Anarchism, socialism, “propertarians” and ambiguous utopias: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the 1993 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner for Best Classic Fiction

To highlight the Prometheus Awards’ four-decade history and make clear why each winner deserves recognition as a notable pro-freedom work, the Libertarian Futurist Society began publishing in 2019 an Appreciation series of all past award-winners.

Here’s an Appreciation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the 1993 inductee into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction (and perhaps the most controversial work to ever be inducted into the Hall of Fame.)

By Michael Grossberg
Two alleged utopias are explored and contrasted in The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel about a rebel who leaves one world for the other.

As befits any intelligent observer of the 20th and 21st century who must take into account the emergence of dystopian fiction as a major subgenre in response to the authoritarian and collectivist horrors of socialism, communism, national socialism and fascism in Russia, China, Germany, Italy and elsewhere, Le Guin underlines her complex theme by subtitling her novel “An Ambiguous Utopia.”

Set in the Tau Ceti solar system where two planets rotate around each other, each with a large settled human population but very different governments, cultures, social conditions and biospheres, the complex and multifaceted tale moves back and forth in time and between worlds.

One is Anarres, an isolated moon with harsh conditions and limited resources settled by a small group of utopian anarchist-syndicalists who call themselves Odonians after their founder; the other is Urras, the larger mother planet beset by war between nations and socio-economic gaps and tensions sparked by extremes of great wealth and poverty.

The central story focuses on Shevek, a brilliant Anarres physicist intent on challenging the calcified assumptions of both worlds and reuniting them after centuries of mistrust. Often taking immense risks to spark change, the ambitious scientist visits Urras to teach and learn.

Yet, both worlds have much to learn for both are flawed. For instance, although an anarchist society, Annares is set up without property rights (quite different from  the rights-based anarchocapitalist models of an ethical and fully free society outlined by libertarian thinkers such as Murray Rothbard).

Anna’s’ society also faces problems with group-think, mob rule and majoritarian tyranny (a tendency that libertarians view as inherent in democracies unconstrained by meaningful bills of rights and thus potential threats to the rights of individuals and minorities).

Le Guin’s beautifully written story also explores how the politics and cultures of her “utopias” affects social conventions, concepts, relationships, work, child-rearing, identity and language itself.

Most notably, the anarchists have attempted to wipe out the very idea of personal property or individualism by eliminating any personal pronouns (a possibility also explored in Ayn Rand’s Prometheus-winning novel Anthem.)

This thought-provoking novel – long debated within LFS ranks throughout the first decade of the Prometheus Awards in the 1980s – may have been the most controversial work eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. That’s partly because of Le Guin’s critique of “propertarians” (her loose term for anarchocapitalist libertarians) and her mixed verdict about the pros and cons of a utopian socialist alternative that she, as a writer with “democratic socialist” leanings, tended to favor.

Yet, libertarian futurists are also realists, and appreciate the insights and questions sparked by LeGuin’s penetrating critique of the virtues, flaws, social ills and plausible problems of each of her alternative utopian societies.

“Other sf novels advocating anarchism often show the society’s problems as stemming from internal subversion. Everything would be just peachy for were it not for the small group of evil people who want to bring back the state. Odonian problems stem from their society itself which makes a far more subtle and profound thought-experiment,” libertarian sf novelist Robert Shea (co-author of Illuminatus!) wrote in his column “Again, The Dispossessed” (in the Fall 1987 issue of Prometheus).

Shea wrote the column to persuade other LFS members that LeGuin’s novel should be recognized with a Prometheus Award.

“Le Guin does a remarkably good job of portraying a real live anarchist society… Anarres has oppressive institutions, but not because Le Guin fails to understand the nature of freedom,” Shea said.

“She understands freedom quite well. The Annaresti, in their struggle to survive on an inhospitable planet, came up with solutions that later led to more problems. LeGuin knows that the business of any revolution – perhaps especially an anarchist revolution – is never finished.”

Le Guin thanked the Libertarian Futurist Society for nominating her novel the first time (1983) for the Prometheus Hall of Fame, in a 1983 letter printed in the Prometheus quarterly early in the decade of LFS discussions that would lead to her award.  Ultimately, it took another decade of nominations and much internal LFS debate, with the novel being selected as a finalist several years, before The Dispossessed finally received enough support from libertarian sf fans to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993.)

Ursula K. Le Guin (Creative Commons license)

In that 1983 letter, Le Guin herself acknowledged both differences and similarities in political ideology:

“Evidently and obviously, I disagree with certain elements of modern American “Libertarian” theory,” she wrote.
“Just as evidently and obviously, where this kind of Libertarian stands on Anarchist ground we are standing very close together indeed.”

Note: Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), called “a major voice in American Letters,” won eight Hugo awards (from 26 nominations) and six Nebula Awards (from 18 nominations) – including the 1974 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 1975 Hugo and Locus awards for The Dispossessed.

Set in the fictional universe of her Hainish Cycle, The Dispossessed is one of seven novels in Le Guin’s environmentally and socially conscious interstellar future-history series imagining a galactic confederation of human colonies founded by the planet Hain, an array of worlds whose divergent societies – produced by evolution and genetic engineering – shed light on what is basic to human nature.

Other novels in her Hainish cycle include The Left Hand of Darkness, a landmark work exploring gender and sexuality on a fictional planet where humans have no fixed sex; her Hainish trilogy of Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions; The Eye of the Heron; and The Telling.

Ursula K. Le Guin in 2014 (Creative Commons license)

The American author, first published in 1959, had an acclaimed career spanning nearly six decades, with more than 20 novels and more than 100 short stories, plus poetry, literary criticism and children’s books.

* For a related Prometheus-blog story about the LFS controversy over whether to induct Le Guin’s novel into the Prometheus Hall of Fame, see “Reason magazine on our fight over ‘The Dispossessed’” (posted in January 2018)

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: An Appreciation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the 1994 inductee into the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

* Other Prometheus winners:  For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history that launched the series in 2019 with review-essays about more than 40 Best Novel winners and that continues most weeks in 2020 with appreciations of the more than 40 Best Classic Fiction winners in the Prometheus Hall of Fame. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners. Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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