I’ve planned on reading Ursula Le Guin’s “ambiguous utopia” for a while now, as I most recently discussed in my last review of a scifi novel (which also happened to feature an anarchist society of exiles on a moon orbiting their despised former government while still exporting food or other resources to it), and got some extra motivation when I read this while writing that review. In a way it’s fitting that I had a digression from scifi into cultural anthropology, since Le Guin herself was the daughter of anthropologists and the stateless societies they study could have helped to inspire her.

Le Guin herself has written of her actual inspiration during the movement against the Vietnam war, but the book is really better the less you think about that context. Within the context of the then-contemporary Cold War, the hierarchical capitalist society of A-Io on the planet of Urras would obviously seem to be a stand-in for Le Guin’s own America (or perhaps the capitalist First World more broadly, though probably not) and since so much of the book is about the contrast between that society and protagonist Shevek’s own Anarres we might think he represents communism… except that there’s an obvious analogue for state-communism on Urras called Thu which Shevek (to the consternation of the Thu agent who tries to recruit him) doesn’t find any more congenial. Thu is a relatively minor part of even the present-day chapters about his time on Urras (which alternate with chapters along an earlier timeline on Anarres leading up to his decision to leave), which function as a sort of inverted Brave New World with Shevek as the John Savage of a fictional (and thus “utopian” in our sense) communal anarchist society as fish-out-of-water in a society resembling our own (which Adam Cadre might prefer).

If the present-day chapters on Urras function as a utopian critique of our actual society, the earlier ones on Anarres serve to put the “ambiguous” in “ambiguous utopia”. Le Guin’s famous The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (the one other work I’ve read by her, because it was assigned in school) contains a passage in readers not being willing to believe in the titular utopian city without an awful addendum to mar its perfection (Holden Karnofsky & Robin Hanson have more recently discussed our preference for dystopian over utopian literature). Some of the imperfection she layers on would actually seem likely to appeal to the more right-wing Robert Heinlein (whose own take on anarchy, which I alluded to above, is hard not to think of as inspiring this contrasting take). Anarres is much poorer than Urras/A-Io but also more virtuous (even if its revolutionary virtues have faded as its inhabitants ceased feeling the need for further revolt). I don’t know if Heinlein ever commented on it, but I thought he might like some of these quotes I collected from it:

And that responsibility is our freedom. To avoid it, would be to lose our freedom. Would you really like to live in a society where you had no responsibility and no freedom, no choice, only the false option of obedience to the law, or disobedience followed by punishment? Would you really want to go live in a prison?

Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise: for though only the society could give security and stability, only the person, the individual, had the power of moral choice– the power of change, the essential function of life.

The duty of the individual is to accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible.

An archist can break a law and hope to get away unpunished, but you can’t ‘break’ a custom; it’s the framework for your life with other people.

Ayn Rand, on the other hand, hated the notion of self-sacrifice (which is why I suggested she’d be a better choice than Verhoeven to satirize the novel Starship Troopers) and would find it unconscionable that the Odonians of Anarres abandon the option of achieving any greatness (part of why the physicist Shevek feels limited at home and believes it’s necessary he go to Urras to make scientific progress) and would be incapable of creating the spaceships used for the limited commerce between the neighboring worlds. Reading TV Tropes entries stemming from this book got me thinking that perhaps I should eventually check out Rand’s own scifi dystopia in Anthem, but that will have to get in the back of the line.

The limitations of Arrasti society somewhat resemble those of the stateless societies studied by anthropologists, except they have always been aware of the possibilities of Urrasti society (and can refer to it as the “Old World”, the same phrase used in discussions of Yali’s question) and object to it on ideological grounds. Marshall Sahlins (author of the previous book I read/reviewed) tended to study societies isolated on islands, which insulated them from not only the ideas generated by larger scale societies but military competition that could have resulted in the growth of states (the Odonians are pacifists with a Gandhi-esque founder in Odo). An Urrasti colleague of Shevek expresses it this way: “The Odonian society called itself anarchistic […] but they were in fact mere primitive populists whose social order functioned without apparent government because there were so few of them and because they had no neighbor states.” Sahlins was also known for calling hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society” (a characterization disputed recently based on their required travel time), because they don’t actually want more than they have. Shevek’s perspective does not quite fit that. He resents that the most prominent scientist on Anarres, Sabul, falsely claims the work of others (both Urrasti ones whose access he controls & Shevek’s done under him) and stifles Shevek from publishing more radical work. He resents that he’s separated from Takver (who becomes the mother of his children over the course of the chapters on Anarres) both because of the need to distribute labor in response to a drought (Shevek prides himself on the fact that hunger was at least common rather than concentrated) and because their society likes to split up couples so they don’t develop “propertarian” attitudes as if they were married. In his dissatisfaction with the norm of free love, casual relationships and parents being separated from their children (he particularly resents the absence of his own mother), Shevek the weird-in-his-society normie is closer to the earlier Huxley than the later proto-hippie Heinlein.

One way in which The Dispossessed is less black & white than The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is that it takes place generations after the revolt that started the society. Heinlein’s novel ended with some grumbles about the Loonies beginning to recreate the problems associated with government once they found their own state (as happened with basically any successful independence movement) but doesn’t delve deeply into that, presumably because he finds that less interesting than the initial revolt & war of independence. Odonianism has calcified into an ideology people are taught to as children and instinctively cite against anyone on Anarres who wants to do things differently. “The unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind” is what John Stuart Mill worried about in On Liberty: public opinion (related to what Robin Hanson calls “mobs” and some things I’ve been thinking more about recently). One of the decadent elite of Urras (whom a drunken Shevek comes close to raping) calls Odonians “slaves” to their consciences, who lost the ability to rebel once they got rid of formal authorities. In addition to such informal restrictions (which are why people almost never refuse supposedly voluntary work assignments) there are actual formal structures such as the school where Sabul teaches (and blocks Shevek) and the PDC (Production, Distribution and Coordination) board over which he has influence and restricts things like disfavored publications. Shevek paraphrases/agrees with a dissident friend saying “every emergency, every labor draft even, tends to leave behind it an instrument of bureaucratic machinery within PDC, and a kind of rigidity: this is the way it was done, this is the way it is done, this is the way it has to be done”. Stifling bureaucracy is perhaps an inevitable part of modernity and the large organizations it enabled that we wouldn’t want to abolish even if we could. Anarres has more of the small-scale self-governance some Americans may pine for, but even there Shevek becomes less involved in meetings once he moves to the largest (really, only large) city: “One was not necessary to them; there were always others ready to run things, and doing it well enough.”

With those defects being present, Shevek ultimately concludes that his detractors on Anarres were right to think he could avoid being a tool or “property” of the Urrasti elite that invited him to their university and restricted him from seeing how the other half lives. After a proxy war breaks out and a radical demonstration where he speaks is violently suppressed he concludes that Urras is hell, and the representative of Terra (literally our Earth in this fictional universe, rather than the exaggerated stand-in) responding to him that the wealthy & advanced* hierarchy of Urras seems “close […] to Paradise” in comparison to the ruin that occurred on her planet (via Moloch) before embracing “total centralization” doesn’t change how much the deck is stacked in favor of Anarres over Urras. Le Guin’s Vietnam-era naivete comes across acutely when Shevek evaluates the A-Io military: “You call that organization? […] You even call it discipline? But it is neither. It is a coercive mechanism of extraordinary inefficiency — a kind of seventh-millenium steam engine! With such a rigid and fragile structure what could be done that was worth doing?”, ultimately concluding that its structure only makes sense when considering its purpose in being used against unarmed civilians. The Bolsheviks did briefly think the Red Army could do away with the hierarchy of its Tsarist predecessor, but they quickly realized the error of their ways, and the Viet Cong which presumably inspired her skepticism of military efficiency had their own hierarchy & organization she just wasn’t aware of. Where hope is ultimately found is that the example set by Shevek & the syndicate he set up with his friends turns public opinion around so that his home embraces the ethic of permanent revolution (not working out very well in China’s Cultural Revolution at the time) he has tried to embody.
*It’s not clear to me why Urras is the wealthiest & most advanced planet known, since it’s the Hainish who invented interstellar travel and made the inhabitants of other planets aware of each other’s existence. Perhaps some other work in the “Hainish cycle” explains.

This is an unusual science-fiction book in that it’s actually about a scientist trying to make a scientific breakthrough over the course of many years, but the book itself is not all that interested in actual science. All the talk of “Simultaneity” and “Sequentiality” being unified just come across as hand-wavey and mystical (which is actually how the teacher that first inspired Shevek is condemned by Sabul). Which makes sense because the author is not a scientist and is not about to invent the ansible (though she did come up with that name, which I first read in Orson Scott Card’s Ender series). It’s the softer social sciences that the novel is more interested in, with an invented language lacking in words for “propertarian” concepts and without distinguishing between “work” and “play” (though in practice they are aware of drudgery), and the existence of Anarres acting as evidence to skeptics elsewhere that such a society is possible (although most persist in disbelieving with Shevek in front of them, as did I since this is a work of fiction). The place of science in the novel is an ideal that can be held from Shevek distinct from both societies on Anarres & Urras: something where progress can be made by an individual working in solitude and with no resources but his mind and writing materials, and discourse is egalitarian between scientist peers with convincing without coercion. This would appear to be the ideal of Juergen Habermas’ discourse theory (or at least what little I learned of it over a decade ago from this Crooked Timber post on Seeing Like a State and from Austrians blaming him for Hans-Hermann Hoppe). Perhaps at some point I should actually read Habermas, but that will also have to go to the back of the line.

I linked above to an Gizmodo review (which is worth diving further into for Samuel Delany’s take & more comparisons to Heinlein) that described the book as having interesting ideas but not that great of a read. Some people normally turned off by scifi might like the Anarres-set chapters of Shevek growing up & falling in love, but as for myself I can’t disagree. The ideas make it worthy of blogging about, rather than posting a relatively ephemeral Disqus comment.