I agree that Ayn Rand would likely oppose the collectivized nature of the pressure to conform described by Le Guin. Most libertarians would as well, preferring voluntary choice to spur the building of communities.
It seems that there may be a more fundamental question about the nature of man at play here, that is; Is he by nature a social creature in the Aristotelian sense or an is he an atomistic individual that must be forced to cooperate with others. If it is the latter I fear that those exerting the force will create a society that is ultimately untenable, but I have hope that those who prefer the "freedom to choose" will prevail.

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian! I have not read Le Guin but her book sounds like many sci fi books that attempt to make observations of our society by creating worlds that typify certain cultural aspects. Usually these authors do so with the intention of "enlightening" the rest of us as to their particular brand of Utopia.
Your review is very even-handed and I can't tell by your account how subtle this particular author was. I read a similar story years ago and the author wasn't remotely subtle. She had two worlds: one was backward and unsophisticated, the other was progressive and visionary. Guess which one practiced her "solution" to society's ills.
Have a great week!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I terms of her opinion on economic systems I would say that Le Guin is not subtle. However, in my opinion a gig extenuating factor is that the proposed system would be far from perfect and open to criticism.

Guy Savage said...

There's a book coming out 1/16 that you might be interested in: Unruly Equality by Andrew Cornell.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I just Googled the book. It looks to be really good. As you know I am very interested in history.

Thanks for the recommendation.

Wendy said...

I so love le Guin! I read this one in college and don't have much of a recollection of it, but I would agree with previous commenters that her gift is writing "ideas" novels that still have great narrative drive, and that don't presume to offer a pat solution to the world's ills.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Wendy.

Indeed Le Guin in her novels depicted w reality that had real problems and no simple solutions.

Tracy Terry said...

An author whose books we have on the shelves - this particular one doesn't look familiar but then it may well have a different cover.

A great in-depth look Brian. These sound like characters my granddad would say you could really get your teeth into - meaning characters you could find yourself totally absorbed in.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I found the protagonist and maybe two other characters well crafted here.


I you are looking for Le Guin books to read, I would also highly recommend The Left Hand of Darkness. The Lathe of Heaven was also very good.

Stefanie said...

Isn't this a great book? I read quite a long time ago so the details are sketchy but I remember really liking it and how compelling yet thinky it was at the same time.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephanie - It really is full of ideas and interesting ones at that. I think that a lot of folks originally read this one when they were younger.

Vicki said...

I've never been a huge fan of sci-fi although I do read it from time to time. Your review is very thought provoking, and the alternating stories of the twin planets sounds really interesting. I may give this a try.

R.T. said...

You've persuaded me to dig this book out of the closet filled with old books and finally read it. Thanks for the kick in the ass that I need. Onward to Le Guin.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Vicki - The comparison to the twin planets adds a lot to this story.

I would love to know what you think if you read this.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi R.T. - I am so glad to hear that you will read this. I am curious as to what you think of it.

Maria Behar said...

(I deleted the previous comment because of typos.....)

Superb commentary as usual, Brian!

The only Le Guin novel I've read is "The Left Hand of Darkness", and that was several years ago. Regretfully, I don't remember the details of the plot beyond the basic synopsis of the book. I would definitely like to read it again! What I do remember, though, is that Le Guin is an amazing writer. Her prose style puts her work at the level of literary fiction, as does her thoughtful analysis of her fictional alien cultures. Her characterizations are solid, too.

In "The Left Hand of Darkness", Le Guin examines gender issues. In "The Dispossessed", she turns her attention to political systems. This promises to be fascinating reading!

I must confess to being an anarchist at heart myself, although I know that this system would not work at all in reality. I wish there were some other political system available.....not communism, as that doesn't work, either. It eventually degrades into dictatorship. Anarchism seems attractive to me, though, because I detest hierarchies. I detest the whole power-and-control inherent in capitalistic societies. Anarchy is total chaos, of course. I suppose that hierarchies and authority figures are a necessary evil. I say that because, inevitably, those in power become corrupt, at least to some degree. Although I've never been in political office, nor worked for any politician, I have seen this corruption in the private sector. I have had bosses that have been outright bullies. These bosses have also played favorites.

I can relate to this physicist, Shevek. Like him, however, I am willing to leave my comfortable "hobbit hole" of books and interact with people. Teaching ESOL is a very rewarding experience for me, for instance.

The name "Urras" for the second planet is not that far removed from "Earth", so it's obvious that Le Guin meant it to represent our own planet. Thus, its political systems reflect our own. I think it will be interesting to see how she handles the contrast between the two planets. It will be just as interesting to see how Shevek interacts with the societies on Urras, and how these experiences might modify, or perhaps reinforce, his own political views.

I need to get a copy of this novel and hole myself up in my private little library, hopefully for hours at a time, in order to lose myself in what promises to be a totally intriguing novel!

Thanks for your thoughts!! : )

thecuecard said...

It sounds quite good to me. I think I would like Ursula Le Guin's books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I would love to read what you think if this book if you read it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the good word Maria.

You raise a good point about Capitalism, it leads to terrible excesses but it is the best system that we have, I think that history has shown that Capitalism with moderate government regulation and control seems to lead to the best results for society.

The contrasts between the two planets are indeed one of the great things about this book.

I have not let on to it in my above commentary, but this book has a lot to say about gender. That will be the subject of my next post.

Jamie Ghione said...

Hi, I saw your name on the Beyond Eastrod blog as a comment on the challenge I'm hosting. I'm going have to look for this book for my challenge next year. Sounds great. A little out of comfort zone, but I need tog et that way sometimes.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jamie - Thank you for stopping by. \

Though science fiction and Ursula K. Le Guin are well within my comfort zone, I have been reading other books as of late that have taken me well out of it. I agree that it benefits us all sometimes.

The Bookworm said...

Sounds interesting Brian. I agree, I don't think an Odonian society would work either. I think many people would just get out of control and eventually it would fall apart.
I don't know if you watch the tv show The Walking Dead, but this reminds me of it because in that post apocalyptic world, where society has fallen apart, the only ones who seem to survive and stay civil are groups of people who are trying to rebuild again. They form groups where people have roles and jobs to do, to maintain a sense of normalcy. It is fiction, but I think it represents how it might be if society collapsed.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Nauda - In the end it seems that capitalist societies, with a healthy dose of government regulation on the capitalism, seem to work best.

I think that I would really like the Walking Dead but sadly I do not have a lot of time for television. Such genre based stories really do dig into society in such interesting ways.