Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is a book of 'ism's: capitalism, socialism, sexism, anarchism, egoism and all of the inherent goods and bads that go along with each. There is apparent allegory between the stories settings and factions with real world powers, civil unrest, and global conflict at the time of the book’s writing, but the strengths of the work can be appreciated far removed from their possible inspirations.

To call the book a work of science fiction will turn some readers off right away, and to the reader who is that shallow and closed minded I say they wouldn't enjoy the subtext anyways. Shevek is a physicist and quiet possibly the brightest of his time. He is a man made by the world he grew up on, Anarres. He seeks a larger community of scientist to push his intellect and expand the development of his field, and such a community can only be found on Urras. What Shevek finds, and what the book develops, is a culture clash that opens eyes to different perspectives and exposes what Shevek thought to be a perfect world to be as marred and flawed as any other.

Anarres, Shevek's world, is one of sharing: everyone works for one another. That shared pain is humanities' bond is Shevek’s defining ideal. There is no such concept as ownership or profit. (Possessive pronouns are foreign to this world. Even when it comes to things as children or ideas; which in turn made me think of many a Bible verses though religious themes are never explicitly explored.) Even Shevek, who has the aforementioned unique knack for physic, spends regular rotations working odd jobs ranging from janitorial to day labor; all for the state.

The people of Anarres see Shevek as a deviant when he expresses a wish to visit and study with the ‘profiteers’ on Urras. He, and his family by association, are made outcast of both thought and reality and deemed ‘egoist’ of the highest degree; the most depraved of insults on Anarres. Anarres prefers isolation as to avoid outside influence on their socialist state and aberrant thinking stands out. Yet it is only in Shevek's leaving Anarres that we see oddities in the system: hierarchies where there previously were none, and people in positions of power when all should be equal.

In his time spent abroad he is shown capitalism, in addition to being introduced to deception and abuse of his naivety. Shevek sees capitalism as a 'prison' that people can afford. It is Le Guin's
presentation that yields such great credibility to the multitude of concepts she explores. There is only explanation of a thought or cultural quark when necessary and 'back-story' as to how things came to be is minimal to non-existent. Since the characters simply act as they do, and all involved treat what may seems a peculiar incident to the reader as the way things are, the reader willingly accepts many a foreign concept. Writers on Le Guin's level don’t seem to need to work as hard as others to suspend disbelief.

I would go so far as to say that world building is Le Guin’s strongest achievement in The Dispossessed; even greater than her social commentary. The level of education on Anarres, or the sexual freedom are easy to digest as no character is ever taken to task over such issues and made to explain a history of how things came to pass or why they live as they do. It’s just the way things are. Le Guin has been a genre writer for so long that perhaps the definition of world building has changed since The Dispossessed publication. The modern overwrought, back-story and history that seems to define world building today is completely absent here and it is that absence that lends strength and believability to the prose. I think it is more of Le Guin’s ‘literary’ merits which lean towards concision and active thought on the reader’s behalf that may keep the majority of modern genre fans away more so than the complex social dynamic she constructs.

How the many social issues manifest themselves in the plot is amazing. Shevek’s meeting of Vea, a beautiful married woman of Urras, is the culmination of opposite views. Vea’s beauty—and all she does to enhance it—forces Shevek to reconsider a popular saying, on Anarres, “Excess is excrement.” Yet it is Vea’s people that consider Shevek amoral even when it is she who suggest a tryst. Vea, and her ideas can perhaps best be summed up with, “Morality is a superstition; like religion. True human nature is to be selfish and to be able to admit it. I don't care about other people and don't want to.” Her willingness to look the other way, and views on the role of the individual and what is their expected contribution to society make for a powerful attraction of opposites with Shevek. And lest you think all matters of conflict are philosophical it is a sexual encounter between the two that, for me, not only drove all points home but also exposed the weaknesses in both their ideals and comes close to a colossal loss of identity for one of the two.

The reader is given a very limited view of the overall story as the chapters alternate between events on Anarres and Urras in addition to not flowing in sequential order. While it is temporarily jarring this approach makes the reader focus on what is given at the moment and any ‘gaps’ in the narrative are resolved in forthcoming pages, or a chapter previously read. The Dispossessed is the only book I can think of that makes a case for breaking strict chronological order.

While the people of Anarres and Urras are exposed to many things, little is learned. What the characters miss is perhaps to the readers gain. We are treated to an amazing story and a critical examination of the social differences that will remain pertinent as long as there is structure in the world we live in.

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