The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

I thought this book was absolutely brilliant. There were several themes I found really interesting, but for me the book was primarily about freedom (and how suffering/pain is a part of freedom) vs locked rooms and building walls. Trump’s literal wall makes a great metaphor if you need to explain to somebody why this book is still relevant over 40 years after its debut.

The story is set on twin planets: Anarres, which is an anarchic commune with “no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals… no government, no nations, no chiefs, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no soldiers, no war”; and Urras which I think has several nations, one of which seems to be socialist and one capitalist. Anarres has only one wall on the planet – one surrounding the docking station through which goods are delivered from the rest of the world. This wall is a recurring metaphor throughout the book.

We only really see a portrait of the capitalist state on Urras through the eyes of the hero, Shevek, who goes there in exile from Anarres. Shevek is horrified and frightened by the cycle of consumerism and obsession with rank and wealth that he encounters: “… 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!” I’ve come across this interpretation of capitalism in a lot of books now, and I think it’s fairly common in popular culture too. But the utopia Le Guin constructs in Anarres has the same kind of trap with a slightly different nature. After Shevek is ostracised and thrown out of physics by his colleagues for his radical ideas, he comes to the realisation that although he is free to turn down any work and do anything he wants he is also bound by the opinions of his fellow human beings and therefore by the conventions of his society – where people are so used to moving in harmony with comfort and predictability that they feel threatened by any discordant note:

“You see,” he said, “what we’re after is to remind ourselves that we didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we’re no better than a machine. If an individual can’t work in solidarity with his fellows, it’s his duty to work alone. His duty and his right, We have been denying people that right. We’ve been saying, more and more often, you must work with the others, you must accept the rule of the majority. But any rule is tyranny. The duty of the individual is to accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible. Only if he does so will the society live, and change, and adapt, and survive. We are not subjects of a State founded upon law, but members of a society founded upon revolution. Revolution is our obligation: our hope of evolution.”

In both cases, neither the Odonians or the Urrasti understand the prison they’ve built for themselves, and that it will take discomfort and suffering to break them out of them. That kind of thoughtful, intricate balance showing the importance of freedom is held throughout the book with passages like this. The plot, with the incipient civil war and strike on Urras was pretty incidental for me, the scaffolding for a masterpiece of progressive thought.

And the utopia on Anarres feels totally solid. You can really see how it might work – how we would have communal goods and communal living areas and eating places, how it would be possible to move around with complete freedom. It’s so opposite to our society and our way of thinking about ownership. It’s even in their language. There’s a bit where Shevek’s daughter invites him to “Share the handkerchief I use”, not for him to “use my handkerchief”. After reading this book for about 6 hours solid I emerged to have dinner and felt like our society with private property and this bizarre concept of ownership and hierarchy was almost unnatural, Anarres felt so real. The closet we come to it is AirBnB.

I also really liked how partnership worked on Anarres:

An Odonian undertook monogamy just as he might undertake a joint enterprise in production, a ballet or soap-works. Partnership was a voluntarily constituted federation like any other. So long as it worked, it worked, and if it didn’t work it stopped being. It was not an institution but a function. It had no sanction but that of private conscience. This was fully in accord with Odonian social theory. The validity of the promise, even promise of indefinite term, was deep in the grain of Odo’s thinking; though it might seem that her insistence on freedom to change would invalidate the idea of promise or vow, in fact the freedom made the promise meaningful. A promise is a direction taken, a self limitation of choice. As Odo pointed out, if no direction is taken, if one goes nowhere, no change will occur. One’s freedom to choose and to change will be unused, exactly as if one were in a jail, a jail of one’s own building, a maze in which no one way is better than any other. So Odo came to see the promise, the pledge, the idea of fidelity, as essential in the complexity of freedom.

I really liked how the Odonians approach work (which has the same meaning as “play” in their language, which really tells you all you need to know). There’s a giant computer thing called DivLab (division of labour?) which assigns people to jobs which they can take or refuse as they choose. This isn’t the perfect solution – people can be lazy and selfish, and to underscore that Le Guin introduces a famine on Annarres which rocks the utopia to its foundations. I suppose she was thinking about that old argument – that humans can be civilised and rule abiding in plentiful conditions, but once we introduce scarcity and hunger we return to the law of the survival of the fittest that’s embedded in the genetics of all living things. Here’s a quote about work and how the society comes back after the famine:

Odo wrote: ‘A child free from the guilt of ownership and the burden of economic competition will grow up with the will to do what needs doing and the capacity for joy in doing it. It is useless work that darkens the heart. The delight of the nursing mother, of the scholar, of the successful hunter, of the good cook, of the skilful maker, of anyone doing needed work and doing it well – this durable joy is perhaps the deepest source of human affection and of sociality as a whole.’ There was an undercurrent of joy, in that sense, in Abbenay that summer. There was a light-heartedness at work however hard the work, a readiness to drop all care as soon as what could be done had been done. The old tag of ‘solidarity’ had come alive again. There is exhilaration in finding that the bond is stronger, after all, than all that tries the bond.

When it comes to relationships or to work or just how to live your life, I really liked how Le Guin’s utopia handled the importance of making the right move, one step at a time, as best you could rather than fixating on an end goal:

He also felt that a man who has this sense of responsibility about one thing was obliged to carry it through in all things. It was a mistake to see himself as its vehicle and nothing else, to sacrifice any other obligation to it. That sacrificiality was what Takver had spoken of recognising in herself when she was pregnant, and she had spoken with a degree of horror, of self-disgust, because she too was an Odonian, and the separation of means to ends was, to her too, false. For her as for him, there was no end. There was process: process was all. You could go in a promising direction or you could go wrong, but you did not set out with the expectation of ever stopping anywhere. All responsibilities, all commitments thus understood took on substance and duration.

Fulfilment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety-seeking of the spectator, the thrill-hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell. Outside the locked room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.

I haven’t read a book that’s affected me this profoundly for ages. The last one that readily springs to mind is Crime and Punishment. It’s extraordinary how lifelike the characters felt too, there are only one or two straw men who seem to exist just to demonstrate characterstic x or y. Anyway, I can’t recommend it enough.

Oh dear, I just found out that Ursula Le Guin died the day after I finished this book. I feel sad that she has gone, she was a magnificent writer.

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