Book Talk: 'The Dispossessed' by Ursula K. Le Guin - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'The Dispossessed' by Ursula K. Le Guin

Alexander Wallace finds an ambiguous utopia.
‘Utopia’ is a dirty word nowadays. At best, it conjures the wild dreams of people being ripped apart between the gears of industry and euthanized by the ennui of white-collar work. At worst, it invokes the delusions of those who thought they could change the world according to their vision and ended up reality in the name of that vision. Utopia brought us famine in Ukraine and genocide in Uyghurstan, the quotidian madness of North Korea and the Orwellian surveillance state of China. As literature, utopias are often plodding and heavy on exposition to a degree that would make an alternate history writer blush (and I say this as one of the latter); Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward has this problem in spades. And of course, you run into the issue that one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia.

It is interesting and perhaps refreshing, then, that Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is billed as ‘an ambiguous utopia.’ That one word, ‘ambiguous,’ relays to you a lot; there is aspiration here, doubtlessly, but also a willingness to interrogate the faults that lurk within the structures conjured by dreams. Even more fortunately, the experienced science fiction reader will know that Le Guin’s writing is far better than the torpid discursiveness of 19th century utopian literature; there are actual characters and actual plot, unlike the flimsy protagonists that fall asleep and wake up in another world. No, The Dispossessed is far superior.
This novel is a tale of two worlds: Anarres and Urras. Urras is a large, lush world divided into different states, sometimes warring, with an economy not unlike contemporary capitalism. Anarres, on the other hand, is the arid moon of Urras, with a society based around communal living and public control of resources. Your protagonist, Shevek, is a scientist from Anarres, used to that sort of living that some would call hippie-like, who has been dispatched on a mission to the larger world on a mission of cultural and technological exchange.

Much of The Dispossessed works because Shevek is such an interesting lead. This is an inquisitive man who is thrown off by the interpersonal jockeying that goes with navigating academia, and winds up being the sole person on the expedition due to the connections he makes. As someone so keen on observing, he is exposed to many of the flaws on both worlds. His journey is made all the more compelling by the way that Le Guin deftly alternates between Shevek’s time on Urras as an adult and on Anarres as a child; you see these little concordances and dissonances that really hammer in the diversity of what human beings can do.

Le Guin is a dreamer, but a ruthless one. She knows how humanity acts, in all its inhumanity, and does not let this species off the hook for anything. Anarres may be what she obviously prefers and Urras clearly something she despises, but she understands what many utopian writers don’t: that utopias are inhabited by human beings. Human cliquishness, selfishness, and provinciality would manifest themselves under any economic or social system, and we would do well to remember that.

The Dispossessed is perhaps the greatest utopia ever written, partially because it is about how truly unattainable a perfect world is. That does not mean, however, that a better world isn’t possible, despite the weak and flabby psychologies of our species. The ambiguity of The Dispossessed is its ultimate strength, and inspires you not just to dream, but to wake up.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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