Saturday, June 4, 2011

SF Masterworks #16: Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

The New Wave of SF broke like a tidal wave over the shores of American and British SF.  Where the "Golden Age" stories tended to focus on individuals striving against the forces of nature or on how scientific advancement would improve the lot of humanity (or see a Communist allegory threaten to swamp certain cherished institutions), the New Wave writers utilized other tools.  More oriented toward the "social sciences" than the "hard sciences" favored by several Golden Age writers, New Wave authors such as J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison, Samuel Delany, and Ursula Le Guin explored the human condition more than they ever focused on issues of development and advancement (today, such terms seem almost quaint to us who have grown up in the past forty years).  Whereas the British New Wave tended to reflect upon the decline of Empire, American New Wave is characterized more by the utilization of anthropological methods in order to probe and vivisect American culture.

Le Guin herself is heavily influenced by cultural anthropological methodology (her father founded the University of California's Anthropology department, only the second in the United States at the time) and this shows up repeatedly in her fiction.  Le Guin's characters are most often non-white characters who in some key way stand outside of the society being represented in her fiction.  Her earlier novels set in the Hainish Cycle maintain throughout a sense of observation and social commentary on a whole host of issues, ranging from environmental degradation (Le Guin being one of the first SF writers to focus on the consequences of global pollution), societal violence, xenophobia, to the malleability of gender roles.  The characters themselves are keen observers who play small but vital roles in the development of the themes and plots.

This is not the case in her 1974 masterpiece, The Dispossessed.  Shevek, the physicist who leaves the purportedly anarchist moon settlement of Anarres for the fractious mother world of Urras, plays a much more central role in the story.  He is the embodiment of the anarchism of his home world, yet he is as much of an outsider to them as he is to the people he encounters on Urras.  Le Guin alternates chapters, dealing with Shevek both before and after his departure for Urras and how he influences those around him.

No discussion of The Dispossessed would be complete without a keen look at the central theme, that of a single person's embracing of a political philosophy that at its heart confounds and frightens those who favor more regimented societies.  Le Guin is careful to portray Anarrean society as being pacifist; much of this is due to the deliberate changes made to their very language, verbal and non-verbal alike.  Based in large part on the Sapir-Whorf theory on language acquisition and symbolic encoding, the Anarreans lack even the rudiments of possessive language.  All is shared, whether it be one's bed (male or female, it only matters if both prefer to couple), one's work details, or even one's computer-generated name.  It is a seemingly utopic society, yet Le Guin, through the eyes of Shevik, reveals the ambiguities present in swapping out traditional governmental forms for a radically new way of organization.

Time and time again we see the little conflicts that arise.  Jealousies emerge and nascent power structures begin to emerge a century and a half after the Anarreans have left Urras to found their utopic anarchistic society.  Le Guin does not skimp on analyzing these shortcoming; rather, she uses them as a contrast to what Shevik experiences in his travels on Urras.  There, we encounter the insidious effects of plutocratic society, of a Cold War analogue, and of the way patriarchal societies influence societal expectations of women.  Shevik is that stranger in a strange land, yet for us, what he witnesses we understand all to well.  Even thirty-seven years after its initial publication, we still witness daily the power inequalities that so many of us suffer at the hands of others and ourselves.

Yet is anarchism the golden key that will lock all those troubles away?  Based on what we see unfold in The Dispossessed, one might say that its subtitle, "An Ambiguous Utopia," serves as a stark reminder of the insidiousness of these human plagues.  Can a person be free or become free of these social evils?  Perhaps, but how in turn are these rare humans treated by their fellow citizens?  That question haunts the pages of this novel.

Related to this is the meanings of "dispossessed."  Depending upon the context upon which one draws her conclusions, the dispossessed could be the Anarreans who remove themselves from Urras and wipe out possession itself.  Or it could refer to Shevik and his encounters during his life and travels.  Perhaps it references the downtrodden people on Urras who are moved by Shevik's very presence among them.  Or maybe it is all of these and more.  That is the beauty of Le Guin's story.  In roughly 400 pages, she weaves so many elements together that we cannot make a firm conclusion of "this is how it was and what it means."  Rather, we interpret and reinterpret the events upon each rereading, finding possible answers and disturbing truths each time we dare to plumb the depths of this novel.  It is this that makes The Dispossessed an enduring "masterwork" that is one of the finest novels of the second half of the twentieth century.

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