He had seen the foundations of the universe, and they were solid.
Ursula K. Le Guin authored some of the most formative novels of my life. I read the Earthsea books when I was still in high school, and back when the first magical school most young readers would encounter is Hogwarts, mine was Roke. I don’t know why it took me almost two decades to start looking into Le Guin’s body of sci-fi works, but this year, I have started scaling that mountain she left behind for all of us to climb. I read The Lathe of Heaven, followed by The Telling, and most recently, The Dispossessed. Before I tell you about The Dispossessed, let me tell you how that book affected me. It woken something in me. It returned meaning to my struggles. It shook me out of a death I didn’t know I was dying. Additionally, it also made me splurge RM215 on a Folio Society edition of The Left Hand of Darkness. Shevek, the hero of The Dispossessed, would disapprove of such a blatant consumerist practice, but I… I live in an economy.
Le Guin famously said that sci-fi is not meant to predict the future, but to describe the present. And writing against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the passionate protests against it at the time, she set out to write an allegory featuring a planet called Urras that is divided into two superpowers fighting ideologically driven proxy wars in smaller nations. One of them is a patriarchal capitalist nation called A-io while the other is called Thu, an authoritarian communist country. It is quite obvious what A-io and Thu are meant to represent.The protagonist, Shevek, comes from a third place called Anarres. Anarres is a twin planet to Urras—sometimes called Urras’ moon—that was settled by people from Urras hundreds of years ago, when they sought to set up an anarcho-syndicalistic utopia as envisioned by a philosopher named Odo. There, all resources are held in common by society and the concept of ownership, while not unknown, is culturally taboo. Labour is organised on a voluntary basis, in the forms of “syndicates”, with no superior governing body ruling them. How such a “utopian” society works is what Le Guin wanted to explore in The Dispossessed, and the amount of thought she put into every aspect of it is frankly astounding. We learn of Annaresti society through the eyes of Shevek as he grows up from a child into a gifted theoretical physicist, and how it affected every aspect of life for him, from work, to love, to having a child. And we learn aspects of this utopia that fail, and how—but also the incredible amount of work required to make it work.
The story also follows Shevek’s sojourn slash exile from Annares, and in fact, the novel started with his hasty and messy departure from Annares, where a mob had gathered to protest his departure, or perhaps even to kill him for being a traitor. Shevek was hoping that by travelling to Urras, to the capitalistic state of A-io, he could work on a scientific breakthrough that would lead to the development of an ansible (a staple of sci-fi, a device capable of near-instantaneous or faster than light communications). What followed is a fish-out-of-water story of a man brought up in a anarchic society (which views the ideas of property and property-owners with disdain) trying to make his way in a world where material wealth and capitalistic gains are the overarching rules of existence, and it provided us a treasure trove of amusing but insightful observations by Shevek like this:
He tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him past endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream. He could not force himself to understand how banks functioned and so forth, because all the operations of capitalism were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary. In a human sacrifice to deity there might be at least a mistaken and terrible beauty; in the rites of the moneychangers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men’s acts, even the terrible became banal.
It is very reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World where the “savage” John was brought to live into the World State, except in Shevek’s case, the ending is not as depressing (and that is as much I would say without spoiling anything).
I think there is this very shallow and demeaning view of sci-fi at a genre of “spaceships and lasers”, and indeed, there are many sci-fi novels that uses these elements as toppings on a story, to be sprinkled into the text for colour or flavour, but that was not how Le Guin wrote sci-fi. Every aspect, every detail she placed into the building of her world(s) serve a narrative function, and if that is not always apparent at the beginning, it always becomes clear by the end. And it is very satisfying to see a master author clicking everything into place, triggering thoughts and imagery that are simultaneously unexpected but somehow inevitable. It is even reflected in how the text and chapters were arranged as well—the bookends, the odd chapters versus the even ones, how everything we learn informs what we discover next.
The Dispossessed was written in 1974 but its relevance have not faded over the years. There is universality in the idea of the utopia, of self-determination, of symbols and of hope. And it certainly helped that Le Guin’s prose can be incredibly moving. It’s a little funny to find myself naming naming a 45-year-old novel my favourite read of 2019, but I guess that is why it’s considered a classic.