Ahhh, science fiction. scifi is an excellent genre to flesh out different ideas and ideologies one holds, particularly those ideas pertaining to politics or history. Some of the most famous science fiction writers expounded on philosophy, historical change, relationships, culture, and individuality such as Issac Asimov, H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, O.S. Card, and Ray Bradbury, to name a few. But the one science fiction writer who’s ideas seem to bubble to prominence in most of her works is Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin is probably one of the most famous and least well known American science fiction writers of the modern era. Her book, The Left Hand of Darkness, was recently featured on PBS as one of the 200 best American novels according to The American Scholar.
The Dispossessed is apart of Le Guin’s so-called Hainish Cycle (which includes The Left Hand of Darkness). The book centers around a prominent physicist who is devoted to working on certain mathematical problems about communication using the real-world equivalent of quantum physics with some philosophical concepts thrown in for good measure. The physicist (Shevek) lives on a desert moon (Annares) which orbits the Earth-like Urras. Annares is “run” as an anarcho-syndicalist society with some influence from Zen Buddhism, while Urras is a much larger planet divided between warring states much like Earth was during the Cold War. While the background of Le Guin’s story and parallels to real world philosophies and ideas are interesting to discuss, I want to focus here on what I think she does best with this story.
Although Le Guin’s lucid detail of different cultures and societies permeate this novel, they are not hard to discover or evaluate. What makes this book most interesting is the contrasts she makes between the two fictional planets and the sociological depth she takes in discussing the several different societies. Le Guin manages to make us sympathetic to the main character while not making him appear as a hero, nor making his society appear Olympian in nature. She takes a realistic approach of hashing out the different cultures and sociological differences between the two societies that Shevek encounters (the anarcho-syndicalist society of Annarres and the capitalist country of A-Io on the planet Urras). Le Guin makes it interesting by constantly shifting perspective between Shevek’s younger self on Annarres and his older self on Urras, which makes the contrast that much more prevalent. As Shevek struggles with his mathematics and physics (don’t worry, it doesn’t go into too much detail with these concepts) he has to contend with the growing bureaucracy that begins to appear on Annarres and fights to reconcile his philosophy with that of an impersonal bureaucracy. At the same time as his older self, he has to experience for the first time the reality of the destructiveness of capitalist society and how sexist and impersonal it can be. Le Guin brings in many philosophical concepts but presents them in an easy to understand way through Shevek, and as he is exposed to culture shock, he starts to realize that all is not as it seems on Urras. Le Guin brings us to experience the society of A-Io as that of an innocent and newcomer, and we share in Shevek’s growing cynicism of that society as we slowly uncover it’s serious and devastating consequences.
This being the first I have read of Le Guin, I am more than excited to read more of her work. Her mastery of sociological concepts, cultural anthropology, and political philosophy makes each page very intriguing and somewhat complex. If you enjoy more action based science fiction, this book is not for you (until the last few chapters). But if you enjoy mystery, drama, political cunning, and unrecognizable cultural norms then this is the book for you. Get reading!