Book review: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed is a 1974 science-fiction classic by Ursula K. Le Guin. I don’t read too many novels these days, but given the protagonist here is an anarchist, theoretical physicist and visitor from another world, how could I resist? (Okay so I’m not the last one of these, but it sure feels like it sometimes!) The plot centres on the character Shevek, said anarchist and physicist, a traveller from the libertarian planet of Anarres visiting its authoritarian twin planet of Urras. Around two centuries ago settlers from Urras founded a libertarian communist society on Anarres, which subsequently flourished, growing to become a planet-wide anarchism, possessing its own distinct culture, language and social infrastructure.

The plot, with its alien characters and worlds is really a device to explore a bunch of ideas about our terrestrial culture and society here on Earth, the choices we make as people and what influences them. With the book written in 1974, some of the political association of the nations of Urras are obvious enough.  On the map of Urras below (appearing at the beginning of the book in English of course – I could only find them online in Spanish!)  for A-Io read “USA”, for Thu read “USSR” and for Benbili read “Vietnam” – sadly no country like Anarres exists on Earth today, perhaps why in the book it had to be situated on another world to Urras (Anarres being “the moon on a stick” to Urras’ “political reality” if you like!)

There are some interesting motifs, like the way the founders of Anarres invented their own language, Pravic, in order to better reflect and express their cultural values. For example parents are referred to by children as “the mother”, “the father” rather than “my mother”, “my father”, with the concept of posessive human relationships simply absent from the structure of the language. Pravic makes a neat contrast to 1984’s “newspeak”; rather than a dystopian language in which it is impossible by construction to express dissent or articulate freedom, we have a “utopian” language in which freedom from possession is naturally and automatically encoded. Hence the title “the dispossessed” 🙂 . It’s a play on words, since Anarres is a barren desert world, not wealthy like Urras; but Le Guin asks if the people of Anarres are richer in some less tangible yet infinitely more valuable capacity – that of human brother and sister-hood.

Another inventive thing about this book is the way Le Guin structures the story; the chapters alternate between Anarres and Urrass, with Shevek’s life on Anarres, prior to his journey to Urras, happening in the even chapters and his adventures on Urras in the odd ones. Ordered chronologically the chapters go 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13.  It sounds confusing but really isn’t and is used in clever ways, for example referencing something from Shevek’s past in an odd chapter then exploring it more fully in the subsequent even chapter. I assume Le Guin also meant the unusual structure as a kind of joke about time, what with Shevek being a “temporal physiscist” working on the unification of the concepts of “simtanaeity” and “sequentiality”.

Ideas about sexuality and romantic love are also explored in some interesting ways, both through descriptions of  Annaresti and Urrasti society and culture, and through the relationship between Shevek and his partner Takver.  For example, this conversation between the two,  before they pledge themselves to each other, about choosing deep needs over a superficial wants:

“What’s wrong with pleasure Takver? Why don’t you want it?” “Nothing’s wrong with it. And I do want it. Only I don’t need it. And if I take what I don’t need I’ll never get what I do need.”  “What is is you need?” She looked down at the ground, scratching the surface of a rock outcrop with her fingernail. She said nothing. She leaned forwards to pick a sprig of moonthorn but did not take it. merely touched, felt the furred stem and fragile leaf. Shevek saw in the tension of her movements that she was trying with all her strength to contain or restrain a storm of emotions, so that she could speak. When she did it was in a low voice and a little roughly. “I need the bond” she said “The real one. Body and mind and all the years of life. Nothing else. Nothing less.” She glanced at him with defiance. It might have been hatred.

Anybody built like Takver (and I guess I fall into that bracket) most likely wont have much fun navigating today’s society, one where sexual superficiality is rammed down our throats at every turn! Swimming against the cultural tide in search of something more personally fulfilling is never an easy or comfortable choice…

Or this converation, in which Takver acts as Shevek’s muse:

“Their naked arms and breasts were moonlight. The fine, faint down on Takver’s face made a blurring aureole over her features; her hair and the shadow were black. Shevek touched her silver arm with his silver hand, marvelling at the warmth of the touch in that cool light. “When you can see a thing whole,” he said, “it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives…. But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.”

She is a very important character, whom Shevek relies upon critically for guidance and self-realisation in the choices he makes which entwine the destinies of Anarres and Urras.  She is the Yin to Shevek’s Yang, to borrow a daoist metaphor, with the two acting in a dynamical concert to begin cycles of renewal and change upon both worlds. Le Guin makes the Yin association pretty explicit by painting Tavek as a child of the Earth:

“Her concern with landscapes and living creatures was passionate. This concern, feebly called a ‘love of nature’, seemed to Shevek to be something much broader than love. There are souls he thought, whose unbilicus has never been cut. They never got weaned from the universe. They do not understand death as an enemy; they look forward to rotting and turning into humus. It was strange to see Takver take a leaf into her hand, or even a rock. She became an extension of it: it of her.”

The cover of the 1985 edition – the year I was born

I think the best way to review the many fascinating ideas about human societies explored by the book is to quote directly from some key speeches the characters make and let you make your own mind up. I only half-resisted the temptation to quote the entire book, so this post ended up being a little long!

Some of Shevek’s initial perceptions of Urrasti society:

“He was appalled by the examination system when it was explained to him: he could not imagine a grater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming information and disgorging it upon demand.”

“Saio Pae had taken him “shopping” during his second week in A-Io… The whole experience had been so bewildering that he had put it out of his mind immediately, but he had dreams about it for months afterwards, nightmares. Saemtenevia street was about two mile long, and it was a solid mass of people, traffic and things…everything either ornamental to begin with or ornamental so as to disguise its use, acres of luxuries, acres of excrement… And the strangest thing about the nightmare street was that none of the millions of things for sale was made there. Only sold there. Where were the workshops, the factories, where were the farmers the craftsmen, the miners, the weavers, the chemists, the carvers the dyers, the designers, the machinists, where were the hands, the people who made? Out of sight, somewhere else. Behind walls. All the people in the shops were either buyers or sellers. They had no relation to the things but that of possession.”

“He tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him past endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream. He could not force himself to understand how banks functioned and so forth, because all the operations of capitalism were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary. In a human sacrifice to deity there might be at least a mistaken and terrible beauty; in the rites of the moneychangers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men’s acts, even the terrible became banal. Shevek looked at this monstrous pettiness with contempt, and without interest. He did not admit, he could not admit, that in fact it frightened him.”

Some anarchist philosophy, as espoused by Shevek:

“To make a thief, make an owner; to create crime, create laws.”

(I like this one as I think it highlights some of the similarities between anarchist and Daoist thought. Le Guin is very interested in both by the way, having also written her own poetic translation of the Dao te Ching. )

A conversation with a colleague about the A-Io government’s military intervention in Benbili and the responsibility of intellectuals:

“The politics of reality,” Shevek repeated. He looked at Oiie and said, “That is a curious phrase for a physicist to use.” “Not at all. The politician and the physicist both deal with things as they are, with real forces, the basic laws of the world.” “You put your petty miserable ‘laws’ to protect wealth, your ‘forces’ of guns and bombs, in the same sentence with the law of entropy and the force of gravity? I had thought better of your mind, Demaere!” Oiie shrank from that thunderbolt of contempt. He said no more and Shevek said no more; but Oiie never forgot it. It lay embedded in his mind thereafter as the most shameful moment of his life.”

A lot of economists and politicians will put their “petty miserable ‘laws’” and “forces” on par with the fundamental and unchangeable principles of the natural world revealed by the hard and honest work of physicists (remember, physicists have nature to keep them honest; what keeps our politicians and economists honest other than personal integrity, which they may sell short at any moment for a greater share of luxury and power?) And so we should treat the TINA brigade with a similar degree of intellectual derision to that of Shevek above! Perhaps the more honest and humane of them can feel shame too?

One time Shevek gets drunk at a party and lets rip when some Urrusti ask him to describe Anarres:

“It is not wonderful. It is an ugly world. Not like this one. Anarres is all dust and dry hills. All meager, all dry. And the people aren’t beautiful. They have big hands and feet, like me and the waiter there. But not big bellies. They get very dirty, and take baths together, nobody here does that. The towns are very small and dull, they are dreary. No palaces. Life is dull, and hard work. You can’t always have what you want, or even what you need, because there isn’t enough. You Urrasti have enough. Enough air, enough rain, grass, oceans, food, music, buildings, factories, machines, books, clothes, history. 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, the 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!”

Shevek summarising his final views on Annaresti society, in a speech at a demonstration rally in A-Io:

“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no  hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You posess nothing. You own nothing. You are free [I like the double meaning here very much 🙂 ]. All you have is what you are, and what you give.

I am here because you see in me the promise, the promise that we made two hundred years ago in this city —the promise kept. We have kept it, on Anarres. We have nothing but our freedom. We have nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful. If it is Anarres you want, if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands. You must come to it alone, and naked, as the child comes into the world, into his future, without any past, without any property, wholly dependent on other people for his life. You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

The above speech brings to mind Peter Kropotkin‘s essay Anarchist Morality, to me at least. Mutual Aid, referenced in the speech above is also a book by him. I understand that Le Guin’s anarchy was greatly influenced by Kropotkin.

Shevek summarising his final views on Urrusti society, after fleeing A-Io when the rally is broken up by the army:

There is nothing, nothing on Urras that we Anarresti need! We left with empty hands, a hundred and seventy years ago, and we were right we took nothing. Because there is nothing here but States and their weapons, the rich and their lies, and the poor and their misery. There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, and fear of loss, and the wish for power. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is ‘superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them. You cannot touch another person, yet they will not leave you alone. There is no freedom. It is a box—Urras is a box, a package, with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man. A man whose hand was shot off because he held it out to others. I have been in Hell at last. Desar was right; it is Urras; Hell is Urras.

More quotes from The Dispossessed and some of Le Guin’s other books, are available here.

In summary, I encourage you to read it! While the political allusions to the cold war and Vietnam have ostensibly decreased in contemporary relevance (although not really; substitute the word “Vietnam” for “Iraq” and discussion of the State’s war economy remains valid) the critiques of authoritarian society, hierarchies and the unbounded waste and excess of capitalism (“excrement” being Le Guin’s translation from Pravik!) only become more relevant. I leave you with an ambassador of the planet Terra (our Earth, with the story being set centuries into Earth’s future) lamenting the recent history and decline of her planet:

“My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until  there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians [the political philosophy of Anarres is Odonism, after a woman named Odo, an Urrasti dissident] chose a desert: we Terrans made a desert… we survive there as you do. People are tough! There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do – they never adapt either. We failed as a species, as a social species... we forfeited our chance for Anarres centuries ago, before it ever came into being.

We on Earth today might still have time to found an Anarres within our Urras.


~ by freedomthistime on September 22, 2011.

4 Responses to “Book review: The Dispossessed”

  1. Sounds like a good read, might have to see if they’ve got this in Southampton libraries.

  2. […] zur heutigen Zeit. Weltkarten zur Illustration für die Leser, wie sie Ursula K. Le Guin von Anarres und Urras gezeichnet hat, erübrigen sich also. Ich habe mich für Nordeuropa – genauer gesagt, für […]

  3. […] K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is not only a criticism of present-day capitalism by way of science fiction but also a description of what an alternative system could […]

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