Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Garden of the Mind


When a great writer takes on a difficult subject, the results can be intriguing. In the case of Ursula Le Guin's "The Dispossessed," the subject is a utopia that does not, as it typically would in the scifi or fantasy genres, turn into a dystopia. The planet of Anares, whose whose people founded their society on the principles of the great anarchist philosophy Odo, does have its problems. But then everywhere in the universe -- at least everywhere the human-like species in Le Guin's "The Dispossessed" can travel -- does.
            Le Guin wrote this book 40 years ago. I can't explain why I only got around to it recently. Maybe because 40 years ago I would have tried to figure out where it was and go there.
            Anares was once the satellite planet, or colony, of the much larger planet Urras. Urras mined it for minerals, much in the way the counties of the Earth plan to treat the Arctic, or maybe the moon some day once we figure out to exploit it. However life on Urras was dominated by greed, ambition, the exploitation of the less powerful by the more powerful, vulturish capitalism, the sort of corrosive materialism that corrupts the haves as it drains the life from the have-nots. This picture should sound familiar, though the novel claims this is not a portrait of Earth since in Le Guin's literary universe another world, called Terra, takes on that role. Terra, as should be instructive for us to learn, is a largely burnt-out planet trying to struggle back from a planetary-resources collapse that reduced the population from 8 billion to a few struggling millions. People from Terra tend to think that the cruel but wealthy planet of Urras is the cat's meow.
            However, the growing number of social and economic revolutionaries on Urras who followed the teachings of Odo eventually threatened the status quo sufficiently that the planet's leaders decided to buy off dissent by offering its "moon," Anares, to the Odonians for their "new world." Seven generations later, as our story begins, Anares is still small potatoes. The planet has an atmosphere but not enough water. It's dry and hot and hard to grow enough food there. It trades minerals for fuel from Urras. The truly charming piece of their relationship is that the people on each planet call the other "the moon."
            What Anares does have is idealism and brotherhood. Each person has right to call on every other for assistance. No one owns property. In fact to insult somebody for selfish or uncivil behavior you call him a "propertarian." People live in dormitories or something called "doms," which appears to mean "available housing."
            There is no money. When you need something you go to the storehouse and take it, though as is to be expected in a "scarcity society" much is rationed. A serious, long-lasting drought raises the possibility of starvation and shakes this group-oriented society to its roots. The planet would not turn to Urras for help because, in line with ideological purity, it won't have anything to do with Urras or any other world (beside that restricted trade in minerals).
            Having given herself such interesting ideas to work with, Le Guin then creates intriguing, complex characters with satisfyingly deep issues and drives them into an involving, unconventional plot. It's politics, ethics, psychology and international diplomacy, rather than action-adventure that motivates -- just as in any really good novel in any (or no) genre.
            And after the story resolves, and the fiction comes to an end, we're left with much to think about. We have, for instance, Le Guin's brilliant creation of a philosophical basis for this society founded on the ideas of the anarcho-ethicist Odo, a woman who does not live to see her ideas put into practice.
            In place of money, ambition, and ego, Odonians have brotherhood and the absolute right to mutual assistance -- along with the responsibility to provide it. And a looser idea of family, since everyone, including parents seek out (and are sometimes forced to accept) job postings anywhere in the world. Sometimes to work in your desired field you must go far from home. Sometimes the needs of the community lead you to sign up for long stretches of planting trees, for instance, in a virtual desert. Our hero's mother says, "the work comes first." The result is our hero, Shevek, grows up without a mother. Shevek, a physicist, is separated from his own family for four years because survival needs turn him into an agricultural laborer.
            But Odo was no back-to-the-land romantic. While decentralization is an essential element of anarchist philosophy, Odo "had no intention of trying to de-urbanize civilization," Le Guin writes. Her followers "knew their anarchism was the product of a complex and diversified culture, of a stable economy and a highly industrialized technology that could maintain high production and rapid transportation of goods and ideas." When they developed a new area, they built the roads first.
            Ideas such as these are folded into the narrative throughout. Our Shevek is not only a universe-class physics theorist, he's a deep psychological and spiritual thinker whose personal journey leads, shockingly to his society, to an actual spaceship journey to another world. It's rare to find a novel written these days, or any days perhaps, with this much intellectual/inspirational heft in so many directions.
            "The Dispossessed" assumes high technological standard, but its action isn't techno-driven. It's human-driven. That's a model that can still fly.