time and politics | 2018.02.09

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin | Review

Le Guin, Ursula K_The Dispossessed

Publication: New York : HarperAudio, 2010 | Original: 1974 (Harper & Row)

Genre: Science Fiction, Utopian Fiction

Pages: 387 | Audio Length: 13 hours, 25 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook

Source: MCL

Reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed felt as if Carl Marx himself had jumped from his grave and danced a little jig in the face of all us SF fans. This book is a communist-wannabe’s dreamland, filled with terms like egoizing to exemplify the evils (Le Guin’s worlds don’t draw on black and white delineations, so please note the air-quotes around this word) of individualism and a possession-driven society.

The gist of the story is that a rebellion has urged a group of people from their home planet of Urras to settle a non-capitalistic colony on Urras’s moon, Anarres. As the main character in Among Others enthuses, “I read The Communist Manifesto today…. It would be like living on Anarres. I’ll take that over this any day.” While the “this” within the setting of Morwenna’s world in Among Others is her boarding school, there’s no limit to the locations we could infer in its place. Our species seems to have a peculiar knack for always craving what’s on the other side of the nearest fence, that glinting on the horizon just out of reach of each day’s too-long journey and each lifetime’s often overly-ambitious straining.

But Le Guin doesn’t allow her reader to simply bask in admiration at a panoramic view of wishful thinking. Instead, she artfully turns the coin over and over to showcase the light and dark sides both of capitalism and of a more communistic type of society. (By now, I know I’ve offended somebody on either side of this vast political spectrum. Go, I beg you, read the book, and then let’s definitely talk. The LEAVE A COMMENT box is, as always, at the bottom of the page.)

Something strange happened in my experience with this book; something absolutely magical, to which my somewhat dyslexic brain may have contrived. The Dispossessed was another I broached in the audiobook form, and as I pounded the pavement down the hill that makes up the inner-city front lawn of my apartment complex at 5 a.m. earlier this spring, I suddenly thought, “I’ve heard this. Not vaguely, but specifically. I remember the very words describing the wall that the adults could look and even step quite easily over; the mob of angry onlookers; the guards without a clear idea of their purpose except to protect the mysteriously offensive scientist prisoner. This experience has stood in my observation before, in voice, just like this, and recently. Was it an excerpt reading from The Clarksworld Podcast? What was it? Should I continue? If I’ve been down this path before, why continue?”

As the wonderfully insightful Jo Walton (author of the aforementioned Among Others) might comment, rereading is always fraught with its own particular joys and sorrows. “Are the suck fairies about to take me by storm?” I wondered. But the recognition instead brought on a surge of ecstasy so rich I couldn’t bring myself to press pause. “Maybe this time I’ll understand the author’s message,” I thought. You know when you feel on the verge of discovery; the epiphany so close that if you could just focus hard enough it would finally show its shy self? The next several weeks of listening to The Dispossessed, were filled with misty-eyed realizations (an excusable embarrassment on public transit for those of us who understand the absorbing grip of a good audiobook or podcast in our all-too-accessible earbuds), yet the experience was also not without precursory moments of complete confusion.

For Le Guin’s The Dispossessed isn’t written in a recognizable sequence of events. Chronology be damned is the theme of this book, as you may well know if you’ve read other reviews of its much-pondered pages. We want life to stay in its neat packages of predictably linear this-and-then-that. But Le Guin refuses. Why though? Why in god’s name risk confusing your readers?! Because Le Guin was using her story’s cyclical, non-sequential format to build the foundational premise of revolutionary and scientific dreams on which her book stands. “Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time” while “the search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal.” By wandering in and out of the security of recognizable chronological time sequences, Le Guin challenges her main character’s (and humanity’s as a whole) constant yearning for a coherency to the story that is our species’ existence.

This book is often themed as a play on the communist manifesto (this review not withstanding). However, centered on Le Guin’s fearless and quite heady exploration of what she terms the “General Temporal Theory” (predicated on Einstein’s relativity theory), the book goes miles further. It’s as if Le Guin is allowing her characters to traverse the unpredictable waters of scientific discovery using a raft of anthropological quandaries with its anchor of economic failings snagging at every turn, all driven forward (and often times in circles) by the winds of humanity’s ever-demanding cultural expectations. And it is this General Temporal Theory that brings the narrative structure full circle to link magically back to Shevek’s quandaries regarding time’s place in the human understanding of fulfillment and our natural state of constant striving.

I find not just a little irony, as well as invigoration, in the realization that my experience with this book felt so eerily atemporal in and of itself. As the analog version sits on my shelf among Le Guin’s other Hainish Cycle stories, I’ve no doubt the suck fairies will find a precarious perch on which to argue me away from diving again into the depths of Anarres’s ethereal mysteries.

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