Tag Archives: Book Review

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Written in 1991 by Karen Joy Fowler. Published by Plume, 2004. 304 pages.

Sarah Canary is one of those books you should sit down and read in a weekend. If you pick it up and put it down, you might be apt to fall out of the confusing haze of localized history and suspended reality this story tends to throw you into as fast as it slaps you out of it. Instead you should sit down for a couple of days and let the moody northwestern saga (and it is certainly that) of magical realism wash over you like the Puget Sound.

The intricately twisting plot of the story falls second to the format and structure of the book and third to the exploration of perspectives of oppression and wrongdoing though dynamic characters. The book is broken up into nineteen chapters, each of which are entitled and introduced with a line or stanza or short poem by Emily Dickenson, thematically relevant to the respective chapter — a self-aware move by Fowler that helps to set the theme and tone for the chapter to come. Most chapters are also preceded by a historical anecdote, generally focused around happenings in the Pacific Northwest. These moments in time progress chronologically with the book, and serve the dual purpose of tying reality (temporally, geographically) to the story, and to teach us about moments in history when power is created, and occasionally overturned. The story shifts perspectives frequently, chapter by chapter, and each shift gives the reader insight into the personal objectives of each character — circulating around their respective need for Sarah Canary.

When the story opens on one of the main character perspectives of Chin Ah Kin, a Chinese railworker during the sprawl of the transcontinental railway, the reader is instantly given a unique socio-historical context to chew on in the background of an otherwise simple set of interactions. In this moment, Sarah Canary (or just “ugly white woman” at this stage in the game) is introduced. An unattractive woman with dark gnarly hair and a large hooked nose, the mysterious emergence of Sarah Canary from the thick woods of the Pacific Northwest begins a long series of interactions between her and Chin – wherein her lack of speech capabilities and generally confused demeanor consistently agitates and incriminates her erstwhile protector.  Chin’s character, for all intents and purposes, acts as the ‘hero’ of this tale, but is repeatedly ignored for his feats and bravery because of his race. He is perhaps the most sane and thoughtful character in the book, and continues to earn no respect, even amongst his own people.

Chin seeks to protect and deliver (to an unknown end) Sarah Canary to whence she came under the assumption that she is a goddess, and according to the mythology of his heritage great wealth could result from his taking on this heroic task. A series of events leads them to an asylum wherein the book’s second (of many) example of institutional oppression is mapped out in the explanation of the psychotherapy practices of that era. During Chin and Sarah Canary’s short stint in the asylum, the third main protagonist, B.J., is introduced. B.J. is an overly-friendly and familiar tagalong who acts in the story not so much as a greek chorus, but as a moral reflection for the other characters. B.J. is introduced as a patient at the asylum, and escapes to continue the adventure with Chin and Sarah Canary. He is psychotic only in that inanimate objects “speak” to him from time to time. His other curious tendencies are reminiscent of Foucault’s madman, unable to view and accept the world exactly as it is presented to him — he distrusts his own perceptions of distance, size, and general appearance, because he has been systematically convinced that his sense of perception is incorrect. It should be noted, that B.J. maintains social superiority over Chin and therefore is the mouthpiece of the mottled duo. He is the first and only character in this story that latches onto Sarah Canary out of purely good will, and thereupon reflects Fowler’s expression of altruism in this story.

The third major character that the group comes across is Miss Adelaide Dixon, a suffragette and independent lecturer who clings to popular social events as a vehicle for her feminist works. Dixon becomes one of Sarah Canary’s protectors upon mistaking her for a recently escaped husband-murderer, and then continues on with her as a sort of point to be made. It is indicated that Dixon may lack the actuality of sisterhood that she preaches. Through Dixon we get to peer out of the eyes of a popularly-opposed suffragette, and similarly we are allowed into the minds of B.J. and Chin, who are struggling to understand the political nature of a woman. Much of the book’s feminist work is appropriately catalysed by Adelaide Dixon, as her influence spreads to the minds of multiple characters and how they view, think about, and treat women. Many other characters of various races and classes are encountered in the book, all of which are meaningfully entwined in the period’s culture, as they are in the complicated ruse of the mysterious Sarah Canary.

Fowler elegantly plays the reader into believing that the point of the story is to figure out Sarah Canary: Where is she from? What is she? What is her objective? What will happen when it is reached? In reality, this book is about every character but Sarah Canary. The question persists in the reader’s mind throughout the story — why, even after these characters learn that Sarah Canary may not be of discernible use to them, do they need her around? Sarah Canary never imposes herself on her protectors, she is instead taken on like a project, an endeavor through which the protectors might find meaning, wealth, love, you name it. Sarah Canary (named as such by patients at the asylum, for her beautiful chirping voice) exists as an ethereal palette on which the dreams and anguishes of the characters of this story can be written. It is a metanarrative of exploitation to the minor stories within, both in each of the character’s lives, as well as in the historical anecdotes Fowler includes before each chapter.

This is the sort of book that could appeal to a multitude of audiences. It can be read from a variety of angles, and provides enough depth to never really touch the bottom. The writing is clear and accessible which allows space for the reader to digest the complex socio-political nature of the story. I look forward to reading more of Fowler’s works in the future.


Book Review: The Salt Roads

Published in 2003 by Warner Books, Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads is as rich and dazzling as it is visceral and exhausting. Through the eyes of Lasiren, a Loa, and the three women whose lives become intertwined with her consciousness, Hopkinson leads her readers on a journey many lifetimes long and centuries apart.

The Salt Roads begins, in the most literal sense, on a Haitian sugar plantation during the life of an older slave woman named Mer, but it will cross time and space to show us France during the life of Jeanne Duval, and even more time and space to the journeys of Thais of Alexandria during the Roman Empire. It finds its richest inspiration in Carribean lore, history, and spirituality, but Hopkinson’s novel also pays respect and honor to other African roots – from the Arabic-speaking Muslims to the ancient worshippers of Hathor. Even more than saluting them, Hopkinson embraces them; she melts them into her story to profound effect. But across all the time, space, and culture The Salt Roads traverses, a single thread ties her novel firmly together: the struggle of the Ginen, the enslaved African people. Thus the story begins in its chronological middle, with “matant” Mer.

Mer is a healer, trusted more than the local doctor, and a devout of the Ginen gods and the ancient African spiritual traditions. It is these two characteristics which lead to her being at the river near the plantation in the dead of night, burying a stillborn child while praying to “Mama” Lasiren, goddess of the water. It is that moment that Lasiren says she is “born from song and prayer. A small life, never begun, lends [Lasiren] its unused vitality. [She’s] born from mourning and sorrow and three women’s tearful voices… from countless journeys chained tight in the bellies of ships… from hope vibrant and hope destroyed… of bitter experience… of wishing for better…”

The circumstance of Lasiren’s ‘birth’ sets the tone for the rest of her work in the human world, for her mission in this/these particular incarnation(s). She will do many things in the course of The Salt Roads – manifest herself to Mer, possess Jeanne Duval throughout most of Jeanne’s carnal, tumultuous life, and inadvertently turn Thais into St. Mary of Egypt – but they will all serve her purpose to free, in one interpretation or another, the Ginen.

Lasiren is not always successful (her possession of Mer during a particularly volatile time on the plantation leads to Mer’s tongue being cut out), nor knowledgeable in the way one might expect of a deity (she must learn to control bodies and to influence minds), but her fight is timeless, multifaceted, and earnest. It manifests itself in small ways, like guiding Jeanne through a youth full of suffering and poverty to old age in relative comfort and happiness, and it manifests itself in large ways, like becoming Erzulie Dantor during the Haitian slaves’ battles for freedom. If Lasiren’s character is a symbol for the struggle for freedom, then her power is the embodiment of hope. Through Lasiren’s manifestations, and the salt roads that are the Ginen’s connection to her (and by extension, their heritage), Hopkinson explores a history that is rife with suffering, ornamented with perseverance, and rich in enduring culture.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot of The Salt Roads or to provide a story arc in a conventional sense; there is no climax or traditionally ‘satisfying’ end. Mer does not see freedom in her lifetime, Jeanne dies crippled and decimated by sexually transmitted disease, and the last we see of Thais has her wandering through the desert, possibly forever. But their lives do see minor victories: A few generations after Mer, a successful slave revolt will give rise to the first generation of free Haitian blacks. Jeanne dies at an old age, with a husband who loves her, despite being the black, dancer daughter and granddaughter of a prostitute. Thais doesn’t return to living her life of slavery on her back, and goes down in history as the “dusky saint” of Egypt. All are manifestations of small measures of freedom and escape, of Lasiren’s love for her people.

The message of The Salt Roads is neither an admission of defeat, nor a writ of contentment, but a promise of success to come. It is heartwarming and depressing, at times, in equal measure, and a riveting story. While accessible to those without knowledge of Afro-Carribean culture and lore, appreciation of the artistry of The Salt Roads’s authorship deepens with any amount of it. Hopkinson’s novel is raunchy, vivid, and beautifully crafted; “eat salt” and don’t miss it!

Hopkinson, Nalo. The Salt Roads, Warner Books, New York © 2003.

Book Review: The Wanderground

The Wanderground

Sally Miller Gearhart

Persephone Press, 1980

196 pages

It is an unknown point in the future of the United States. The country has continued to promote rape culture, with society growing into a more and more male-dominated, woman-controlling world. It gets worse and worse, to the point that “cunt hunts” (page 160) become a pastime for some men, who go out into the country to chase and rape any women fleeing from the cities. Women live in submission, or terror, until one day, the Earth herself has had one too many rapes. In a moment’s notice, nothing man-made functions outside of the cities. Machinery and tools of every kind suddenly fail in the act.

Finally, there is some circle of peace for the women who have fled, the hill women. Forming separatist communities on the idea that it is not in man’s nature not to rape, and it is not in woman’s nature to be raped (page 25), they live in peace with nature and other women, in Wanderground, far from the old civilization. In this communion, they find their own psychic/spiritual power they can use to communicate with each other and their animals, which they call mindstretch, which is done with their soft-selves (as opposed to oral communication with one’s hard-self). This exchange of information allows them to share present thoughts and ideas more clearly and immediately, even over long distances. It also allows them to share memories without speaking, as if the receiver were there herself.

This power is a crucial part of what makes the Wanderground women’s lives possible. Communicating via mindstretch is the most genuine form of interaction, as it allows women to share so much more than just hard-self words convey. The women also depend on the distance communication mindstretching provides, in order to communicate with women in other communities of women, and to the women who live underground in the cities and on the borders, keeping watch. Besides current communication, it is soft-selves that are used for the conveyance of memories, both individual and collective that form the history of the hill women.

All of this knowledge gets imparted bit by bit through the stories of The Wanderground. What is not a book began as individual short stories, published in fanzines and magazines before they came together (at the encouragement of everyone’s favorite ray of sunshine, Joanna Russ, who Gearhart totally fangirled over) in a book. The narrative style of The Wanderground reflects this piecemeal history. All of the stories fit together loosely, all somehow adding to the story of The Wanderground.

The continuing narrative, that makes some appearance in all, or almost all of the stories, is caused by some kind of shift in the cosmic balance between the hill women and the cities. Rumors are whispered, things are getting worse. In a beautiful, gripping opening set of stories, an armed woman dressed in battle armor appears at the edge of the hill women’s territory, and the woman on watch, completely unarmed, convinces her to drop her arms, and let her armor be removed. She is unable to speak, and rattled to the point of losing part of her mind. Her truth is that she was raped, and then set loose like that, a truth she is only able to communicate via her soft-self, as her words still no longer work.

As the stories build on each other, subtle remarks are made about how things are getting worse, the cities are becoming even more controlling, it is more dangerous for the women underground, men are appearing outside of the cities, even to the point of rapes occurring in the borderlands. Something is changing.

The tension finally comes to the foreground when the gentles, (gay men, who have the greatest respect for all women, especially the hill women) request a meeting with the hill women. The message is smuggled out of the city, and a great discussion begins. Even though the gentles are considered to be allies of the hill women, they are still men, and this mixed status of ally and enemy causes a great debate. I won’t spoil how it turns out, but I assure you the process of getting to that point is something I marveled at.

After several stories in a row really focusing on the tension building in the book, the ending came as a surprise. It was completely removed from the semi-plot that Gearhart had been focusing on for most of the book, and instead was a death narrative. For anyone who has lost anyone important to them, I recommend reading these two, final chapters, “Voki at the Welling Place” and “The Telling of the Days of Artilidea” (with some tissues). They were touching, and beautiful, and an unexpected but welcome conclusion to the book.

Reading this book in the context of the books that we have been reading, that are either unintentionally constrained by the male-centric world of science fiction, or intentionally ‘passing’ as part of that genre, this book is a total departure from that idea. After doing research in Gearhart’s papers, I saw in this book the literary embodiment of what she hoped for in her theorization of lesbian separatism, from the intentionally inclusive communities of women to the treatment of gay men as allies but still essentially different than women.

The Wanderground isn’t a book I’d recommend for new readers of any kind of feminist literature, but I loved it. I think it transcends the boundaries of science fiction, and could be seen as utopian fiction, or even potentially as fantasy. (The concept of mindstretch reminded me mightily of a concept Tamora Pierce brings up in her Emelan books, with the main difference that Gearhart considers it a natural part of women’s communication rather than magic.) By virtue of being what it is, The Wanderground takes a feminist mind to enjoy, but for the feminist reader, it is an imagination-stretch and a joy to read.

Book Review: Motherlines by Suzy McKee Charnas


Suzy McKee Charnas’ Motherlines (1978), a novel published by Berkeley Books, is the second installment in The Holdfast Chronicles, a series that follows a ‘fem’ (women who were enslaved by men in a city called Holdfast) named Alldera, who is adopted, along with her unborn daughter, by the ‘mares’, a group of genetically modified women who separated from civilization and established a life in the desert long ago. The story revolves around the interaction between these two feminist separatist communities that were created in response to an extreme, aggressive form of patriarchy. It’s yet another utopian/dystopian/everything in between novel, but I think that it has some unique merits that bring up some new challenges to these concepts.

In the story, the mares take Alldera and her baby into their unique family set-up, in which several women are responsible for raising one child. Alldera learns about the mares’ way of life (i.e. their family structures and the importance of horses ). Despite this effort, however, she never quite achieves a sense of belonging, so she leaves the mares (and her child) for a camp of other escaped Holdfaster fems like herself. Throughout the story, Alldera attempts to find niches in both societies to varying degrees of success.

This book is perhaps different from other fictional accounts of feminist separatist communities in that, although both the fems and the mares consider themselves to be women, they are technically different species in that their systems of sexual reproduction are different. In fact, although it is briefly discussed, reproduction does not seem to be the primary concern for the fems, as the traditional means of reproduction would require them to interact with the men they had to escape. I think that in other stories such separatist societies have already established some alternate way to produce offspring, but this society is so new that they have to first to pursue more immediate concerns such as survival and revenge. The mares, however, do have a way to procreate. This is enough to create a great deal of animosity and xenophobia between the two groups, which was an interesting dynamic to have despite the utter absence of men. By doing this, Charnas explores some inequalities outside of the gender divide, which I think are important to keep in mind when considering feminism.

I appreciated that there were inequalities and that these societies weren’t utopian– even within each of the groups there were struggles. For example, although the mares had autonomously existed in the desert long enough to have mostly forgotten about men, every one of the fems had had personal experience with being owned and abused as slaves. As an artifact of this time in their lives, the fems are inclined toward a hierarchical societal structure. They almost seem to be subservient by nature and still feel the need to please and honor those who put themselves in positions of leadership. This proves to be an inefficient system in the conditions of the desert, which probably should have been more obvious as this was the system that had already been destroying the city of Holdfast. I think that this dynamic accurately portrays the extensive damage that patriarchy can do to a woman’s confidence and self-worth. Also, I think it demonstrates how women can be unconscious enforcers of patriarchy. I think this is especially true of one character, Daya, who easily gets attached to various partners throughout the book, including one of the harsh leaders of the fem camp.

On the individual level, the book deals with issues of identity. This theme creates a very rich diversity of characters. They all have distinct personal struggles. For example, although Alldera is capable of navigating both societies, neither completely accepts her. Daya tries to find self-worth outside of her former status as a ‘pet’ for the men by whom she was enslaved. Sheel, a mare who reluctantly becomes one of the mothers of Alldera’s child, questions the importance of loyalty to her family as they become more and more accepting of fems. The story is told from many of these character perspectives at different times. Although I thought it was great that the story incorporated such a large number of diverse characters, I still felt that I wanted to know more of their inner dialogues. They seemed a bit impersonal at times, and I found myself wanting the story to slow down at times so that I could better understand their thoughts and feelings surrounding their situations.

Nonetheless, I would overall recommend this book. I think that longer epics with women as the main protagonists are not especially common, and the post-apocalyptic, science fiction format of this book creates a way to look at older themes such as honor and heroism through the lenses of strong female characters who have been absent in more traditional epic literature. I think that anyone who enjoys the less technology-driven settings of science fiction novels such as Dune would like this book. I would probably not, however, recommend Motherlines to readers who prefer more character-driven stories. I think this story very much focuses on the events of the larger scope of The Holdfast Chronicles, and it would have to be a lot longer to really develop the characters. Furthermore, I would be curious to see whether reading the first installment of the series would change my reading of Motherlines. I think that I would at least feel closer to Alldera, so I might suggest doing that as opposed to reading Motherlines in isolation.

BONUS: Did you know that the setting of Dune was inspired by the Oregon Dunes near Florence? At least that’s what the Wikipedia page says.

Review: Joanna Russ’s The Female Man

This is a review of Joanna Russ’ novel The Female Man, first published by Beacon Press in 1975. 214 pages.

femalemanThe four women who are the focus of Joanna Russ’ best-known work, The Female Man, are each from an alternative universe dealing with male oppression in decidedly different ways. There is Joanna, who lives in a world very similar to Earth in the 1970’s. She is a professional struggling in a male-dominated society. She wants to be taken seriously and respected, not forced to accept the power of men and the classed roles of women. In Jeannine’s world the Great Depression never ended and she believes that the female stereotypes she has been told will bring her happiness. These two and their somewhat “normal” societies and constraints are contrasted with Janet and Jael. Janet comes from a utopian future world called Whileaway where there are no men, having all been killed some 30 generations ago, and the women live in lesbian families, reproducing via parthogenesis. Jael, on the other hand, lives in a world where the male and female populations live separately and are at war with each other.

The story gets interesting when the women start dimension jumping and interacting with each other along with, inevitably, their very different societies and cultures. First, Jeannine and Joanna show Janet around America where she clashes with the male culture that cannot understand aspects of the queer, assertive women of Whileaway. Afterwards, Jeannine and Joanna travel to Whileaway with Janet to experience that way of life before Jael guides all three around her world. Joanna, in turn shows Jael America. Through their travels and experiences in the alternative worlds, all the women learn about themselves and as well as what it is to be female.

Along with shifting dimensions, the novel also shifts between the voices of the four women. Sometimes this is thought provoking. Sometimes it is downright confusing, with the reader having difficulty ascertaining which woman is narrating a section or figuring out what world they are in. While this makes the plot difficult to follow in the beginning (and hard to read at times) the perplexity makes the reader think about the female identity and the idea of self, concepts central to the novel. Russ’s jumping between alternative viewpoints and worlds has the additional effect of removing the concept of how. How is all of this happening? How were they traveling worlds? Rather than explain some complicated technology, it simply is. Instead of focusing on the technology, the reader focuses on the societal interactions and the thoughts and experiences of the four women. While hard to follow in the beginning, it does become easier as the story progresses, though it is definitely not a style for everyone.

There is no doubt that Russ uses this novel as a way to vent the real-life frustration she felt regarding the constraints she experienced as both a woman and a lesbian. Some passages are simply too spunky, some satire too obvious, and some contempt too discernible to be passed off as mere writing. “Do you enjoy playing with other people’s children–for ten minutes? Good! This reveals that you have Maternal Instinct and will be forever wretched if you do not instantly have a baby of your own…Do you like men’s bodies? Good! This is beginning to be almost as good as getting married. This means you have True Womanliness, which is fines unless you want to do it with him on the bottom and you on the top, or any other way than he wants to do it…” (p. 151) Russ has even given her name, Joanna, to the woman from the “contemporary” world in a not-so-subtle nod to the obvious. Joanna: female man.

This book is recognized as one of the founding pieces of literature in feminist science fiction and there is no doubt that it deals with some heavy issues and ideas regarding the sexes and their relationships with each other. What would a society without men look like? What about separated male and female societies? This book looks at all of these questions and more, making people question societal norms and assumptions. For me the problem is that it is no longer the 1970’s but 2013. Towards the end of the book there is a long list of how men hold all the meaningful professions: doctors, cops, bank managers, landlords, factory workers, the army, etc. But for me, about half of these are not true; women too hold those roles in my life. We do live in a more equal society than Joanna’s. Is there stuff we need to work on now in 2013? Of course! But while a number of the passages still ring true, some of the tirades just don’t seem that applicable to me anymore which makes it harder to personally connect with Russ’s 1970’s feminist message. Never having experienced that time, it is hard for me to discern where the satire stops and the seriousness begins.

This does not, however, mean the book is not interesting read. The Female Man gives the reader an insight into Russ’s disappointments, aggravation, and fury regarding to the treatment and stigmas she felt against women. It touches upon ideas of feminist equality long before they were thought about; in fact it helped spark them.

Review: “Picnic on Paradise” by Joanna Russ

This is a review of “Picnic on Paradise,” from The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1983. 192 pages.

If you want to know anything about “Picnic on Paradise,” you’d better get to know Alyx.

Alyx, a combination warrior-huntress and thief, is a protagonist who shows up in many short stories by Joanna Russ. Although her physical attributes vary throughout the stories, the Alyx-ness remains in all versions. The Adventures of Alyx is a 1983 anthology that arranges the five stories sequentially, giving deeper meaning to the character when read back-to-back. Although she is whipped about through time and space and sometimes even through different subgenres, the character is given a narrative arc that transcends any one story.

The first three stories in the compendium (“Bluestocking,” “I Thought She Was Afeared Till She Stroked My Beard,” and “The Barbarian”) are standard fantasy fare, with Alyx playing roles as a princess-snatching rogue, abusive-husband-escaping pirate, and sorcerer’s apprentice. Aside from a few short and direct conversations with other characters (and the general tough-babe attitude that Alyx exudes at all times) the stories aren’t overtly feminist like Russ’s other projects like The Female Man.

Starting the anthology off with these banal examples of Alyx’s independence and fierce attitude feels like a misstep, although they lay the groundwork for the prize gem of the Alyx series, “Picnic on Paradise.” By the time the reader arrives at “Picnic on Paradise,” s/he understands Alyx as a roaming warrior in an ancient fantasy world, which changes the minute she’s dropped into the future, on a planet much like Hoth. (But without the Tauntauns.)

“Picnic on Paradise” brings the other stories up to its level, and works so well because the reader has already established a relationship with Alyx that paints her as an incredibly capable huntress who gets what she wants. In this short story, Alyx is made leader of a bunch of spoiled future tourists on a harsh ice planet. She is tasked with maintaining their safety, even though enemies (the corporate armies in a “commercial” war, implying a bleak future in which consumers are caught in capitalistic cross-fire)  attack them at every turn and their stay is extended by roughly 45 days due to a navigation error.

This story paints Alyx in a less complimentary light—she is no longer the heroine who always gets the better of her enemies. She devolves into a lesser being who cannot control the childlike impulses of her charges. Not only does she have to fight a language barrier, but she also butts up against unfamiliar social norms. The snowy, barren, mountainous setting reflects the social landscape before our protagonist, so that every failure (either interpersonal or navigation-based) is heightened and cumulative.

It’s a long, sad story with many deaths. Alyx eventually becomes a shell of what she once was, and the reader is impacted even further due to his/her initial belief that she was an impenetrable force of female will. “Picnic on Paradise” becomes an ironically-titled tale of the fall of our heroine.

The final story in the collection speeds ahead many years and gives an account of the actions of Alyx’s granddaughter. We can see that, through this granddaughter character, the sprit of Alyx lives on and her fall in “Picnic on Paradise” is justified.

Throughout the anthology, Alyx grows and changes, and the stories are stronger for it. Russ deals with other themes like psychedelic drug use, masculine power, female sexual agency, motherhood, and fantasy tropes, all while wrapping them up in a pro-female empowerment bow.

I’d recommend this anthology to anyone who enjoys:

  1. Semi-cheesy yet self-aware fantasy starring female leads, like Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17 or anything by Joss Whedon.
  2. Tense arctic survival narratives, like Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void or The Thing (1982).
  3. Explorations on kaleidoscopic life stories, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010).

Review: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

Appropriately subtitled The Ambiguous Utopia, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed succinctly explores an impressive range of topics for a 341 page text; anarchism and other forms of political organization are chief among them. The setting, divided between the planet Urras and its moon, Anarres, slightly dates the 1974 Harper & Lee publication. Urras, modeled on Earth, is a lush paradise on which several nation states vie within a realist framework—“police action” taken by the neoliberal state of A-Io in response to a revolution backed by the authoritarian state of Thu serves as a Vietnam-esque backdrop to the events of the novel. On Anarres, dissidents of Urras have been allowed to establish an anarchist community that struggles against the moon’s harsh climate. Named for their philosophical leader, Laia Odo, the Odonians of Anarres live in isolation from Urras and their interstellar neighbors until the protagonist, an Odonian physicist, travels to Anarres to further his scientific research and to share the values of his society.


The exposition of Odonian society is among Le Guin’s greatest achievements in The Dispossessed. Rather than presenting the society as established and static, as other utopian novels have been prone to do, the structure of Odonian society is dynamic. Le Guin’s anarchism is not the nihilist rejection of order that the term has come to connote. Instead, its establishing principle is order without state power. To realize this, several distinctly non-utopian elements remain in Odonian society, resulting in the ambiguous designation.


In particular, biopolitical behavioral norms govern and structure the interactions of the Odonians. Le Guin does not hide from this fact, opening the novel with the description of a wall “that an adult could look over, and even a child could climb” but that nonetheless serves as a boundary for seven generations. In addition, the protagonist, Shevek, observes that, while they are technically allowed to refuse work assignments, neither he nor his significant other, Takver, have refused assignments that, in retrospect, they regret accepting. Both the wall and the work assignments serve their disciplinary purposes because they are reinforced by custom, rather than states. Takver later observes that “an archist can break a law and hope to get away unpunished, but you can’t ‘break’ a custom; it’s the framework of your life with other people,” suggesting that custom may have an even more insidious hold on autonomy than the governments that the Odonians have forsaken.


This wouldn’t be much of a problem, but Le Guin presents a society that is still developing and coming to terms with itself. Securitization drives many of the changes to Odonian society, primarily as a result of a multiyear famine. In the interest of self-preservation, the Odonian’s impose stricter standards of behavior on themselves, including further restricting access to food and focusing work assignments on practical matters. While such extraordinary measures are obviously reasonable responses to the existential threat of starvation, many of them become remain after the famine—it’s easier to securitize than to desecuritize. More troubling, while famine is an objective threat to human life, the nebulous threat of invasion from nations on Urras also looms over the Odonians, and extraordinary measures are also taken to confront the possibility of this threat. Absent active proponents of desecuritization, it isn’t hard to imagine the Odonians sacrificing greater and greater amounts of freedom for defense, and the mounting ostracization of deviants and extraordinary individuals sets up the conflict of the novel.


Surprisingly, these critiques of Le Guin’s utopia serve to strengthen her vision by establishing a plausible route for the genesis of her utopia. First and foremost, the benefits of the society—equality, freedom, and the lack of –isms—have great appeal. In addition, the reader is also left wondering “is this it?” when the problems on Anarres are contrasted with the heinous inequity, oppression, and sexism found on Urras.


Le Guin goes further by preempting criticisms of anarchy. Her approach is almost dialectical—a situation will arise illustrating a criticism (children declaring ownership, resource scarcity, resurgence of old institutions, etc.) and a second situation will arise answering the first (social engineering, deference to ideology, old institutions being terrible, etc.) with further examples as Le Guin sees fit. Once again, these admissions of anarchy’s flaws only serve to render the social structure of Anarres plausible and preferable to profiteering societies.


No discussion of The Dispossessed would be complete without a discussion of language. In addition to political views, Le Guin also advances the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that discourse shapes the perception of reality. The Odonians speak Provic, a language engineered for their settlement of Anarres. The language is designed in order to structure methods of thinking. There are numerous examples of this: the possessive case is highly discouraged in order to displace ownership; ‘to copulate’ is the primary verb for sexual intercourse to avoid connotations of objectification inherit to transitive verbs such as ‘to fuck’; and the non-euphemistic ‘shit-stool’ is used for toilet to alleviate the shame of bodily functions.


Le Guin drives home the power of language by using subtle linguistic flourishes to structure the perceptions of the reader. For instance, one of Shevek’s handlers brags that “A-Io had led the world for centuries…in ecological control and the husbanding of natural resources.” Here, Le Guin’s use of gendered language emphasizes the prevailing view on Urras that women and nature must be controlled by the men and/or nation-state while simultaneously confronting the reader with the shortcomings of their own language.


One of relatively few contemporary utopian novels, Le Guin’s The Dispossessed presents a startlingly plausible vision of an anarchist utopia alongside a principally classist and sexist society. Le Guin’s concise handling of a breadth of topics and the depth to which she considers anarchy and language testify to her formidable technical ability both as a writer and as a political thinker. Particularly for those harboring suspicion of political institutions, The Dispossessed is a worthwhile read.

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