Volume 1, Number 3, Summer, 1983

The Permanent Revolution

The Dispossessed

By Ursula Le Guin

Harper and Row, 1974, 338 pages. (Also an Avon paperback.)
Reviewed by Victoria Varga
July 1983

The Dispossessed is one of ten finalists for the 1983 Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.

In her book of essays, The Language of the Night, Ursula Le Guin explains why she created bisexual "humans" for the novel The Left Hand of Darkness: "It was a heuristic device, a thought-experiment … Einstein shoots a light-ray through a moving elevator; Schrodinger puts a cat in a box. There is no cat, no box. The experiment is performed, the question is asked, in the mind." It is a way of finding answers to questions—in this case, what might people (and cultures) be like if there were no permanent sex roles?—without setting up a real (and impossibly difficult) experiment, and without exploiting the experiment's possible subjects.

If, however, the "thought experiment" consists of creating a fictitious "perfect" society, a utopia, as Le Guin attempts to do in The Dispossessed, then setting up the experiment becomes very complex. In her gender experiment, Le Guin eliminated a quality she considered to be inessential to human nature to find out what was left. But in utopia-making an author must use whatever knowledge s/he has of human nature to create a society that will best serve every member of that group.

Unfortunately, most utopian authors, from Plato's time to the present day, assumed that the primary human requirement is order, not freedom, and they made the lives and happiness of men and women secondary to the smooth functioning of the society itself. The results are so safe, so immutable, so rigid, that none of the inhabitants dare to display a human foible or raise a voice in passion—any display of real humanity would disrupt the clockworks.

That may be why Alexander Gray said, in The Socialist Tradition "…no utopia has ever been described in which any sane man would on any conditions consent to live, if he could possibly escape." This should not surprise us for humans are restless, and any philosopher-king who tried to make them cogs in some perpetual-motion-machine "utopia" would soon find that all the cogs have run away, died of boredom, or attempted (successfully, I hope) to blow up the machine.

One of the most important qualities of The Dispossessed, Le Guin's most ambitious novel and, to my mind, the most worthy of the Prometheus Hall of Fame finalists, is to show us a utopia people might want to live in.

Odonian society is named after Odo, the philosopher whose teachings spark an unsuccessful rebellion on the planet Urras. (Le Guin's short story, "The Day Before the Revolution," has Odo as its main character.) As a result the revolutionaries were exiled to Urras' sister planet, the barren Anarres.

The Anarresti are individualists who live communally. Voluntary syndicates organize the work to be done, personal initiative takes the place of the profit motive, and their highest ideals are mutual aide and equality. If this sounds like Kropotkin, Le Guin says (again in The Language of the Night) that she read a great deal of Kropotkin (as well as Engels, Marx, Godwin, Goodman, Goldman, and Shelley) before she wrote the book.

Considering the rather strict ideals that most Anarresti share, they are surprisingly tolerant of deviation. One character hoards equipment, books, outgrown clothing in his room, and while few approve, no one sends the secret police (there aren't any) to retrieve the goods. There is nothing that an Odonian must do, and the fact that almost all work and contribute their skills to the community is attributable to their desire to be useful and self-respecting. Sexuality is left to personal taste, and alliances and their breakdowns are matters for the individuals concerned. Children are raised communally after a certain age, which is determined by the parents, not an impersonal collective.

If this sounds hopelessly romantic to a non-anarchist, Le Guin's genius, as always, is in making Anarres and its people real, alive, and complex. If it seems dull, let me assure you it is not. The Anarresti must struggle against more than famine on their arid planet: they are threatened by the same stupidity, power-lust, and attempted bureaucratization that endanger the freedom of all people. For two hundred years, as the book opens, the Odonians have lived in almost total isolation, their only contact with the mother-world being the trade ship that touches down eight times a year to exchange essential manufactured goods for Anarres' raw materials.

The story line alternates between the early life of Shevek, a brilliant physicist concerned with the growing rigidity of his homeworld, and his trip to Urras, at age 38, to "unbuild walls." With remarkable fairness, given what must be her bias in favor of the communalists, Le Guin shows us first one world, and then the other.

She shows us Shevek as a toddler being pushed out of his place in the sun by a larger child, and, for his justifiable anger, getting a lecture from the matron:

"[The sun] is not yours. Nothing is yours. It is to use, it is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it."

Here Le Guin is not, I think, delivering a paean to the virtue of sharing, but demonstrating how ideals are hardened into dogma by unimaginative minds.

She describes Shevek's wonder at the prosperity and color of the people in A-Io, the rich, state-capitalist nation that he visits on Urras:

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 Anaresti, 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… The lure and compulsion of profit was evidently a much more effective replacement of the natural initiative than he had been led to believe.

Although A-Io is not as bad as Shevek has been taught, in many ways it is repressive and fascistic. Class lines are strictly drawn. The lower class (called "stupid cattle" by an acquaintance of Shevek's) are cannon-fodder in frequent wars. Private property is strictly controlled and taxed. Women are placed on Victorian pedestals, and are not even allowed in the universities. A-Io is, in some ways, like the United States, only worse: there is not even a pretense of "bowing to the will of the people"—there is a ruling class and no doubt about it.

The need for revolution is clear, but with a million anarchists safely on the "moon," the A-Iotic government feels secure enough to bring back one harmless physicist, Shevek, whose brilliant General Theory of Simultaneity will give A-Io (they hope) instantaneous travel between star systems and thus, power over the other worlds of mankind.

The A-Iotics are wrong about Shevek's theory, which merely allows instantaneous communication over interstellar distances. Even more important, they are wrong about the security of their government, for there are several clandestine organizations (one of which describes itself as Syndicalist and libertarian) which are planning a huge anti-government demonstration, and the mere presence of Shevek, and "the promise" the demonstrators see in him, can surely spark another revolution. But the point that Le Guin makes, and here the book differs from most others of its kind, is that the revolution must take place on both planets, and must continue if it is to be of any value.

Now we may begin to understand The Dispossessed's subtitle, "An Ambiguous Utopia." It is interesting to note that the word "ambiguous" can mean "open to more than one interpretation" or "uncertain," for Le Guin may want us to see Anarres in the light of both definitions. The novel begins: "There was a wall. It did not look important." And so we are introduced to the "two-faced" boundary that separates the whole of Anarres from its port of entry, a landing field that for almost two hundred years has been the planet's only contact with the rest of the galaxy. From one side, the wall "enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free." From the other side, "the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp…cut off…in quarantine."

"[Y]es," says Le Guin in her essay "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown," "in a way it was a prison camp, but what a difference!" For, ironically, there are no prisons within Odonian society, and the idea is so strange to Shevek when he and young friends encounter it in The Life of Odo, they can hardly comprehend it.

"But why didn't [the prisoners] just leave the place?"
"They couldn't leave, the doors were locked."
"Like the doors on a moving truck, so you don't fall out, stupid"
There is a difference indeed.

And yet…Shevek's friend, Turin, begins to question the information they are given about Urras.

"We only know what we are told."
"And do you know what we are told? We detest Urras, hate Urras, fear Urras … Hate's not functional. Why are we taught it? Could it be that if we knew what Urras was really like, we'd like it—some of it—some of us?"

Is the wall keeping oppression out or the anarchists in? And if the Odonians are not perfectly free, has the revolution failed? Or is it ongoing, and the personal responsibility of each individual? Should not the questions asked here also be asked of our society and of ourselves?

There are too many more things to be said about this novel. Have I mentioned how damn well it is written, how there doesn't seem to be a word out of place? Or how certain images will haunt me for the rest of my days? (Like the first time Shevek sees a face "…not like any human face. It was as long as his arm and ghastly white. Breath jetted in vapor from what must be nostrils, and terrible, unmistakable, there was an eye. A large, dark eye, mournful, perhaps cynical? gone in the flash of the car's lights." It was a horse, and Shevek has never seen any large face, not human, because there are no large animals on Anarres.)

But one more thing must be said. That the society on Anarres is communal makes the book suspect to some libertarians. It should be repeated, a million times if necessary, that the essence of libertarianism, and libertarianism, for that matter, must be freedom of choice. Although most Prometheus subscribers may believe that the best society is technologically advanced and economically laissez-faire, other free people might choose communalism, back to the bushes hermitism, or any of a thousand cultures, religions, or eccentricities possible to humanity and still remain within a libertarian framework, as long as they eschew the initiation of violence and respect the right of others to choose their way of life.

Besides, Ursula Le Guin has given us the most important thing a novelist could give to a libertarian reader—more important than the vision of a utopia—and that is one man, named Shevek, who is free.

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