Fun fact: I have never read Ursula K. Le Guin before. Can you even believe that? I spent the better part of my youth with my nose firmly wedged in the pages of sci-fi and fantasy novels, thanks to my SF-loving dad. I mean, my angsty teenage self fixated on thoughts like, “No one will ever love me the way Lazarus loved Dora.” And I have long identified as a feminist because, you know, as a science-oriented tomboy, you come up that wall of “girls can’t do that” pretty early in life. And if you bring these two great flavours together, it’s usually sooner rather than later that Le Guin’s name falls off someone’s lips.
I blame the fact that I never picked up any of her stuff on Clan of the Cave Bear. Yes, I know Le Guin did not write this, but I tried reading it when I was a kid and hated it, and somehow attached Le Guin’s name to it. (This happens to me all the time. Even if two names are completely different, if I see them next to each other in just the right way, my brain flips them.) So whenever Le Guin did come up, I’d get this bad taste in my mouth and turn to some other author who was not associated with childhood trauma. All of which means that I have been missing out on a great author for a very long time. Because, dang! She is great.
In The Dispossessed, she offers up commentary on sexism, classism, capitalism and more in a way that feels completely effortless. She even manages to squeeze environmentalism into the mix. So yeah, some big ideas here. But it’s a big story and Le Guin makes it all flow together so that I found myself unable to stop reading. And when I did stop, because hey, I have to pay the rent, my mind would keep wandering back to it, picking at the threads she leaves for your brain to play with. And this is the kind of book I like most of all, the reason I read fiction and the reason I write it. Engaging a reader with an engrossing story that ends up making them reconsider their world view, yeah, that’s pretty much what it is all about.
Shevek is a brilliant physicist on the moon Anarres, which was colonized by utopian anarchists. (Utopian anarchists!) They built up a society without possessions where everyone works at the job they want to do, except for a ten-day rotation of community work. Even the idea of parent and child is a bit too selfish for this moon, so after a certain age, children live in dorms at the schools. And the language the settlers invented doesn’t use possessives. Everything is “the” or “the whatever that I use”.
The utopian anarchist Odonians left Urras, the planet Anarres orbits, because they despised the capitalistic greed of its society, the separation of people into haves and have-nots. They believed they could make a better world where no one person is any better than any other, where no one has power over anyone. And this is the world Shevek grows up in. But as he grows up, he sees that for all their noble ideals, the Odonians are falling into some of the trappings they tried to throw off when they left Urras. So he makes it his mission to shake things up. With some awesome physics! Seriously. He does physics and changes the world. I heart this.
The story alternates chapters in an interesting way. Odd chapters follow Shevek’s journey to Urras, while even chapters follow his life growing up on Anarres. But both narratives bring him to the same place in the end. Not physically, but mentally. He starts off in a kind of uncritical mode, deeply taken in as an adult, with the beauty of Urras and all the brilliant minds he meets there, and as a child, with the teachings of adults around him about Anarres. But as he moves through his stories, he starts to see flaws, starts to think more critically about how each society functions.
I think one of the reasons it’s so thought-provoking and lingers so much in my mind is the fact that Le Guin isn’t shoving things down your throat. She sets up two societies, one very much like our own Western society (although interestingly a Soviet-style communist society is also discussed, providing a different avenue for thought on the same subjects, particularly of class and capitalism) and simply lets the reader see the injustice for herself. The ridiculousness of the second-class status of women is obvious when there is a whole planet full of women doing just fine as equals right next door. The unfairness of a family unable to eat is right there in your face when a whole planet of people with far fewer resources in the middle of a drought somehow manage to keep food in everyone’s mouths.
I love so much of the thinking of the anarchists up on their moon, like this bit on women: “I think that’s why the old archisms used women as property. Why did the women let them? Because they were pregnant all the time—because they were already possessed, enslaved!” And this on work: “It is useless work that darkens the heart. The delight of … anyone doing needed work and doing it well—this durable joy is perhaps the deepest source of human affection, and of sociality as whole.” I am going to start saying this to everyone who says that I work too much.
Basically, I love this book, and the childhood Clan of the Cave Bear trauma has been overcome. That’s what I’m saying here.