May 6, 2024, 1:53 May

An ambiguous utopia

I'm a little scared to write about Ursula Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" because I'm quite certain that I could write a post about it as long the novel itself. Perhaps I will, eventually, but doing so all in one go strikes me as unhelpful for both me and for anyone reading this.

I've therefore decided to reproduce just one, admittedly lengthy, part of it, which you can find below, and to comment on that. Or at least, that was my original intention. Instead, I ended up following my train of thought until it took me to a natural, rather satisfying conclusion. Still, I think this extract elegantly illustrates why I have recommended this book to anyone who will listen to me, namely because of the themes Le Guin explores in her "ambiguous utopia" and her captivating style. So I have left it here.

A minimum of context is required to understand this extract, and for that I invite you to read the summary of the Anarres chapters on the Wikipedia page. I've also provided explanatory notes throughout the extract to fill in the gaps left by the Wikipedia page.

(Notice: this is a fairly long read, 30 minutes or so if you include the extract.)

Extract from Chapter 6 of "The Dispossessed"

He [Bedap] looked at Room 46 with ironic wonder. “Shev, you live like a rotten Urrasti profiteer.”

“Come on, it’s not that bad. Show me anything excremental!” The room in fact contained just about what it had when Shevek first entered it. Bedap pointed: “That blanket.”

[Excremental here is used by Odonians as a synonym for wasteful or excessive, which is borderline blasphemous in their society.]

“That was here when I came. Somebody handmade it, and left it when they moved. Is a blanket excessive on a night like this?”

“It’s definitely an excremental color,” Bedap said. “As a functions analyst I must point out that there is no need for orange. Orange serves no vital function in the social organism at either the cellular or the organic level, and certainly not at the holorganismic or most centrally ethical level; in which case tolerance is a less good choice than excretion. Dye it dirty green, brother! What’s all this stuff?” [Bedap is joking with Shevek.]


“In code?” Bedap asked, looking through a notebook with the coolness Shevek remembered was characteristic of him. He had even less sense of privacy—of private ownership—than most Anarresti. Bedap had never had a favorite pencil that he carried around with him, or an old shirt he had got fond of and hated to dump in the recycle bin, and if given a present he tried to keep it out of regard for the giver’s feelings, but always lost it. He was conscious of this trait and said it showed he was less primitive than most people, an early example of the Promised Man, the true and native Odonian. But he did have a sense of privacy. It began at the skull, his own or another’s and from there on in it was complete. He never pried. He said now, “Remember those fool letters we used to write in code when you were on the afforestation project?”

“That isn’t code, it’s Iotic.”

[Iotic is one of the languages spoken on Urras, the planet from which the Odonians escaped. Anarres is Urras' moon (and vice versa).]

“You’ve learned Iotic? Why do you write in it?”

“Because nobody on this planet can understand what I’m saying. Or wants to. The only one who did died three days ago.”

“Sabul’s dead?”

“No, Gvarab. Sabul isn’t dead. Fat chance!”

[Gvarab was a physicist on Urras who inspired Shevek's "Simultaneity" theory of time.]

“What’s the trouble?”

“The trouble with Sabul? Half envy, the other half incompetence.”

“I thought his book on causality was supposed to be first-rate. You said so.”

“I thought so, till I read the sources. They’re all Urrasti ideas. Not new ones, either. He hasn’t had a thought of his own for twenty years. Or a bath.”

“How are your thoughts?” asked Bedap, putting a hand on the notebooks and looking at Shevek under his brows. Bedap had small, rather squinting eyes, a strong face, a thickset body. He bit his fingernails, and in years of doing so had reduced them to mere strips across his thick, sensitive fingertips.

“No good,” said Shevek, sitting down on the bed platform. “I’m in the wrong field.”

Bedap grinned. “You?”

“I think at the end of this quarter I’ll ask for reposting.”

[Odonians organise work through a centralised system called Divlab. This system suggests work for you to do, based on your competencies and interests, that you can always refuse. Shevek is saying here that he will look for a work posting elsewhere.]

“To what?”

“I don’t care. Teaching, engineering. I’ve got to get out of physics.”

Bedap sat down in the desk chair, bit a fingernail, and said, “That sounds odd.”

“I’ve recognized my limitations.”

“I didn’t know you had any. In physics, I mean. You had all sorts of limitations and defects. But not in physics. I’m no temporalist, I know. But you don’t have to be able to swim to know a fish, you don’t have to shine to recognize a star…”

Shevek looked at his friend and said, blurted out, what he had never been able to say clearly to himself: “I’ve thought of suicide. A good deal. This year. It seems the best way.”

“It’s hardly the way to come out on the other side of suffering.”

[In an earlier chapter, Shevek says that solidarity begins in shared suffering, suffering left after that alleviated by social and political organising and which is an inevitable part of life. This is a recurrent theme throughout the book.]

Shevek smiled stiffly. “You remember that?”

“Vividly. It was a very important conversation to me. And to Takver and Tirin, I think.”

“Was it?” Shevek stood up. There was only four steps’ pacing room, but he could not hold still. “It was important to me then,” he said, standing at the window. “But I’ve changed, here. There’s something wrong here. I don’t know what it is.”

“I do,” Bedap said. “The wall. You’ve come up against the wall.”

Shevek turned with a frightened look. “The wall?”

“In your case, the wall seems to be Sabul, and his supporters in the science syndicates and the PDC. As for me, I’ve been in Abbenay four decads. Forty days. Long enough to see that in forty years here I’ll accomplish nothing, nothing at all, of what I want to do, the improvement of science instruction in the learning centers. Unless things are changed. Or unless I join the enemies.”

[PDC stands for "Production and Distribution Coordination", which oversees work groups and labor assignments on Anarres]


“The little men. Sabul’s friends! The people in power.”

“What are you talking about, Dap? We have no power structure.”

“No? What makes Sabul so strong?”

“Not a power structure, a government. This isn’t Urras, after all!”

“No. We have no government, no laws, all right. But as far as I can see, ideas never were controlled by laws and governments, even on Urras. If they had been, how would Odo have worked out hers? How would Odonianism have become a world movement? The archists tried to stamp it out by force, and failed. You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you where he can, and where he can’t, he prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. Right? In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn’t any. Not from intellectual excellence, he hasn’t any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the average human mind. Public opinion! That’s the power structure he’s part of, and knows how to use. The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind.”

Shevek leaned his hands on the window sill, looking through the dim reflections on the pane into the darkness outside. He said at last, “Crazy talk, Dap.”

“No, brother, I’m sane. What drives people crazy is trying to live outside reality. Reality is terrible. It can kill you. Given time, it certainly will kill you. The reality is pain—you said that! But it’s the lies, the evasions of reality, that drive you crazy. It’s the lies that make you want to kill yourself.”

Shevek turned around to face him. “But you can’t seriously talk of a government, here!”

“Tomar’s Definitions: ‘Government: The legal use of power to maintain and extend power.’ Replace ‘legal’ with ‘customary,’ and you’ve got Sabul, and the Syndicate of Instruction, and the PDC.”

“The PDC!”

“The PDC is, by now, basically an archistic bureaucracy.”

After a moment, Shevek laughed, not quite naturally, and said, “Well, come on, Dap, this is amusing, but it’s a bit diseased, isn’t it?”

“Shev, did you ever think that what the analogic mode calls ‘disease,’ social disaffection, discontent, alienation, that this might analogically also be called pain—what you meant when you talked about pain, suffering? And that, like pain, it serves a function in the organism?”

“No!” Shevek said, violently. “I was talking in personal, in spiritual terms.”

“But you spoke of physical suffering, of a man dying of burns. And I speak of spiritual suffering! Of people seeing their talent, their work, their lives wasted. Of good minds submitting to stupid ones. Of strength and courage strangled by envy, greed for power, fear of change. Change is freedom, change is life—is anything more basic to Odonian thought than that? But nothing changes any more! Our society is sick. You know it. You’re suffering its sickness. Its suicidal sickness!”

“That’s enough, Dap. Drop it.”

Bedap said no more. He began to bite his thumbnail, methodically and thoughtfully.

Shevek sat down again on the bed platform and put his head in his hands. There was a long silence. The snow had ceased. A dry, dark wind pushed at the windowpane. The room was cold; neither of the young men had taken off his coat.

“Look, brother,” Shevek said at last. “It’s not our society that frustrates individual creativity. It’s the poverty of Anarres. This planet wasn’t meant to support civilization. If we let one another down, if we don’t give up our personal desires to the common good, nothing, nothing on this barren world can save us. Human solidarity is our only resource.”

“Solidarity, yes! Even on Urras, where food falls out of the trees, even there Odo said that human solidarity is our one hope. But we’ve betrayed that hope. We’ve let cooperation become obedience. On Urras they have government by the minority. Here we have government by the majority. But it is government! The social conscience isn’t a living thing any more, but a machine, a power machine, controlled by bureaucrats!”

“You or I could volunteer and be lottery-posted to PDC within a few decads. Would that turn us into bureaucrats, bosses?”

“It’s not the individuals posted to PDC, Shev. Most of them are like us. All too much like us. Well-meaning, naïve. And it’s not just PDC. It’s anywhere on Anarres. Learning centers, institutes, mines, mills, fisheries, canneries, agricultural development and research stations, factories, one-product communities—anywhere that function demands expertise and a stable institution. But that stability gives scope to the authoritarian impulse. In the early years of the Settlement we were aware of that, on the lookout for it. People discriminated very carefully then between administering things and governing people. They did it so well that we forgot that the will to dominance is as central in human beings as the impulse to mutual aid is, and has to be trained in each individual, in each new generation. Nobody’s born an Odonian any more than he’s born civilized! But we’ve forgotten that. We don’t educate for freedom. Education, the most important activity of the social organism, has become rigid, moralistic, authoritarian. Kids learn to parrot Odo’s words as if they were laws—the ultimate blasphemy!”

Shevek hesitated. He had experienced too much of the kind of teaching Bedap was talking about, as a child, and even here at the Institute, to be able to deny Bedap’s accusation.

Bedap seized his advantage relentlessly. “It’s always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don’t make changes, don’t risk disapproval, don’t upset your syndics. It’s always easiest to let yourself be governed.”

“But it’s not government, Dap! The experts and the old hands are going to manage any crew or syndicate; they know the work best. The work has to get done, after all! As for PDC, yes, it might become a hierarchy, a power structure, if it weren’t organized to prevent exactly that. Look how it’s set up! Volunteers, selected by lot; a year of training; then four years as a Listing; then out. Nobody could gain power, in the archist sense, in a system like that, with only four years to do it in.”

“Some stay on longer than four years.”

“Advisors? They don’t keep the vote.”

“Votes aren’t important There are people behind the scenes—”

“Come on! That’s sheer paranoia! Behind the scenes—how? What scenes? Anybody can attend any PDC meeting, and if he’s an interested syndic, he can debate and vote! Are you trying to pretend that we have politicians here?” Shevek was furious with Bedap; his prominent ears were scarlet, his voice had got loud. It was late, not a light showing across the quadrangle. Desar, in Room 45, knocked on the wall for quiet.

“I’m saying what you know,” Bedap replied in a much lowered voice. “That it’s people like Sabul who really run PDC, and run it year after year.”

“If you know that,” Shevek accused in a harsh whisper, “then why haven’t you made it public? Why haven’t you called a criticism session in your syndicate, if you have facts? If your ideas won’t stand public examination, I don’t want them as midnight whispers.”

Bedap’s eyes had got very small, like steel beads. “Brother,” he said, “you are self-righteous. You always were. Look outside your own damned pure conscience for once! I come to you and whisper because I know I can trust you, damn you! Who else can I talk to? Do I want to end up like Tirin?”

[Tirin is a childhood friend of Shevek and Bedap.]

“Like Tirin?” Shevek was startled into raising his voice. Bedap hushed him with a gesture towards the wall. “What’s wrong with Tirin? Where is he?”

“In the Asylum on Segvina Island.”

“In the Asylum?”

Bedap hunched his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms around them, as he sat sideways on the chair. He spoke quietly now, with reluctance.

“Tirin wrote a play and put it on, the year after you left. It was funny—crazy—you know his kind of thing.” Bedap ran a hand through his rough, sandy hair, loosening it from its queue. “It could seem anti-Odonian, if you were stupid. A lot of people are stupid. There was a fuss. He got reprimanded. Public reprimand. I never saw one before. Everybody comes to your syndicate meeting and tells you off. It used to be how they cut a bossy gang foreman or manager down to size. Now they only use it to tell an individual to stop thinking for himself. It was bad. Tirin couldn’t take it. I think it really drove him a bit out of his mind. He felt everybody was against him, after that. He started talking too much—bitter talk. Not irrational, but always critical, always bitter. And he’d talk to anybody that way. Well, he finished at the Institute, qualified as a math instructor, and asked for a posting. He got one. To a road repair crew in Southsetting. He protested it as an error, but the Divlab computers repeated it. So he went.”

“Tir never worked outdoors the whole time I knew him,” Shevek interrupted. “Since he was ten. He always wangled desk jobs. Divlab was being fair.”

Bedap paid no attention. “I don’t really know what happened down there. He wrote to me several times, and each time he’d been reposted. Always to physical labor, in little outpost communities. He wrote that he was quitting his posting and coming back to Northsetting to see me. He didn’t come. He stopped writing. I traced him through the Abbenay Labor Files, finally. They sent me a copy of his card, and the last entry was just, ‘Therapy. Segvina Island.’ Therapy! Did Tirin murder somebody? Did he rape somebody? What do you get sent to the Asylum for, beside that?”

“You don’t get sent to the Asylum at all. You request posting to it.”

“Don’t feed me that crap,” Bedap said with sudden rage. “He never asked to be sent there! They drove him crazy and then sent him there. It’s Tirin I’m talking about, Tirin, do you remember him?”

“I knew him before you did. What do you think the Asylum is—a prison? It’s a refuge. If there are murderers and chronic work-quitters there, it’s because they asked to go there, where they’re not under pressure, and safe from retribution. But who are these people you keep talking about—‘they’? ‘They’ drove him crazy, and so on. Are you trying to say that the whole social system is evil, that in fact ‘they,’ Tirin’s persecutors, your enemies, ‘they,’ are us—the social organism?”

“If you can dismiss Tirin from your conscience as a work-quitter, I don’t think I have anything else to say to you,” Bedap replied, sitting hunched up on the chair. There was such plain and simple grief in his voice that Shevek’s righteous wrath was stopped short.

Neither spoke for a while.

“I’d better go home,” Bedap said, unfolding stiffly, and standing up.

“It’s an hour’s walk from here. Don’t be stupid.”

“Well, I thought…since…”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“All right. Where’s the shittery?”

[Le Guin highlights how squeamish societies are about bodily functions, including shitting, throughout the book, here by having the characters refer to the toilet as the shittery.]

“Left, third door.”

When he came back Bedap proposed to sleep on the floor, but as there was no rug and only one warm blanket, this idea was, as Shevek monotonously remarked, stupid. They were both glum and cross; sore, as if they had fist-fought but not fought all their anger out. Shevek unrolled the bedding and they lay down. At the turning out of the lamp a silvery darkness came into the room, the half darkness of a city night when there is snow on the ground and light reflects faintly upward from the earth. It was cold. Each felt the warmth of the other’s body as very welcome.

“I take it back about the blanket.”

“Listen, Dap, I didn’t mean to—”

“Oh, let’s talk about it in the morning.”


They moved closer together. Shevek turned over onto his face and fell asleep within two minutes. Bedap struggled to hold on to consciousness, slipped into the warmth, deeper, into the defenselessness, the trustfulness of sleep, and slept. In the night one of them cried out aloud, dreaming. The other one reached his arm out sleepily, muttering reassurance, and the blind warm weight of his touch outweighed all fear.

They met again the next evening and discussed whether or not they should pair for a while, as they had when they were adolescent. It had to be discussed, because Shevek was pretty definitely heterosexual and Bedap pretty definitely homosexual; the pleasure of it would be mostly for Bedap. Shevek was perfectly willing, however, to reconfirm the old friendship; and when he saw that the sexual element of it meant a great deal to Bedap, was, to him, a true consummation, then he took the lead, and with considerable tenderness and obstinacy made sure that Bedap spent the night with him again. They took a free single in a domicile downtown, and both lived there for about a decad; then they separated again, Bedap to his dormitory and Shevek to Room 46. There was no strong sexual desire on either side to make the connection last. They had simply reasserted trust.

Yet Shevek sometimes wondered, as he went on seeing Bedap almost daily, what it was he liked and trusted in his friend. He found Bedap’s present opinions detestable and his insistence on talking about them tiresome. They argued fiercely almost every time they met. They caused each other a good deal of pain. Leaving Bedap, Shevek frequently accused himself of merely clinging to an outgrown loyalty, and swore angrily not to see Bedap again.

But the fact was that he liked Bedap more as a man than he ever had as a boy. Inept, insistent, dogmatic, destructive: Bedap could be all that; but he had attained a freedom of mind that Shevek craved, though he hated its expression. He had changed Shevek's life, and Shevek knew it, knew that he was going on at last, and that it was Bedap who had enabled him to go on. He fought Bedap every step of the way, but he kept coming, to argue, to do hurt and get hurt, to find—under anger, denial, and rejection—what he sought. He did not know what he sought. But he knew where to look for it.

It was, consciously, as unhappy a time for him as the year that had preceded it. He was still getting no further with his work; in fact he had abandoned temporal physics altogether and backtracked into humble lab work, setting up various experiments in the radiation laboratory with a deft, silent technician as partner, studying subatomic velocities. It was a well-trodden field, and his belated entry into it was taken by his colleagues as an admission that he had finally stopped trying to be original. The Syndicate of Members of the Institute gave him a course to teach, mathematical physics for entering students. He got no sense of triumph from finally having been given a course, for it was just that: he had been given it, been permitted it. He got little comfort from anything. That the walls of his hard puritanical conscience were widening out immensely was anything but a comfort. He felt cold and lost. But he had nowhere to retreat to, no shelter, so he kept coming farther out into the cold, getting farther lost.

Anarchism, stability and hope

If you have never seriously thought or read about anarchism, I imagine you would be surprised when reading the above passage to learn that Anarresti society is not chaotic and disorganised - quite the opposite in fact. Anarres is meant to be an anarcho-syndicalist society, with a central body, the PDC, suggesting work postings for Anarrestis. The key word there is suggests - Anarresti's are free to decide whether or not to take up a posting, and they can equally ask for one or do whatever they like. This is a central feature of anarchist societies (as I understand them): they strive to mitigate the power that individuals or organisations have over people, power that is typically wielded to force them to do things against their will (e.g. mine cobalt and uranium with your bare hands, kick people off their land to build a coal mine, work in fast food chains, go to school, ...)

Before addressing the very important nuances to this, I think it's important to stress that this is not pure fantasy: similar societies have and still do exist today. The two notable examples that come to my mind are the Zapatista's in Mexico, who have have successfully preserved their autonomy from the Mexican state since 1994; and Rojava, a democratic confederacy that gained autononomy during the Syrian civil war in 2012. There are plenty more examples, though many, such as in the anarchist societies formed during the Spanish civil war, were short lived. Hell, the anarcho-syndicalist peasants from Monty Python's "Holy Grail" may not have been all that unusual.

What strikes me about the examples that I gave is their isolation from the rest of the world, at least in material terms (the Zapatista's and Rojava communicate intensely with other militant groups). Ursula Le Guin herself said she was "embarrassed and a bit guilty" because, since writing the book, she had concluded that the only way for an anarchist society to be fully implemented was "to be completely isolated from everybody else." This is taken to the extreme in "The Dispossessed", where Anarresti society exists on a planet of its own. What's more, the arrangement that allows the Anarresti to live peacefully (though not comfortably) on their planet is particularly uncomfortable:

They [*the freighters from Urras*] brought fossil oils and petroleum products, certain delicate machine parts and electronic components that Anarresti manufacturing was not geared to supply, and often a new strain of fruit tree or grain for testing. They took back to Urras a full load of mercury, copper, aluminum, uranium, tin, and gold. It was, for them, a very good bargain. The division of their cargoes eight times a year was the most prestigious function of the Urrasti Council of World Governments and the major event of the Urrasti world stock market. In fact, *the Free World of Anarres was a mining colony of Urras* [*own emphasis*]. The fact galled. Every generation, every year, in the PDC debates of Abbenay, fierce protests were made: “Why do we continue these profiteering business transactions with warmaking propertarians?” And cooler heads always gave the same answer: “It would cost the Urrasti more to dig the ores themselves; therefore they don’t invade us. But if we broke the trade agreement, they would use force.” It is hard, however, for people who have never paid money for anything to understand the psychology of cost, the argument of the marketplace. Seven generations of peace had not brought trust.

Back on earth, the Zapatista's and Rojava have survived for so long not only because they are isolated (and, to some extent, situated in geopolitically uninteresting areas) but also because they are armed. In both cases, conflict with the outside world is ongoing. This involves more than just direct confrontation: Kurds are intimidated and silenced the world over, including in Belgium where journalist offices were recently raided and Kurds protesting against Turkish attacks on their communities in Belgium were tear gassed (in case it needs to be said, the police handling of the farmer's protests was decidedly friendlier). Ultimately, I think that anarchist societies will forever be threatened because their very existence threatens states across the globe. This cannot be tolerated, and trumps any idea of developing "friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples".

Le Guin, however, suggests a more subtle reason for the stability of Anarresti society - close-mindedness and social pressure. This appears figuratively as "the wall" that Shevek keeps running up against, a wall of prejudice and custom that prevents Shevek from reaching his true potential and drives Tirin mad. This wall is the 99% of people who are comfortable with the way things are, who do not want change and will fight against it viciously. Those who cannot imagine different worlds or do not care to even try. Those who have internalised the reprimands they experienced as a child, be it "work hard" or "stop egoizing", and never seriously question them. Le Guin brilliantly exposes how it is not laws or ideals that maintain a society, even an anarchist one, but these people and the customs they preserve.

While in my anarchist utopia I would concieve of education differently (I would not make children parrot anything, let alone the sayings of a cult leader), Le Guin's Anarres is much more credible for it. What is education after all, if not a concerted attempt to preserve the way a society functions by passing down its customs? I would venture that, thanks to this credible portrayal of Anarresti society, an uncritical reader would not even notice Le Guin's subversion of our contemporary idea of human nature. She shows how we are neither completely selfish or completely altruistic, and neither are we a mix of the two. Our nature and behaviours are, in fact, infinitely malleable, moulded by the institutions, not least educational, that raise and sustain us.

There is, however, the question of stability of a society. If I may illustrate my point by expanding my earlier citation of Le Guin:

Then it [an anarchist society] will probably all the same destroy itself from inside, because we are perverse creatures.

Indeed we are, and unfortunately the perverse have an advantage over the kind and caring. While a society can do its best to mitigate, limit and distribute power among its citizens, it will always be vulnerable to those with a ruthless and violent desire to dominate others. I would like to formulate this more clearly in game theoretical terms but find myself incapable right now. I suspect that the HANDY model from Motesharrei et al., though a dynamic rather than equilibrium model, goes some way towards modeling this idea (I owe Pablo Servigne and Raphael Servigne's "How everything could collapse" for this example).

But just as the delicate Jinga tower of mutual aid will always have gusts of malevolence threatening to topple it, so too will the prisons that oppressive societies build have corners of free-thinking, benevolent ivy slowly fissuring their walls. (OK, I'll admit I went overboard with that imagery, but I had fun OK?) It is books like Le Guin's that feed that ivy and that will also feed the book burnings when I inevitably live in a fascist state. Stories like "The Dispossessed" are wonderfully dangerous because they remind us that so much is possible, and the only thing holding us back is ourselves.

I will never be able to live in Anarres. Writing these words on a Monday morning though, I feel a stirring within me, an eagerness to create small patches of that ambiguous, imperfect utopia wherever I can. After all, if three is a crowd then four is a society, right?

I can't stop writing...

I thought that was a bloody good way to end this book review, but I would feel unsatisfied if I did not go a little further. There are so many reasons why I love "The Dispossessed" that I can think of no better way to present them than through a list:

  • The tackling of environmental issues. There are in fact four planets discussed in the book, each with their own environmental issues and solutions. (Spoiler alert: Earth (which features in the book) overshot its environmental carrying capacity. Its population of one billion survives through absolute, total control of everything they do.) The environmental theme was so strong at times that I wondered whether this wasn't secretly a degrowth manifesto...
  • Wonder at what biodiversity is left on Earth. Anarres is a miserable planet which sustains very few forms of life. When Shevek goes to Urras and wonders at birds, horses and otters, I couldn't help but get caught up in his excitement too and feel grateful for everything we have left.
  • Feminist perspective. Reading this book now, after 50 years, some of the feminist criticisms made by Le Guin seem caricaturesque. However, I had to remind myself that a lot changed in the US and Europe over 50 years, at least legally if not in practice. For example, many universities still forbade women from taking on certain positions, as they do on Urras. Other critiques still feel very much present - what is "women's work", exactly? Why aren't there women builders for example?
  • Beautiful, elegant and simple writing. Have another read of the third and second last paragraphs of the extract ("Yet Shevek sometimes wondered..."). Le Guin's writing is effortless: simple and effective most of the time, colourful and extravagant where there is space for it. Truly, this is the kind of writing I aspire to.
  • From the personal to the political. Le Guin deftly explores heavy political themes (communism, capitalism, anarchism, feminism, environmentalism, ...) through personal relationships. She usually does this explicitly, for example through Shevek's political conversations on Urras, or by explaining at length a seemingly banal occurence such as Shevek partnering for life. A favourite example of mine is when Shevek's incredulity at the hierarchical organisation of the military gives way to comprehension (and disgust) when he understands that it facilitates the violence he witnesses soldiers carrying out. (This sparks further thoughts about Hannah Arendts "Banality of evil" and my recurring nightmares about the return of fascism, but let's leave it at that.) You might expect that addressing issues in this way feels heavy-handed and cumbersome, but I experienced it as anything but, and I appreciated Le Guin being upfront rather than obtuse and confusing in addressing these themes.
  • So much more... There are so many details that I could write a whole blog post about, like how Shevek's "Simultaneity" view of time resembles the cyclical view espoused by indigenous people's (and assuredly some Western philosophers before Hegel), a view we're likely to become more familiar with as our idea of "progress" stutters and falters. But I should really stop now...

If you're interested in further reflections on "The Dispossessed", you can find a mountain of reviews here. I would recommend reading this one in particular (you can skip to the part "What Shevek shows us...").

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