Sunday, February 15, 2009
A Utopia of Opposites
It has been called a book of opposites. That's because it is utopian, but does not shy away from the flaws inherent within the utopia; it is feminist, but its protagonist is male; and it may promote communal social(ism) ideals, but it still values the creativity of the individual. Unfortunately, this community is unsuitable for scientific genius to thrive. As we get into the throes of this book, we are keenly aware that something untoward is set to unfold. After all, all utopias critique existing societies, but unfortunately present unattainable options that model life that is quite simply out of this world.
The twin planets: Urras, and Anarres, in which The Dispossessed is set function perfectly for LeGuin's tale. They are the comparable tale of two continents. Urras' oppression and corruption is set in contrast with the utopian Anarres society where idealists loathe government for its potential to turn into a "plutocracy" (Paul Brians). And so they Anarres peoples create a society that runs counter to that of Urras. They abolish all laws along with all forms of control, including language. Theirs is a lush world that is supportive of diversity. It is interesting that Le Guin chooses to depict anarchy and order as two separate planets, with the anarchical functioning better than the orderly. It is, however, a tactical move that allows her to truly break down the two planets; to deconstruct them without any kind of sugarcoating whatsoever. Thus, although Anarres is the better planet to be, Le Guin purposely depicts its flaws, a style that highlights the ideals even more. The society on Anarres seems to work because of its newness and clear-cut separation from the corruption of the other. The idea of relocation is similar to that of Herland, and seems to suggest that settlers need to undergo severance to create, in this case, an anarchical, but utopian society. Still, LeGuin does manage to cast a shadow on anarchism and its potential to exist albeit without imploding.
Shevek, a character, who Le Guin fully develops, depicts the would-be agent of change in a science fiction. His special aptitude to scientific knowledge along with what we learn of his upbringing from childhood, to adolescence, and then adulthood, all skillfully prepare us for the singular sense of purpose behind the mind of the genius in the center of this drama. Unfortunately for Shevek, his impoverished community denies him access to the materials and the opportunity to commune with equally-minded people (scientists). His genius cannot flourish and is in jeopardy.
Funny how fictionalized worlds often mirror our own. Both Urras' and Annares' system of governance closely resemble today's government approach with regard to international global issues and controversies. The question is: how does one know that a given system of government is ineffective or abusive of its power? How can one know unless one has been exposed to a different structure against which to compare? Shevek, the genius physicist thinks it is impossible to know for a fact. He is able to gain an outside perspective only because he was able to leave his anarchy-based Odonian society.
The Dispossessed fits the working definition of utopia, in as far as it fits the criteria of physical isolation; social and political benevolence; communal goodwill, etc. By all accounts, Anarres is presented as better, more desirable, than Urras. But then it has its flaws.
Ursula K. Le Guin has been categorized as being sympathetic to and understanding of anarchist theory; perhaps she was an anarchist herself. She may write about other planets, but she chronicles human experiences that mirror our own, regardless of the setting.
Heavily influenced by Native American cultures: myths and tales.
Science fiction time is Sci-Fi uses actual scientific facts or theories; has some scientific content, however speculative. May break the law of physics, respects social sciences, treats metaphors as metaphors. No interest or relationship with technology. So it's not fantasy.
Is her work soft science fiction? Since it's not based on hard sciences...astronomy, physics, computer science, etc.
Feminism: women's perspective brings good prose. Men think "holistically" while men think in "a linear fashion". The dispossessed have descended from this one woman...in line with the genre of science fiction, where utopias had been given up on (given its static/boring perception). It became a social critique of the society we live in so LeGuin sets up these dichotomies, the opposite ways of living that she explores and compares. She picks the extremes, of course. This woman's influence and her way of thinking is strong.
Time: simultaneity and how it encompasses the notion of time is central to The Dispossessed. An epistemological anarchist (Fayerabend against [empirical] method as the way of doing science).
The Wall: what makes the wall? Shevek meets walls (his thinking would come to an end). What created barriers? Are they non-existent; if they exist, can they be easily crossed? She aims to tear down walls, by reaching out to the other and the necessity of not walling others in when you wall others out. She attempt to create a universe where there are no walls.
Her work is deconstructive venture into the ideas she explores. Even Shevek is a scientist and theorist, whose physics is a kind of mysticism, religion, and philosophy. The grand unification he comes to in chapter nine is to figure out simultaneity and sequentialism the diachronic/ synchronic dialect (Saussure). The two help make each other make sense. Literal and metaphor are parallel in this book...so walls are coming down.
The degree in which language is complicit in creating reality. The old language would trap, so to start anew, you create a new language. Language shapes cultural thought, so it's key in founding a new world.
In Utopias, the power of love destroys totalitarian structures; LeGuin uses the love to enable Shevek the courage to leave. What he had to do is be so sure of his relationship with her that he could leave. The relationship between two people is the primal wall to go down; the first step
Narrative techniques/structure of the novel
The story inverts the classical utopia; the land he comes from Urras is the strange land, the land he goes to is (Anaress) is the land we know. Anares is more land and less ocean with all animal life in the ocean. the land is dessicated. Urras has less land, more ocean; virgin than lush. The isolation has enabled them to survive close to their ideal. The desolation allows them to use the minerals (necessary to Urras so it's not destroyed) and also supply and demand. Only people who have plenty can afford to be magnanimous. being altruistic is bad in Anarres because it is assumed that you have more; you are unequal then.
There are two small spaces that aren't part of the planets, though which the stranger is able to go (back and forth) to discover the land.
Three basic levels of the narrative:
1. The positive Utopian value of the anarchist society
2. The complex estrangement by the Urrastic society (USA, Soviet Union, Vietnam)
3. The self-critic of anarchism itself (no Utopians indulge in self-critique
This imperfect utopia in anarchical Anarres does not solve the problems...see glossary. Even if you invent a whole new language or culture, it is based on disspossesion.