Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A Sunny Disposition

I loved the Earthsea books when I was growing up. I read them at a particularly formative time of my life, and they made a vivid impression on me, especially the quiet darkness of the Tombs of Atuan. For some reason, though, I never followed up on Le Guin's other output. Better late than never! The Dispossessed (sometimes subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia) is one of her many science fiction novels, and I think the first of hers that I've read. It's very much a novel of ideas as opposed to a novel of action, and explores some really interesting themes that touch on social structures, government, economics, personal relations, and how all those things go together.


The novel's protagonist, Shevek, is a physicist from the planet Anarres. Anarres was founded nearly two hundred years ago as a sort of living experiment in Odonism, a commune-oriented philosophy that abandons traditional authority-based systems in favor of bottom-up syndicalism. Much like how the Pilgrims came from England to try and start a new society in the alien landscape of the New World, the Anarran settlers came from the more Earth-like Urras, who welcomed the chance to peacefully rid themselves of this potentially dangerous anarchist sect. Alternating chapters explore Shevek's early life on Anarres and his more recent experience on Urras.

This story initially reminded me a little of Stranger in a Strange Land, with the returning-alien visitor seeing customs that we've taken for granted and calling them into question. It feels pretty different, though, partly because both of these planets are technically alien to us, and also because, as we eventually see, Shevek also felt like he didn't belong on Anarres. He's able to see the situation on Urras with fresh eyes, which prompts us to consider the corresponding Earth systems, but on the whole his situation seems to be a bit messier and less... I dunno, dogmatic, than the one Heinlein presented.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is how it takes a holistic views of the system: not just what it does, but how it is propagated and the context in which it occurs. Anarrans are different, but not for any genetic reason: Shevek shares the same great-grandparents as his Urran hosts. Culture requires repetition and indoctrination to continue across generations, from the idealistic founders to those born into it. He notices that parents on Urras teach their children to be silent (respect authority, defer to their elders) with the exact same tone of voice that parents on Anarres teach their children to avoid possessions (deny the ego, put the group before the self). There isn't an explicit doctrinal demand for this early childhood indoctrination, but once set in place, it'll pass down values and also prepare all the individuals for the future actions and behaviors they'll exhibit as members of their societies.

And, on the macro side, we also see how the current concept of "Odonism" has evolved based on its environment. When Odo herself came up with the idea, she was thinking in terms of Urras, with bountiful resources that were allocated unjustly. Once her followers arrived at Anarres, they had to make do with a far more constrained set of resources, and so there's a strain of austerity that now feels like a core tenet of the system. (As a side note, it struck me as a believable and probably common situation for radicals to be forced to practice their beliefs in a poorer environment. Besides the Pilgrims, you might also think of Mormons needing to establish their faith in the unforgiving desert of Utah rather than the fertile farmland of Illinois.)

Partly as a consequence of the alternating chapters sharing focus on both planets, it feels like Le Guin is giving a fair and nuanced treatment of Odonism, showing its flaws as well as its successes. Shevek's faith isn't really shaken by his visit, but we can see many ways in which Urras seems superior to the plainer existence from back home. For me, it seemed like Odonism's superiority is only proven late in the book after violence enters the picture: first the violence of state against state, and then more shockingly of the state against its citizens. There are strong echoes here of the Vietnam war, which was coming to an end as this book was published: there's a cold proxy war between two great powers, a draft with universal conscription, social unrest tied to underlying class issues and covered over with appeals to patriotism and masculinity. It isn't that Anarres is free of violence - someone is killed in the very first pages, and Shevek is badly beaten as a young man just because someone dislikes his name - but the person-on-person violence of Anarres is always small-scale and quickly resolved, not the awful, inescapable horror of statist violence. For this reason alone, if nothing else, Odonism does seem like a utopia, ambiguous though it may be.

While war is a huge and obvious harm in the book, sex and gender issues are also very significant: they seem more subtle, especially among the Urrans, but are even wider spread. In Urras even more than on Earth, women are considered inferior, and completely excluded from higher education, government, and other centers of power and influence. Like on our world, women are considered fundamentally separate, and must practice an entirely separate set of skills: physical appeal, demure behavior. We get a sense of what a waste this is, as the society is failing to tap the benefits half of its population has to offer.

This book was published in 1974, shortly after the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, and seems to be of its time in its advocacy for feminism. It seems to also be ahead of its time in its positive portrayal of homosexuality, nontraditional family units, and sex outside of marriage. Monogamy is practiced but not expected on Anarres, and as a result, it's especially meaningful when people stay together. Child-rearing is interesting as well, with soft social pressures for children to be raised by collectives outside of individual family units.

I keep connecting ideas on Urras and Anarres back to Earth, but Earth is actually a separate planet that exists in the universe of this book. The "Terrans" are an exotic species, not very well-known to the Odonians: Shevek spends some time recounting the second-hand theories of relativity developed by the Terran scientist "Aisenstain". The Odonians may be living in an ambiguous utopia, but we learn that the Terrans are in a straightforward dystopia: Earth is nearly uninhabitable now, wracked by environmental degradation and war, its maximum population reduced to a mere half-billion people and able to survive only under a highly regimented authoritarian system that rigidly allocates the sparse resources remaining. From the Terrans' perspective, Urras is a paradise, and they are somewhat bemused by Shevek's hatred for its statist system: the richest Terran would find life on Urras a marvel.

This brings up a sort of meta-question: is an unequal society with a well-off underclass better or worse than an egalitarian society where everyone is relatively poor? I'm curious if you could actually measure happiness or contentment or something in this scenario: are people more upset by having too little or by having much less? There does seem to be a bottom line below which abject misery makes a system unbearable, which some Odonians slide beneath during the drought and famine. As long as peoples' basic material needs are being met, though, does the overall society grow happier by growing the median or by shrinking the standard deviation? It's probably a false choice, at least between the two systems explored in this book... the mean, and maybe even the median would be higher in a class-based society (as there's greater pressure to work and more total economic output), but I have a hard time imagining that the lowest tier in a class-based society would be higher than a single egalitarian tier, absent an external factor like war or famine.

Again, Odonism isn't perfect. Even assuming that equality is good, it fails to live up to its own ideals: Sabul replicates systems of power, even in the absence of recognized systems of authority. This comes across as particularly insidious, since others in the society don't think authority is possible, and fail to recognize what Sabul does. Odonism also limits the Anarrans' ability to create big things, like the postal service, which is erratic and unreliable. Granted, though, their society doesn't value a reliable postal system, so they don't feel any pain from what seem like shortcomings to us. To them, it's a feature and not a bug that they can't build any infrastructure bigger than a single community.


The biggest problem to explore, though, is the tension between equality and liberty. Odo's goal was to have both, and in fact she saw each pillar as supporting the other: keeping people equal kept them free since nobody could have authority over another, and by keeping people free everyone had access to the same opportunities and could achieve equal-ish outcomes. Anarres started out that way, but over time the social and cultural forces they created began to exert control that was equivalent to the governmental and economic forces of Urras. This is the main dilemma motivating Shevek and the most compelling question of the book. He ends up becoming a true anarchist by revolting against the anarchist establishment, exposing the ossification of society and hoping to jolt his brothers and sisters into rediscovering the original joy of Odonism.

I thought it was really cool to have a critique like this embedded within the story. It's very tempting, in both fiction and in real life, so say "The current system is bad, we need to use this new system, which will Solve All Problems." It's much more realistic and interesting to explore a situation where the new system is better, but not perfect: it brings its own new problems, and we can see people working through those. Perfection is a goal to strive towards, not a destination to reach.


Utopias are notoriously difficult to write about: how do you make an interesting story out of perfection? There's a reason we all read Paradise Lost instead of Paradise Regained. The Dispossessed offers a bold and detailed look at one possible utopia, but it's a modest utopia that comes with plentiful hardships and limitations. It's a vision that's so different from the world we grew up in that it can feel hard to hold the whole thing in our head to compare them. But that comparison is a valuable exercise, leading us to question and challenge values we take for granted. And it's a compelling story on its own terms, with a pleasantly flawed protagonist doing his own part to change minds on his planet, just as Le Guin is trying to do on our own.

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