The Short Version: Ever since the planet was founded over 150 years ago, Anarres has been kept apart from its sister planet (or more accurately moon) Urras. This all changes when a gifted physicist named Shevek travels to Urras with the promise of faster-than-light technology – but can his anarchist-utopian beliefs survive on the staunchly capitalist planet? And were they even true beliefs to begin with?
The Review: In the last few years, there’s been a whole lot of hubbub in the science fiction community and what it is that science fiction is “supposed to do.” If you believe the various Puppies of the world, sci-fi shouldn’t have a message but should be about the pulp adventure of it all. And I do believe there’s a time and place for a damned fun space adventure – Star Wars, Armada, Guardians of the Galaxy… those don’t really want to do anything other than provide an adrenaline rush of a good time. And I’ve loved those stories and will continue to do so. But I grew up with authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Frank Herbert. I’ve never known a world in which sci-fi didn’t also seek to comment on the fundamental nature of man – just through the guise of a world far different from our present one. The Expanse and Battlestar Galactica seek to find a middle ground of adventure and socio-political commentary – but it’s the latter, the commentary, that separates great sci-fi from the rest of the pack. It enables us to imagine while also forcing us to reflect.
Enter Ursula K. Le Guin, an author of renown and repute who I’m embarrassed to say was missing from my reading history until now. I wish I could go back in time and hand my teenage self The Dispossessed, especially around the time my libertarian uncle was trying to convince me that Atlas Shrugged was worth my time. More than the political, it would’ve been a strong female authorial voice at a moment when I was reading a whole lot of dudes writing sci-fi/fantasy (aside from Anne McCaffrey, whose PERN novels were admittedly more instrumental than most of those dudes to my literary development).
But even though time might be a dimension, through which beings on a higher plane of existence than us (or even on the same plane, just with different conceptions of physics) could travel through… I cannot and so here I am, late twenties, reading Le Guin for the first time, thanks in no small part to Harper Perennial’s wonderful Olive Edition line.
And I’m struck by nothing so much as the politics of the book. In many ways, Le Guin is using Shevek and his travails on both Anarres and Urras to illuminate philosophical questions about forms of government and human behavior. For example: A-Io and Thu, on Urras, are thinly veiled analogies of the US and the USSR – one, a pretty well-off capitalist society that ends up being rather heartless and materialistic, and the other a totalitarian bastardization of communism. But where it gets interesting is that the Anarresti are anarchists – not in the modern-day sense of bomb-throwing lovers of complete structural dissolution, but in a more reduced sense that could more accurately be considered anarcho-syndicalism. They follow a form of pure form of communism, where the race as a collective are united in the aims and protection of said collective. They rotate the menial work and go where the community needs them – giving up on their “day job” for a time if the harvest needs an extra hand, for example. There is ostensibly no leader, no hierarchy, and everyone is equal. The society was designed this way and the language they speak built to enforce it – and now, some 150 or so years after the society was founded, it’s the way everybody behaves.
This has its positive aspects and negative ones – and I believe that Le Guin is arguing that a truly anarchist society could not override certain aspects of basic human instinct, like jealousy and a desire not to “own” in the capitalist sense but to call something one’s own, like a partner or a product of one’s work. Those who begin to think too much of themselves as opposed to the community are labeled as egoizers (oh, hey, I just got another reference in All the Birds in the Sky) and Le Guin leaves the reader, at the end of the novel, with a question or whether or not Anarresti society can handle the shift that comes from allowing individuals a little more ownership of their selves and their lives.
But she doesn’t exactly have nice things to say for capitalism and the USSR’s form of communism, either. The Urrasti are beyond decadent and it is at times painful to watch Shevek’s intellectual awakening in their company – his “simpler” ways are often at cross-purposes to the conflicted and multi-layered meanings of his “more cultured” hosts. Without spoiling anything, Le Guin’s most blatant reveal of her intentions comes near the end of the novel when Shevek talks to the ambassador from Terra (formerly known as Earth). In a beautiful, eloquent short conversation, the ambassador lays out where Earth went wrong and describes how a failed society looks up to the Urrasti (who, admittedly, have less crime and less poverty and are not doing SO bad in terms of equality and openness – better than us here on Earth, anyway) and how that same society can’t even begin to fathom the purity of the one founded on Anarres… but how the Anarresti man standing before her also cannot fathom a society farther gone than the Urrasti; hell, he can barely even comprehend that one. At a moment when a socialist has a real shot at the Presidency and words/beliefs like “socialism” and even “communism” no longer have the stigma that they had in the 20th Century, I found it tremendously powerful to be reading a book that’s more than 40 years old and questioning things in the same way I naturally have come to question them in my life. I can only imagine what the book must’ve done when it was originally released (other than kick ass, obviously: it won the Hugo and Nebula awards).
As a novel, putting aside the political considerations as well as the historical ones, I found myself oddly reticent every time I picked it up and then immediately won over again as I started reading. The structure is one of two alternating timelines, the odd chapters being the “present” (beginning with Shevek’s trip to Urras) and the evens delivering Shevek’s life story up to his decision to take the trip – and for some reason, this bothered me at first. Perhaps it was my confusion in the opening two chapters, about who was who and where we were; Le Guin does not have time for those who need a helping hand, which I have to admit I did appreciate. Part of it, too, may have something to do with the fact that I largely read this book on the train to and from work – a compressed period of reading and one that does not suit a book that takes a moment for the reader to re-enter each time they return to it.
But as the worlds revealed themselves and Le Guin’s political musings took shape, I found myself thinking about the book outside of reading it in ways that even some of the most political or transformative texts I’ve read haven’t achieved. Again, this may be due to our present political moment – but even though the book kept me at something of an arm’s distance most of the time, the ideas it discussed have me thinking. Could our society ever shift to a more mutually supportive one, where everyone worked to serve the betterment of everyone else? Would that stifle artistic expression, because artistic expression is ultimately a self-serving impulse? What is the right balance? Who can we trust as leaders?
Le Guin doesn’t have the answers, just like she can’t actually tell you what Shevek’s formulas are for his General Theory, that leads to the ansible and instantaneous communication (if not travel). But she’s using her gifts as a tremendously talented writer to think through the questions just as Shevek works through various mathematical proofs. We may not find the answers, but we can get closer – we can provide the next building block for someone after us to maybe get even a little bit closer. That, more than anything, feels like the spirit of humanity that Le Guin is trying to call forth in her writing. That’s what the very best sci-fi ought to do, too.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. “Such laudable praise, Drew – how can you not give it superlative marks?” Because at the end of the day, the thought does sometimes overwhelm the storytelling. Le Guin’s worldbuilding, for example, is noticeably practical: it focuses on certain elements that further the story but don’t necessarily fill out the background of the world(s). Often, characters will engage in pages of discourse about theory (political and scientific) and while I loved that, it occasionally skewed a little into the “too much”. I didn’t always enjoy the reading of the book, even as my mind pretty much never stopped thinking about the ideas put forward. It’s that sort of paradox that makes life worth living and books worth reading, though, isn’t it?