Friday, January 14, 2011

Ambiguous Utopias: the Science Fiction of Ursula K. LeGuin

As a long time fan of Ursula K. LeGuin, I am almost embarrassed to admit that it's taken me this long to read The Dispossessed, one of her most lauded novels (both in science fiction circles and outside of them).

Winner of the 1974 Nebula Award, as well as the 1975 Hugo and Locus awards, The Dispossessed is at once a sci-fi exploration of alien social worlds, and a philosophical exploration of our own. The novel is set on two neighbouring planets: Anarres and Urras. The inhabitants of these planets were once one people, but in order to prevent an anarcho-syndicalist worker's rebellion, the states of Urras grant the revolutionaries the right to settle on the barren, harsh moon of Anarres, with a promise of non-interference; all of this occurs approximately 200 years before the events of the novel. Anarres maintains an anarchist system of social organization, while Urras is more familiar--state governments, from capitalist-patriarchal to authoritarian-socialist vie with one another for global dominance.

We enter the dual worlds alongside the protagonist, Shevek, a Anarresti physicist who is making the first ever trip by a citizen of Anarres back to Urras. The novel's structure mirrors Shevek's disorientation; every even numbered chapter takes place on Anarres, detailing Shevek's past, while each odd numbered chapter follows his experiences on Urras. This device manages to maintain suspense in two timelines at once--why does Shevek leave Anarres? And does he ever come back?

As in many of her genre books, LeGuin's taught writing and well-rounded characters keep the novel moving, but it is the setting that takes centre stage. The subtitle of the The Dispossessed is "an ambiguous utopia", and this is a telling signifier. The world of Anarres--which could easily be a vicious caricature of anarchist ideas or an uncritical and unrealistic utopia--is, in LeGuin's capable hands, a fully developed social world. Its populace is not unrecognizable; there is vice and avarice, as well as love and altruism. Its materiality is harsh and unforgiving; Anarres is consistently described as a bleak desert landscape, bereft of plants and animals, as well as of magnificent architecture and labour-saving technology. But the characters are warm and believable, and their personalities clearly structured by their membership in a world where ownership is unknown and the worst thing you can be is an "egoist" or a "propertarian".

LeGuin has often been critiqued on for this detail-oriented focus on world building. For science fiction novels, her works display a surprising lack of space battles, hi-tech weaponry, and even significant action sequences of any kind. Despite this, they remain compelling. My interest in LeGuin's work is less about the characters or the plot, and more about her complex--sometimes dauntingly so--explorations of social worlds that, despite being set on alien planets, so closely mirror our own.

The daughter of a prominent anthropologist (Alfred L Kroeber, founder of the Department of Anthropology at Berkeley), LeGuin has noted in multiple places that her fiction has been deeply influenced by anthropological and social thought, as well as her encounters with her father's subjects of study. The Dispossessed is not the only novel of LeGuin's that deserves to be labelled an ambiguous utopia. Her most well-regarded work, The Left Hand of Darkness, describes a planet on which where is no gender. The Telling is set on a world where nature has been subsumed by technology, and The Word for World is Forest is a novella about the clash between a logging colony and the indigenous inhabitants of the planet they share (sci-fi critic Gary Westfahl, in his excellent review of James Cameron's Avatar said that the film most closely resembled LeGuin's novella, out of all its possible predecessors). Perhaps the most beautiful, and disturbing, is LeGuin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"; which is absolutely worth the twenty minutes it takes to read it online.

What all of these works have in common, and what makes LeGuin's writing so endlessly compelling to me, is that they all share a common commitment to exploring anthropological and sociological ideas. In her essay "A War Without End", LeGuin writes:
In the sense that it offers a glimpse of some imagined alternative to 'the way we live now', much of my fiction can be called utopian, but I continue to resist the word. Many of my invented societies strike me as an improvement in one way or another on our own, but I find Utopia far too grand and too rigid a name for them. Utopia, and Dystopia, are intellectual places. I write from passion and playfulness. My stories are neither dire warning nor blueprints for what we ought to do...To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader's mind, from the lazy timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.
 By displacing these alternative societies to alien planets, LeGuin allows the reader to accept these ideas as she presents them; a story similar to the one told in The Dispossessed could not be set in the present day, nor the recent past, and maintain its effect. Always nuanced and rarely didactic, The Dispossessed presents the anarchism of Anarres as a real political possibility--with all the flaws and vagaries that come with human social life--in a way that a novel set on Earth never could. Divested from the baggage of the Cold War, and yet subtly pointing towards the politics of that era, The Dispossessed explicitly recognizes the ambiguity of the characters utopias. In a passage toward the end of the novel, Shevek discusses his time on Urras with an ambassador from a future Earth:
"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...There is no freedom. It is a box--Urras is 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."
For all his passion he spoke simply, with a kind of humility, and again the Ambassador from Terra watched him with a guarded yet sympathetic wonder, as if she had no idea how to take that simplicity.
 "We are both aliens here, Shevek," she said at last. "I am from much farther away in space and time. Yet I begin to think that I am much less alien to Urras than you are... Let me tell you how this world seems to me. To me, and to all my fellow Terrans who have seen the planet, Urras is the kindliest, most various, most beautiful of all the inhavited worlds. It is the world that comes as close as any could to Paradise."
The structure of the novel facilitates this ambiguity, with the final chapters detailing Shevek's escape from capitalist Urras, as well as his decision to leave anarcho-syndicalist Anarres in the first place. All the while, it is clear that while the material relations of the world make the man, it is his human relationships that make the world home.

Another passage in the novel captures LeGuin's commitment to both the intimacy of day-to-day social relationships, and the broader impact that these relationships have on the shape of collective social life:
"If 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."
"It is sad", LeGuin writes in 'A War Without End', "that so many stories that might offer a true vision settle for patriotic of religious platitude, technological miracle working, or wishful thinking, the writers not trying to imagine truth...We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we cannot imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable." Despite the alien settings of her novels, LeGuin's work renders imaginable worlds where social life is organized differently, and, in doing so, allows us the opportunity to re-imagine our own.

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