The Dispossessed

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.

Looked at from one side, the watt enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the Port of Anarres. On the field there were a couple of large gantry cranes, a rocket pad, three warehouses, a truck garage, and a dormitory. The dormitory looked durable, grimy, and mournful; it had no gardens, no children; plainly nobody lived there or was even meant to stay there long. It was in fact a quarantine. The wall shut in not only the landing field but also the ships that came down out of space, and the men that came on the ships, and the worlds they came from, and the rest of the universe. It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.

Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.

– Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)

Ursula Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) is possibly the most sustained attempt to present an Anarchist society to date.

The wall becomes the central metaphor of the book:

”Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced.  What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.  Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the port of Anarres.  On the field there were a couple of large gantry cranes, a rocket pad, three warehouses, a truck garage, and a dormitory.  The dormitory looked durable, grimy, and mournful; it had no gardens, no children; plainly nobody lived there or was even meant to stay there long.  It was in fact a quarantine.  The wall shut in not only the landing field but also the ships that came down out of space, and the men that came on the ships, and the world they came from, and the rest of the universe.  It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.”

– Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

The Principle of Simultaneity

The story concerns the attempts by the Annari physicist Shevek to construct a unified Grand Temporal Theory which will one day form the basis for the superluminal communications system used throughout Le Guin’s Ekumen sequence of novels and short stories which also include The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and the novella The Word for World is Forest (1976)

The Principle of Simultaneity can be seen as a metaphor for the dialogising aspects of Le Guin’s anthropology.

The novel intercuts Shevek’s formative experiences on his homeworld, the resource-poor moon Annares on which the settlers live out a communal but largely subsistence level existence, and his later experience on the rich and verdant world of Urras; both planets orbiting the star Tau Ceti.

An Ambiguous Utopia

Annares society is organised along Anarchist communist lines outlined by Peter Kropotkin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1955), although diagetically the philosophical basis is attributed to a woman Urresti, the philosopher Laia Asieo Odo. The landmass is largely barren, and devoid of animals more developed than earthworms but the sea teams with life; due to a treaty guaranteeing non-interference with the settlers by the home planet Annares has also become isolationist.

Urras is more varied in flora and fauna, and in social organisation; it has both a Patriarchal Capitalist continent, A-Io (clearly modelled on the USA) and an Authoritarian State Communist country, Thu, modelled on the USSR; both, reflecting the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union at the time the novel was written, are locked in a Cold War which is warming up as the superpowers fight a war-by-proxy in the smaller, unstable country of Benbili.

The strength of Le Guin’s vision of Anarchism is that it is no idealised society, and she describes the sacrifices and hardships it entails.

“It is our suffering that brings us together.  It is not love.  Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced.  The bond that binds us is beyond choice.  We are brothers.  We are brothers in what we share.  In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood.  We know it, because we have had to learn it.  We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand.  And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is.  You have nothing.  You possess nothing.  You own nothing.  You are free.  All you have is what you are, and what you give.”

– Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

Pravic

Although few Pravic or Iotic words are used in the book the languages are, nonetheless, contrasted with each other and, as often in Science Fiction, Le Guin borrows the linguistic theories of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.

The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis holds that language determines thought, and that linguistic categories limit and define cognitive categories. Although little support has been found for the hypothesis that has not discouraged exploration of the consequences of the idea in Science Fiction. George Orwell used the idea in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948)where Newspeak is employed to make the idea of rebellion literally unthinkable, while the protagonist of by Anthony Burgess‘s A Clockwork Orange  (1962) uses playful  euphemisms which make his career as a thug and a rapist appear less serious than it is.

Pravic is a fictional constructed language invented by the original settlers of Annares and reflects the ideology of Odonian Anarchism. The language does not possess singular possessives such as ‘my’ or ‘your’, for instance, reflecting the lack of a concept of private property: this omission even extends to a lack of possessive for their own body parts so they would refer to ‘the hand’ rather than ‘my hand’.

The language has several ‘modes’ including the ‘ethical mode’ and the ‘analogic mode’, that referring to the metaphor of the social body as described in Odo’s

Taboo words are always a useful pointer to a society’s cultural values and Pravic is no exception. Pravic has has no word for ‘bastard’ as the Annari have no concept of marriage. Reflecting the body metaphors of the analogic mode he Annari are characteristically blunt regarding bodily functions such as defecation; their word for ‘toilet room’ translates as ‘the shittery’ while the toilet itself is referred to as the ‘shit-stool’. The Annari ‘copulate’ rather than ‘have sex’ with each other since to ‘have’ implies ownership; the closest they have to ‘fuck’ translates as ‘rape’ (which does exist on Annares). Although the novel alludes to religion on Annares (the Fourth mode

Annares is a largely subsistance level society and excessive luxury or profligate behaviour is regarded as ‘excrement’ in the analogic mode. The most insulting words in Pravic are reserved for unacceptablly selfish and anti-collectivist behaviour like ‘egotism’, while the most insulting terms of abuse are ‘propertarian’ and ‘profiteer’.

Samuel R Delany made two responses to Le Guin’s Utopia: his novel Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1975), which signifies its dialogical relationship with Le Guin’s novel in its subtitle, and an essay ”To Read the Dispossessed” in his collection The Jewel Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1977).

References

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