Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Retro Review - The Dispossessed (Ursula K. LeGuin, 1974)

This is a reposted copy of an (edited and slightly updated) reprint of a review I posted on Usenet back in 2001 of Ursula K. LeGuin's great novel The Dispossessed, a book which I greatly enjoyed but also found to be greatly flawed. Here are my comments, which focus more on the world-building logic and its effect on the theme than on the characterization or description, which are excellent.


I. Loaded Comparisons

It's interesting that Ursula K. LeGuin does not dare to compare Anarres with any society as free as, say, the 20th century West (even the one existing in the early 1970's, which was in many respects more troubled that the one of today).

There are three major nations on Urras.

A-Io, the capitalistic liberal democracy where most of the Urrasti action is set, can best be described as a country with the social attitudes of Victorian England, the riot control skills of Late Tsarist Russia -- these coexisting with fusion power and interplanetary space travel. Women are barred from most occupations. Lower-class persons defer to upper-class ones. Peaceful demonstrations are dealt with by strafing the crowd and then hunting down the survivors for days.

(Now, A-Io is of course a fictional culture, and the author is within her rights to make it misogynistic, stratified, and cruel. But when she deliberately structures the novel to invite comparison -- for instance, by cutting from Arras to A-Io each alternate chapter -- one is bound to ask why she picks a very nasty society to serve as her example of a capitalist liberal democracy).

Thu, the main rival of A-Io, is not described in detail, but from the clues given is obviously a Stalinist communist dictatorship. Benbili, the country that A-Io and Thu have a war over during the course of the book, is a chaotic "Third World" country, normally ruled by a military dictatorship, which is overthrown by an unconvincingly described revolution, with the A-Iotians then restoring the dictator to power.

Terra (Urras and Anarres both orbit Tau Ceti) has suffered a catastrophic population collapse in her past (from 9 to 1/2 billion), and submitted to a horrendously totalitarian regime in reaction to this die-off:

As a Terran character says:

"Well, we had saved what could be saved, and made a kind of life in the ruins, on Terra, in the only way it could be done: by total centralization. Total control over the use of every acre of land, every scrap of metal, every ounce of fuel. Total rationing, birth control, euthanasia, universal conscription into the labor force, toward the goal of racial survival."

This "solution," incidentally, is one that based on the historical evidence seems unlikely to work: one can more reasonably assume that "racial survival" is the excuse the rulers of the horrible culture described there uses to maintain their dominance. I wonder if this was one of the inspirations for Vernor Vinge's hellish "Emergency," the space bad guys in A Darkness in the Sky?

The Hainish are "total altruists" dominated by awareness of their own age and cultural guilt for some crime: we don't learn much about them (maybe in her other books?).

At no point do we see a non-mysoginistic, humane, liberal democratic capitalism -- such as the one that we live in today -- practiced by anyone. In fact, LeGuin implicitly argues that such is impractical over the long run, because one may presume that such a culture (ours)was at least partially responsible for the ruin of Terra. But I submit that almost every reader, given a choice between, say, the America of 1970 and any of the cultures detailed in the book, would have picked America in 1970. Let alone America c.2000!

II. Unconvincingly Utopian Ambiguity

For all the talk of an "ambigious" Utopia, Anarres is culturally working far better, 167 years after the colonization, than seems likely. We're supposed to believe that the Syndic of Initiative is the first serious dissent that the culture has ever had, that the reaction to them is the first repression that the culture has ever known, and that Anarres is in some meaningful sense a society perpetually "in revolution" (I'm minded of Kodos and Kang's "twirling, twirling towards progress" when I read that line!) :)

This despite the fact that there are features in this culture that would be obvious handles for a tyrant to grasp. For instance, the worst sins are "egoism" and "profiteering." Thoughts along these lines are bad; expressing them is worse.

Now, because all humans have a strong sense of personal identity, and try to ensure that they produce more than they consume in any endeavor meant to constitute "work," these are "sins" which every (sane) human being can be properly "accused" of. This means that every Anarresti should know he's a miserable sinner (or be convinceable of same by a skilled speaker). This is a tailor-made opportunity for petty tyranny.

Yet, apparently, nothing like this happened until Shevek and his pals were born?

(We don't know, it after all could be that they never tried to find out what happened in the past. But it's a big omission, that even Shevek's slightly paranoid friend never tried to find this out).

III. Anarrean Lethargy

At that, there are aspects of Anarresti society that don't make a lot of sense unless we assume that their culture is not very good at identifying and pursuing opportunities. I don't know if this was _intentional_ on the part of the author, but here goes.

A. Tourist Lethargy - The Anarresti have and enforce a de facto non-intercourse policy with the rest of the Universe, analogous to that of Shogunate Japan. Their trade with Urras is grudging and restricted to vital items. Information going in and out is censored. They ignore (!) the coming of interstellar aliens (!!!). Shevek is supposedly the first person to travel from Anarres to Urras for over a century, which if true argues that the restrictions used to be even more severe. He has to avoid a rock-throwing mob in order to leave the planet. This is a level of xenophobia the Iranian ayatollahs only wish their own people possessed.

B. Navigational Lethargy - The Anarresti have a space fleet consisting of 12 ships, which are currently capable of repeated atmospheric launch and re-entry (they haven't lost any in some 167 years, unless they have a treaty with the Urrasti to replace the losses), and which were originally capable of inter-lunar flight (these ships are how they got there).

This means that the Anarreans, at least theoretically, could go anywhere in the system -- if you can reach the orbit of a terrestrial planet, you're "halfway to anywhere" (in Pournelle's famous phrase). Unless Tau Ceti has a very weird system, it's gotta have more than the twin Anarresti-Urrasti planet.

Yet the Anarresti can't think of anything better to do with their ships than to arm them and use them as a patrol against (apparently non-existent, because there's no mention of even attempted smuggling anywhere in the story) alien incursions. Given that their ships are over one and a half centuries old, and that the Urrasti have been updating their own spaceflight technology, they would presumably be as useful against an Urrasti invasion as war junks against ships of the line.

Now, you could argue that the Urrasti don't let the Anarresti colonize anywhere else in the Cetan system. You could -- except that nobody mentions this, not even the paranoidly anti-Urrasti who oppose the Syndic of Initiative. You'd think that if the Urrasti were so restricting the Anarresti, that this would be a sore spot with the Anarresti patriots, wouldn't you?

Heck, it doesn't even seem to occur to the Anarresti that they have what amounts to 12 capacious suborbital transports -- all Anarresti air transportation seems to be accomplished by dirigible! The limitation of their most valuable craft to "defense" against a non-present "enemy", who would be overwhelming if he ever came, is profoundly irrational, and creepy in terms of the level of implied paranoia.

C. Industrial Lethargy - The Anarresti have a metal-rich planet. This is, in fact, the whole _basis_ of their interplanetary economy. Yet, at the same time, they have so little heavy industry that the construction of a single oceanic barge will consume a good portion of their whole industrial capacity for a year, according to Shevek. Why?

D. Commercial Lethargy - The Annaresti metals output includes gold. Yet, for some reason (probably their horror of "profiteering"), it doesn't occur to them to increase their gold output, develop a foreign exchange surplus, and use this to purchase heavy durable goods from Urras to improve the standard of living on Annares. Instead, they limit their trade to what sounds like a mutual tributary arrangement; the sort of thing the Egyptians and Hittites had with each other on the royal level.

They do primarily import high-tech machinery and biotechnicals from Urras, in fact, but they don't seem to be cutting very good deals. My opinion is that the Urrasti are probably sharping them for everything they can).

E. Maritime Lethargy - Anarres has a very sparse, very fragile land ecosystem, but a much richer and more complex oceanic ecosystem. So what do the Anarresti do?

They live on the plains and mostly ignore the oceans, though at the point of the story, they are just beginning (!), under the lash of famine (!) to research the possibility of fishing and aquaculture. Um ... duh?

F. Biological Activity - There is one thing that the Anarresti do a lot of, though it's described by LeGuiin with all the eroticism of a musketry drill. That's have sex.

Unfortunately for the Anarresti, they make motherhood real easy -- free food, and free creches and education for the children. With the predictable result.

Anarres is overpopulated. BADLY overpopulated.

"What!" I hear you cry. "But there are only a few million Anarresti!" How can they be overpopulated?"

The answer is that "overpopulation" is a problem of the ratio between energy, food, and other economic resources, on the one hand, and people on the other. A wealthy, crowded city is not overpopulated. A poor community living dispersed on an arid plain may well be overpopulated.

We know that Anarres suffers from severe overpopulation because they have evolved a way of lie (farming on an arid planet vulnerable to years-long droughts) which should require immense food surpluses be laid up in granaries and other storehouses. Instead, everyone can take food as long as there is no extreme shortage. (This is explicitly stated by Shevek in the scene with the laid-up train).

Thus, the accumulation of large food surpluses is impossible. (Heck it would be "profiteering" to even try!) And, when the drought hits, we witness an atomic-powered industrial civilization suffering from the sort of famine that the Pharaohs of Egypt had managed to avoid with a muscle-powered agricultural one.

Good going, Odonists. Circle of Life, and all that. *snicker*

IV. Weird War Tales

A. Weapons, Weapons, Who's Got the Weapons?

The Benbilian revolutionaries overthrow an armed military dictatorship -- presumably, they defeat his troops. Yet, when the A-Iotians invade, one reason the A-Iotian forces can conquer so easily is that most of the revolutionaries are unarmed.

Huh? All I can say is that the Benbilian Army must have made the Tsarist Russians look competent by comparison. And what happened to all the weapons that the Benbilian Army presumably had before the revolution? Did they commit suicide out of grief for the fall of the ancien regime?

B. Guerrilla My Dreams

Shevek, master of military strategy, floors an Urrasti in debate by pointing out that military hierarchy is unnecessary, since, after all, guerrillas manage without such things. Apparently, LeGuin had never troubled herself to learn anything about guerilla warfare, which is especially funny given that America was actually involved in a guerrilla war at the time that she wrote this book -- with guerrillas who had a very highly developed military hierarchy.

C. Crowd Control -- The Final Solution

The climatic A-Iotian riot scene, set in their capital city, involves a crowd of a hundred thousand or so workers, being strafed by helicopter gunships (the Blue Thunder approach to riot control, apparently). After this, the crowd is broken up by troops supported by armored cars (apparently, riot police weren't an Urrasti invention). THEN, the A-Iotian military tries to hunt down and kill the survivors.

Why? Are the A-Iotians utterly determined to decimate their own workforce? What's the point of hunting down defeated demonstrators, anyway? And how, incidentally, can the troops tell rioters from other people in the city. It looks to me as if the A-Iotian army is sacking its own capital!


The Dispossessed is a good book, but very deeply flawed. Ursula K. LeGuin intended to compare and contrast Anarres with the real world, but did so only by loading the balance scales -- the "real world" shown is a combination of the worst of capitalist societies; Anarres is an idealized anarcho-socialist utopia with very managable problems. At the same time, many of the problems are "the planet ate my work" type problems, supposedly due to the harshness of the environment, but clearly (to me, anyway) due to Anarresti lethargy in exploiting their opportunities.

It is peculiarly a book of its times -- the early 1970's, when many intellectuals felt that America was fundamentally flawed, and that there was something better -- and alien to our founding principles -- that could be built. This is not how we feel today.

As such, I don't know how well it will last, save with the support of nostalgic teachers.

(c) 2001, 2006, 2011, Jordan S. Bassior


  1. Along similar lines (Utopias that aren't), there was Darkness and the Light by Olaf Stapledon. It's a discussion of two possible futures for humanity: one in which totalitarian thugs triumph (Darkness) and one in which the forces of gentleness win (Light). IMHO, the Light version is also a dystopia. Typical quote:

    "Certain kinds of industry were excluded from capitalist enterprise entirely, such as armaments and the great means of expression. These, and education, were to be nationalized under the American state, subject to final control by the World Government."

    In other words, your rights were protected ... except for the 1st and 2nd amendments.

  2. I'd pick Anarres! I'm a big old softie for utopias. Anyhow, you talk of lethargy...but the people are Anarres are small in number & prioritize getting enough food to eat over digging up more minerals for profit. Seems like a reasonable choice to me. The fact that your plan is for them to dig up gold to sell to Urras is...exactly a failure of profiteer thinking! Besides, becoming a fiscal property of Urras mining concerns is a terrible idea; you say living in America is swell, & sure, but I don't know if the workers building your iPhones or mining your diamonds or sewing in sweatshops would so enthusiastically agree.

  3. At no point do we see a non-mysoginistic, humane, liberal democratic capitalism -- such as the one that we live in today

    Where do you live!? I would like to live there! Is it Canada, is that what Canada is like?

    But I submit that almost every reader, given a choice between, say, the America of 1970 and any of the cultures detailed in the book, would have picked America in 1970. Let alone America c.2000!

    Well, but yeah, that's kind of the point, right? Because everyone is short-sighted and selfish and kind of a dick. That's why our planet gets fucked up in the future, and that's why only a small portion of the population of Urras ended up being Odonians.

    By the way, I'd love to live on Anarres. Especially if I had been born there and hadn't experienced anything different. It seems pretty fulfilling. I would very much like to think of everyone as my brothers and sisters. The only thing that is lacking for me is a rich planetary biology.

    At that, there are aspects of Anarresti society that don't make a lot of sense unless we assume that their culture is not very good at identifying and pursuing opportunities.

    "This anarchist community could totally succeed as a capitalist society if it just embraced capitalist principles! It's so unrealistic that that wouldn't happen!" What? (I do kind of agree with you in re: E, though, about how it's weird that they've not made more use of the oceans.) Not doing these things are the POINT. That's how their community is based. It's working. You wanting it to be more like the setup that YOU'RE used to would just make it . . . more like what you're used to. Not better. They LIKE how things are.

    Ursula K. LeGuin intended to compare and contrast Anarres with the real world, but did so only by loading the balance scales -- the "real world" shown is a combination of the worst of capitalist societies; Anarres is an idealized anarcho-socialist utopia with very managable problems

    I actually liked that she did that, a lot. I liked that Terra was kept on the fringes, a passing mention just to confirm that what we're talking about isn't Earth's future, until the very end. I think that if the society on Urras hadn't been as extreme, it might not be as easy to believe that the Odonian revolution could happen as it did. Things are fucking shitty in our own world right now, and this sort of revolution isn't happening. So it must have to get RIDIC for people to finally decided to ditch the whole damn thing. (But again, some people -- like myself -- we'd go right now.)

  4. I live in the USA, but my point about "a non-misogynistic, humane, liberal democratic capitalism" would have applied equally to almost any modern Western nation, including America, Canada, Australia, Britain, Canada, France or Germany, among others. All modern Western states afford roughly equal rights to women, generally avoid machine-gunning peaceful demonstrators, have a high degree of social equality, and choose their leaders and representatives through democratic processes. The same things can't be said of A-Io.

    Being unable to engage in international trade is a major disadvantage for any culture, because trade maximizes mutual comparative advantages. If Anarres traded with Urras, both planets would be richer. This is true whether either or both planet were capitalist, socialist, anarchist or any other conceivable political or economic system.

    And no, the Anarrean system wasn't working all that well even in the novel: note that they had a planet-wide famine of sufficient severity that there was actual mass death by starvation. If they exploited their seas more effectively, and stockpiled their agricultural produce during good years, this would not have happened.

    The reason I would rather live in modern America than on Anarres is that in modern America I am unlikely to die of starvation -- despite the fact that I AM poor -- and have much more control over my own life. I prefer wealth and individual freedom to poverty and submission to the collective.

    1. Yyyeah, see, I don't agree that the US is non-misogynistic (come on,) humane (capital punishment, the prison system in general,) liberal (compared with whom? are you not aware of how batshit religious this place is??) and democratic -- I mean I guess, but they're all fucking crooks and corporations & lobbyists run everything anyway. I do agree that it's a capitalist nation, though! I'll give you that one.

      And no, the Anarrean system wasn't working all that well even in the novel: note that they had a planet-wide famine of sufficient severity that there was actual mass death by starvation.

      Wait, were there mass deaths? I must not have been paying attention, I thought they got out of the famine mostly okay? I am not contradicting you though, I may be remembering wrong. But I think you're missing the point; you're not thinking like an Odonian. The community survived the famine. The community lived on to grow and progress. That is the whole point!

      The reason I would rather live in modern America ...

      I understand that you want to live in a capitalist society. I happen to disagree, for myself, but I am not trying to convince you to be an anarchist. But you present these arguments in your review as "flaws" in the novel, as aspects of society that "don't make sense." I think Le Guin does an excellent job of describing the Odonian philosophy, and the culture she presents is consistent with this philosophy. They don't want to mine gold because they don't want to make profit! They're anarchists, not goddamned Ferengi! You're pointing out "obvious" "solutions" to the problems they have on their planet, that directly contradict the principles the society is based on. Whereas Le Guin presents a realistic and plausible quasi-utopian society that could conceivably come about within the situation that she describes.

  5. America is not free of misogyny because human males are not free of misogyny, any more than human females are free of misandry. Having said that, there are very few countries on Earth less misogynistic than America, almost all of them of European or even British origin. In the majority of countries existing on Earth today, women have less status compared to men than they do in America, and if we extend this to all known civilized societies throughout history, the disparity is even more pronounced. The United States of America of today is demonstrably less misogynistic than Ao-Io, and this was even true of the USA of 1974 (when the story was written).

    We are not the most humane culture on Earth, but we are (with the rest of the West) one of the more humane ones. We are definitely more humane than is A-Io -- and this was true even in 1974 when there was large-scale rioting in many large cities within recent memory. At no point after the 1920's did we do anything even remotely as bad as what A-Io does to its own capital city in the novel.

    Liberal compared with whom? With most of the Third World, in which religion has even more influence than in America. You are also confusing "liberal" with "anti-religious," when "liberal" means "respecting human rights." By that standard, our only competitors in the realm of being "liberal" are other countries of the Anglosphere or Europe.

    As for being "democratic," yes, we are. Crooked politicians and corporations having strong effects on politics is normal for democracies (things tend to be far worse in non-democracies). Anarrean politics were dominated by the Syndicates, which were the exact analogues of "corporations" in the Anarrean setting. (A "corporation," FYI, is an organization which has a collective legal identity above and beyond the individuals comprising its personnel -- IBM is a corporation, so were the various Soviet production organizations, and so are the Anarrean syndicates)..

  6. Why would Anarres become "a fiscal property" of Urrasti "mining concerns" if Anarres sold more metals to Urras? I said nothing about inviting in the Urrasti to do the mining.