“It’s always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don’t make changes, don’t risk disapproval, don’t upset your syndics. It’s always easiest to let yourself be governed,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin, highlighting real-life problems amidst the imaginary story of an alien space traveler.
Le Guin’s dystopian “The Dispossessed” is as much a political discourse as it is science fiction, making the book a relevant read in lieu of the upcoming midterm elections. The physicist protagonist Shevek is from Annares, a planet with an anarchist society where gender discrimination and economic inequality do not exist. In fact, half of all the scientists in Annares are women, and child care responsibilities are distributed equally between sexes.
Although Annares is built like a utopia, Shevek is troubled by his home. He wants to devote himself to being a scientist, but Annares law dictates that he must rotate between occupations like the rest of the population to prevent the exploitation of labor. And with a literal “great wall” around the planet, Annares seems keen to prevent him from questioning the system.
When Shevek leaves Annares to go to Urras, a planet surrounded by lush vegetation and deep corruption, he realizes that neither of the planets have ideal political states. Urras is inhabited by revolutionaries who were exiled from Annares 150 years prior. Shortly after the exile, Annares’ “great wall” was built, inhibiting trade and communication with Urras. Shevek witnesses firsthand how a group of revolutionaries were excluded from civilized society and technological progress, ending up in what Shevek would call despair.
Le Guin uses the term “ambiguous utopia” for her settings. Both Annares and Urras are defined by juxtaposed dualities: natural beauty with oppression, equality with hunger. Unlike in Thomas More’s “Utopia,” Le Guin does not feed her readers what she thinks to be the most utopic social order (or a clearly horrible one, as in George Orwell’s “1984”). Instead, she captures the duality of real-life politics that involves both progress and set-backs.
In our own world, apoliticism has become an existential threat to modern politics. These same dualities that Le Guin outlines enable some people to live comfortably while exploiting others. It is not rare that a person finds themselves comfortable under the current regime and opts out of the democratic process. They believe their participation in a democratic election, such as the upcoming midterms, is not crucial or impactful.
However, Le Guin argues that this is the type of behavior that allows systemic problems to persist and holds back change: “You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere,” she writes.
Ultimately, Le Guin’s language calls for dynamic structures and revolutionary action. Le Guin portrays the benefits of socialism and the limitations of traditional anarchism in the same societal setting, alluding that despite the comfort that some people in Annares feel, their participation in change is required to address the underlying issues of the state.
In his studies, Shevek grapples with the idea that time can be both linear and cyclical. In cyclical time, there are no beginnings or ends to events or causal instances that lead to successive ones. Instead, time is a circle, connecting the past to the future and the future to the past. Under the surface, he is troubled by the shortcomings of two planets that keep both of them from becoming a true utopia.
He realizes that like time, Annares and Urras too require cyclical change — with constant feedback and revision — along with a linear progression of events. Much like today’s political climate, while progression might be evident, it is not ideal to resort oneself into believing we are on a path of linear growth. Le Guin conveys that there is always opportunity for growth, as it is a static state that is the most dangerous and escaping a static state requires constant feedback.
The setting of Dispossessed is a vast galaxy, and the story chronicles two planets that are in close proximity yet out of touch. Le Guin’s symbolism alludes to polarization in current states, the inability of people to communicate and the refusal to demand systemic change. However, her protagonist pushes to convey the ability of the individual to challenge systems set in stone and implement societal change even over great distances. Out of all the classic dystopias, Le Guin’s novel is an underrated must-read, as it does not present a perfect utopia nor an atrocious dystopia but the recurring need for revolution.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.