Thursday, August 7, 2014

1975: The Dispossessed

For my few readers, I apoligize for the long delay. I spend the last year in Italy as part of my graduate studies and the summer traveling across Russia, Mongolia, and China. I plan to catch up in the next few weeks. Thank you. 

Reading The Dispossessed, 1975 Hugo Award winner, by Ursula Le Guinn a couple years ago is what gave me the idea of reading and blogging about all the Hugo Award winners. I have always found it difficult to pick a new book to read. My interests vary greatly. I have loved science fiction and fantasy since I was a boy but I also have a strong passion for classic literature (I decided to learn Russian in college because I loved the works of Dostoevsky) and modern fiction. My day job, and more often than not, my night job, is in international relations and politics so I read a great deal within that field as well. That was a rather long way of saying that my reading time is precious and it is hard to pick a book.
                Science fiction and fantasy are particularly difficult because there is so much out there and so much that is not very good. My wife will stop reading a book if she doesn’t like it but I find that too difficult. Once I start, I am committed. It’s usually a good thing though I have been burned in the past. Lisey’s Story by Stephen King is terrible and I really should not have read the whole thing. Seriously, much of King’s work is excellent but Lisey’s Story would not have been published if it wasn’t by Stephan King. Since I have such a hard time picking a book to reading all the Hugos seemed like a good idea. In the 4 years since I started, I have read over 20 Hugo winners and they have been more hits than misses. I have learned more of the rich history of science fiction (there has not been many fantasy works so far) and have enjoyed the experience immensely.
                So what of the book that inspired this quest? If the fact that The Dispossessed inspired me to read over 50 books did not give it away, I rather liked it. Ursula Le Guinn is one of the best writers to win the award. She has a true talent with words and worlds. Like her previous winner, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed creates a detailed and fascinating world, or more accurately two worlds, that feel full realized with their own history and philosophical underpinnings.
The Dispossessed takes place on twin worlds, Urras and Anarres. Urras is a lush and abundant world while Anarres is harsh and barren. Over a hundred and fifty years before the beginning of the novel, a group of anarchists left Urras and settled on Anarres. There they curved out a unique society based on anarchist principles which turned out to be not the utopia its founders may have originally envisioned but a functioning society nonetheless. I enjoyed that chapters set on Anarres more than the chapters set on Urras mostly because I enjoyed trying to understand how their society works. While I found it mostly believable, I still found it difficult to believe that there were not more abuses of the system. Le Guinn implies that the largest problem the anarchist society faces is intellectual stagnation.  Orthodoxy and strict adherence of the political wisdom of the movement’s founder has replaced innovated thinking. While this is certainly a problem, most of the people still follow its rules and do their part. The main character for example, Shevek, still works in the fields when he is required to and still works in the sanitation when it is his turn despite that fact that he is a brilliant physicist and it would seem a waste of his time to do anything else. Utopian systems break down because of the inherent jealous, selfishness, and contradictions in human nature. Anarres makes more sense for not changing since it heavily restricts interaction with Urras and its founding members all had the same beliefs unlike communist countries that had an elite that may have, at one time, believed in communist principles but a larger society may be, if not outright hostile to communist, at least generally indifferent to it.
The other aspect I had difficult is with the language used on Anarres. It is a created language like Esperanto or Klingon. It is very logical and also makes it impossible to express certain ideas in keeping with the ideas of the anarchist society.  The theory that language determines thought in this manner is called Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. This is a common idea in science fiction perhaps most famously from George Orwell’s 1984 in which the new language Newspeak makes it impossible to say the party is bad. In The Dispossessed, the only word to use to describe having sex is “to copulate” since that word has no connotations of dominance that would be out of step of the egalitarian ethos of the anarchist society. The problem with this idea is that is disregards the ingenuity of humans. A wonderful counter to Sapir-Whorf is found in Gene Wolf’s Citadel of the Autrach in which a person from a society where they are only allowed to speak in approved sayings tells a story that is critical of the ruling class. It is a brilliant chapter and demonstrates how people can find ways to say what they mean to say.
These quibbles are minor, however. The Dispossessed still tells a great story about a man named Shevek, the above mentioned brilliant scientist, travels from Anarres to Urras so he can interact with the great minds on the far more developed planet. The chapters are divided between the two planets with even numbers about Shevek’s time on Urras and odd number ones about his previous time on Anarres. Neither society is portrayed as perfect or idyllic. Le Guinn does an excellent job creating real characters living in a society considerably different than the readers would know. No character feels like a mouthpiece for the author’s views and nothing is heavy handed. Le Guinn mostly successfully creates a living breathing world were society is quite different from what we know with it feeling forced. I could only hope to create such a convincing world in my own writings.
The Dispossessed is a worthy addition to Le Guinn’s Hannish cycle. In fact, the novel is set many years before The Left Hand of Darkness. The ansible that Genly Ai uses in that novel is the creation of Shevek. I am glad I read the book and have enjoyed every other work of Le Guinn’s that I read since.

Next book is The Forever War, the classic anti-war novel by Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman. As a veteran myself (Iraq, not Vietnam), I was looking forward to this. Until next time!