Sunday, December 06, 2015

the last book I read

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin.

Shevek is a theoretical physicist, not an especially common occupation on the planet on which he lives - Anarres, an arid desert planet populated by the descendants of a band of revolutionaries who rebelled against the capitalist society on Anarres' more hospitable twin planet Urras and decided to drop out and colonise Anarres into some sort of anarcho-communist utopia.

This is all great, power to the people and all that, but if theoretical physics is the specific bag you're into there are some limitations around time available for research - the struggle just to survive from day to day on a sparsely-populated and pretty inhospitable world being pretty much a full-time job - and ability to share ideas with others, communication with other worlds, specifically Urras, being viewed with extreme suspicion and tightly regulated.

But Shevek's ideas are potentially revolutionary in their own way too, since they concern the very fabric of time itself. And so, reluctantly, and with a good deal of huffing and puffing and lengthy objections in committee meetings from the People's Front of Anarres, Shevek boards a freighter that will take him to Urras and meetings with their senior scientists.

Needless to say the senior Urrasti scientists are very keen to meet up with Shevek and see what he knows, but there's something of a culture shock to be overcome first, Urras being very different from Anarres. Resources are plentiful, there's fine food and wine available and the scientific profession occupy an exalted position in Urrasti society. Shevek is provided with a servant to take care of his daily needs, an honorary lecturing position at the university and time and space to develop his theories.

It's not all champagne and caviar, though: Urras is a planet made up of several nation-states and these have an occasionally vexed relationship with each other. During Shevek's stay the country whose representatives are his hosts, A-Io, gets involved in a war in a country in the planet's far hemisphere, a war which also involves A-Io's neighbour and rival Thu. Shevek also becomes aware of internal political tensions in A-Io, and of a fundamental (and, to us, obvious) truth that his upbringing had not prepared him for: not everyone on Urras enjoys the same standard of living. Moreover, some of those who aren't having lobster for dinner every night are pretty pissed off about it, and moreover are similarly pissed off about a representative from Anarres living high on the hog and selling himself out, as they see it, to The Man.

Contact is made between these groups and Shevek, and Shevek, beginning to understand the society he's living in, gives his Urrasti minders the slip and joins up with one of the revolutionary groups - these being the kind of people, after all, who founded his own world 200 or so years before. He has belatedly realised that he doesn't want to give, still less sell, his idea to a single group of people, but instead to find a way of disseminating it for general use, and eventually finds a group of people who not only may be able to make this happen, but may also be able to arrange for his return to his home planet and to his wife and children.

Like most science fiction books (you may take my regular riff on the meaninglessness of these labels as read at this point) what The Dispossessed describes in its narrative and what it's actually about are two different things. Of course this is true of many other non-genre novels as well, but the setting up of an imagined world in order to better shine a light on some aspect of our own is a very common trope in speculative fiction. On the other hand, some of them really are just lengthy explodey spaceship battles between bug-eyed tentacled purple aliens, but despite featuring (very briefly) a couple of spaceships The Dispossessed is not one of these - what it really is is a lengthy meditation on how a functioning anarchist society might work, and how it would contrast with a more orthodox capitalist society, one perhaps slightly more rapacious and unequal than our own, but then again perhaps not. The sciencey thing that Shevek is trying to perfect (which eventually forms the basis for the ansible, a relativity-busting instantaneous communication device, in later Le Guin books) is really just a MacGuffin that allows a bit of fish-out-of-water drama to happen and a framework to accommodate a few Basil Exposition explanatory conversations.

The Dispossessed was published in 1974, so there's some obvious Cold War, East vs. West parallels to be drawn, as well as an echo of the Vietnam War in the war that breaks out on Urras which the two major powers dabble in. Of course in 2015 we've got the Syrian conflict to illustrate exactly the same sort of thing, and the stuff about the rapaciousness of unfettered capitalism and the inequality it creates between the haves and have-nots is still highly relevant.

Le Guin made no secret of viewing the anarchist culture of Anarres with some affection, but it's certainly not presented as a glorious and faultless utopia - for all their fine aspirations power still unavoidably ends up being concentrated into the hands of small groups, and those (like Shevek) who represent big spiky statistical outliers in terms of achievement are difficult to accommodate within the system.

It's a wordy book, and if you've been drawn in by the front cover of my SF Masterworks edition, which appears to depict an exciting alien location occupied by a Pinky-Ponk-esque spaceship and a Bee Gee in a spacesuit, you may be disappointed at the fairly cerebral content within. I enjoyed it, but it is largely action-free and if action is what you're after you may be better off looking elsewhere. But it has many other fine attributes, not least some proper female characters (most notably Shevek's partner, Takver) who are neither doormats nor sex receptacles.

The Dispossessed won both of the most prestigious science fiction awards in 1975: the Hugo Award, for which my list goes 1962, 1963, 1975, 1983, 1985, and the Nebula Award, for which my list goes 1975, 1985. Le Guin herself, who is still going strong at the age of 86, is probably best known for her Earthsea books, a series of fantasy novels usually considered as being for "young adults", whatever the hell they are. She's also a spendidly feisty old bird who was recently featured in the excellent Letters Of Note for this pithy response to a publisher who wanted her to write a foreword for an all-male SF anthology.

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