Sunday, April 14, 2013

An Ambiguous Utopia

In class (I got in!) we are reading The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The subtitle is "an ambiguous utopia." I've read other books in the Hainish Cycle, and this one is both noticeably different and recognizably Le Guin. It's the first in chronological order, and the protagonist discovers the equations that will lead to the ansible-"an instantaneous communication device." In the rest of the cycle, this is the device that the protagonists use to record their observations of other worlds. Shevek is the only protagonist in the cycle (at least of those I've read) that is of the race that he observes. However, he is and is not.

Shevek is from Anarres, a desert mining colony on the moon of Urras, a water-rich planet. On Anarres, the Odonians have built a two-hundred-year old anarchist commune, where nobody owns anything. On Urras, the larger powers are still "propertarian" (i.e. capitalist) and exploit their resources, using a money economy and class-based hierarchy. Without a doubt, the situation is analogous to the Cold War, but neither world is utopia or dystopia...or perhaps, perhaps both are acceptable modes of existence.

There are so many excellent questions that this book raises about the nature of utopia and the relative merits of alternative forms of government. These days, we're riding a wave of dystopian literature, but I wonder how helpful it is to be utterly pessimistic to the point of not exploring all our options? it's not that dystopia doesn't have a place, but I think the most "useful" kind of dystopia would be that like in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, a pretty bad situation, but one with a viable solution. In a world like where The Hunger Games takes place, for example, well, it's not as if there's no hope, but hope...somehow has lower expectations? And seriously thinking about an ideal world doesn't at all seem to be the point of the book. It's more about individual happiness for the characters. Which brings me to my next point.

One of my main criticisms of Ursula K. Le Guin is that I rarely personally relate to her characters. I don't find them to be fully developed, and the minor characters certainly aren't. I just don't have an emotional connection to Shevek or any of her other narrators the way I do with Katniss Everdeen. But I always respect Le Guin's ideas and her world-building, which is why I keep reading her, and in this book I think she very clearly gets across that she's aware of this and this is part of her style on purpose. It's one of the main questions in the book: Is Shevek an outsider because that's how he was born or because that's how he was raised? Is Shevek unique because of who he is or because of his society?

At one point, Shevek thinks:

"The Settlers [of Anarres] had taken one step away. He had taken two...he had been fool enough to think that he might serve to bring together two worlds to which he did not belong" (34).

But later on, he thinks:

"He was therefore certain by now that his radical and unqualified will to create was, in Odonian terms, its own justification" (116).

At the very least, Shevek justifies himself through the lens of his society, even when his society rejects him. But there's a question of whether they have become a society with laws, laws of conventional behavior, evn when their aim is to be without, to promote true freedom. So perhaps Shevek is true to his upbringing after all, the pure Odonian. Or maybe he gives into human nature, which may be essentially "propertarian," essentially selfish.

Then again. It is only the outsider who can step outside, who can evaluate whether or not a society is what it thinks it is. Or maybe only the reader can do that.

1 comment:

Biblibio said...

Hmm, I don't know how much I agree with you about Le Guin's characters. Maybe it's an outlook thing, but I prefer Le Guin's cooler brand of characterization (alongside her obviously brilliant world-building, intelligence and storytelling) to the more manipulative feelings I got from a character like Katniss (though, in all fairness, I thought Katniss was a better developed character than most of her ilk...). I can understand what you're saying, but I think I just feel differently...