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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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