Title: The Dispossessed
Writer: Ursula Le Guin
Considering how much I like Ursula Le Guin’s works, my relationship with her books is kind of weird. I was lucky enough to read the first four books the Earthsea series a long time ago, when I was a teenager. But, even though I adored those books I didn’t read another of her works for a long time. “The Dispossessed” changed that.
It is nothing less of a science fiction (scifi for short) gem, though saying that it’s just a scifi book is completely unfair for a book so great. While it has all the usual scifi elements (colony on another planet, space travel, aliens – even if they are just mentioned and not seen), “The Dispossessed” is so much more at its core, it is, in a way, an analysis (even if it’s completely on a theoretical level) of different social/political/economical systems.
On one hand, there is Anarres. The desert planet of anarchists. No government, no prisons or laws and no forms of patriarcy . Its citizens use an artificial language, they have committees to self govern themselves and all are equal. It should be a paradise, right? Yet, its society has become stale, where the need to be accepted by the rest of society kills its own members’ creativity. And, as Shevek wonders in the book, how can you revolt in a society that is revolution itself? How can you explain that you, trying to further your scientific studies is not about you being selfish, even if it means that you have to turn against the ideas of your colleagues? How can the masses understand a mind so different than their own?
On the other hand we have Urras, a planet similar to our own. With different nations, languages, patriarchy and capitalism (even though there is a reference to Thu, a communist state). And while Shevek is, initially, charmed by some of the things he sees in A-Io (the most powerful capitalist state of Urras), he soon realizes that its beauty is fake, in A-Io it’s more about how you present something than what you actually present. And with his newly opened eyes he finally sees how aristocrats dominate the masses and that, for them, plebs exist only to work and to die for their wars. And at the same time he sees how many of those “plebs” protest against their masters, because they understand they are slaves, even if their chains are not made of metal. But, every action against the status quo of A-Io is drowned in blood.
And, finally, Shevek meets humans from our own planet, the ambassador of Earth on Urras. And he listens while she wonders why people of A-Io protests when they are not really suffering like it happens in other societies. After all Urras seems like heaven to Earthers who have destroyed their planet.
I don’t really know how it was when Le Guin wrote “The Dispossessed”, all my knowledge is based on books and documentaries of that time. Thus I am not able to really compare now to the 70s and claim that the author just wrote what she observed in her society or that she actually foresaw, in a way, current practices and events. The anarchists of Anarres follow the letter of Oddo’s teachings, losing, more often than not, the true meaning. In a similar way, our era’s left political spectrum is often consumed by idpol issues in heated debates with little (if any) action to solve those issues, becoming obsessed with one tree at a time, while the forest around is burnt to ashes. The aristocrats of A-Io have nothing to be jealous of our own “aristocracy”. They watch the lower social classes with disdain, as something necessary to do their bidding, able only to work and breed to provide the next generation of slaves. Can we claim that our neoliberalism, our laissez-faire is any different? And what about the Earth ambassador who can’t understand why people protest? Is she any different than most members of the middle class, the bourgeoisie if your will? What about those who can not understand why workers strike in the middle of a financial crisis when “they should be happy they have a roof over their heads and some food to eat”, even if that food is just enough to keep them working. Can we really say that they are so different?
Regardless of whether you have read a Le Guin’s book before or not, “The Dispossessed” is something we should all read at some point in our lives. If not for its literal value then to make a final try, our last effort as a species, to see beyond the letters that form words into the true meaning of the words: freedom, equity and fraternity.