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