A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering The Dispossessed, first published by Harper & Row in 1974. My edition is Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2014, and this installment of the reread covers pages 192 to the end.
Revolution is sexy.
It’s been in vogue since the 18th century when first the colonies that would become the United States, then the colonial domains of Haiti and Peru, then nation after nation across the Western world and its colonized peripheries declared new independences, new governments, new ways of relating between state and citizen. We might even go back further and speak of the many rebellions that sporadically rose up in the wake of Europeans’ “discovery” of the Americas and their enslavement and genocide of millions of black and brown folks all over the world. And even earlier, to medieval peasants’ revolts that shook the power of feudal lords in Europe and Asia, to religiously inspired rebellions across Christendom and Islamdom, and to the servile uprisings of the Roman Republic. Looked at one way, history is the story of revolutionary mo(ve)ments.
But what is revolution, this attractive thing we love to cosplay but rarely commit to? If you’ve been following along with the Le Guin Reread or if you are already familiar with Le Guin—and given how much I’ve learned from folks’ engaging comments on these posts, many of you are!—then you know Le Guin might have some answers, ones that take aim specifically at the powers of the state and capital, especially in earlier work, and turn more explicitly to colonialism, gender, and race in later years.
The Dispossessed is Le Guin’s most famous answer to the question of what revolution is. If the first half was a comparative exploration of life in anarcho-syndicalist Anarresti and capitalist Urrasti society, then it’s fair to say that the second half is a much more thorough dive into what exactly revolution means. The particular genius of this approach—the slow introduction, in media res, to Shevek’s life—is how it subverts the utopian novel, a tradition Le Guin was keenly aware of when developing the novel and which she specifically alludes to in her original subtitle, An Ambiguous Utopia (which was removed from later reprintings for reasons that aren’t entirely clear). In this second piece on The Dispossessed I want to focus on revolution and/as utopia, what this means for Le Guin, and why it still matters—in short, why this rather strange science fiction novel has been remembered as one of the masterpieces of the genre, and why people still talk about it almost fifty years later (which, holy crap, that’s a long time…).
Le Guin’s subtitle has provoked a great many responses, none more pointed than fellow SF writer Samuel Delany’s 1976 novel Triton, later released as Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1996) to make Delany’s meaning absolutely clear. (The initial subtitle, Some Informal Remarks toward the Modular Calculus, Part One, was a bit opaque, but also put it in conversation with Shevek’s search for a unified temporal theory.) Delany was famously critical with The Dispossessed, detailing his response in a long essay, “To Read The Dispossessed.”
Of particular concern to Delany was Le Guin’s “failure” to radicalize Anarresti society around sex and gender; on Anarres, Delany suggests, Bedap’s homosexuality should not be cause for intense depression and sadness, a source of rejection from the sort of partnership that Shevek and Takver experience. Truly, Le Guin gives us no examples of homosexual partnering, though she notes that Shevek had had multiple sexual experiences with men and even with Bedap. But Anarresti society is not, apparently or at least in Le Guin’s description of it through Shevek’s eyes, a particularly radical place where sex, gender, and sexuality are concerned. In fact, it’s pretty damn hetero. By contrast, Delany’s Triton, like all his fiction, is queer as fuck, dealing openly with how a libertarian society might embrace radical openness of sexuality and gender roles.
Like the word “utopia,” Delany’s heterotopia is a play on words. Utopia, as given to us by English humanist Thomas More, author of Utopia (1516) and notorious torturer of Protestants, comes from two Greek sources: the first, eu- (“good”) + topos (“place”), meaning “the good place”; the second, ou- (“not”) + topos (“place”), or “the not-place,” “nowhere.” More was an intelligent scholar of Greek and knew that his pun would be well-received by the two dozen people who could understand it; thankfully, those folks wrote down their interpretations and we know that utopia was always meant to be both a desire for a better world and unattainable, a place we can’t go.
Heterotopia comes from French social theorist Michel Foucault, who saw it as the “other place” (Gk. hetero-) outside of the orthodoxy of social norms and values. It already exists: It’s there in the subcultures, for example, of BDSM fetishists, of gay bathhouses, of the punk music scene of the 1970s, of radical feminists and black abolitionists. Unlike utopia, you can get there. But there’s also the other pun: hetero(sexual), which heterotopias by definition of their search for otherness (in a straight-normed world)… are not.
But while Delany took aim at what he saw as the unradicality of Le Guin’s utopia, and maybe of the entire concept of utopia as generally useless since, well, it’s a not-place, The Dispossessed does not promise Anarres as the solution to “our” problems (or at least those of the sexist capitalist society of 1970s America). Rather, Le Guin’s Anarres is simultaneously an ever-changing social organism and a society plagued with problems, whether (as I argued last time) with regard to gender or to personal liberty or to the way in which ideology inheres simplistically such that Anarresti yell “propertarian” at whatever seems to challenge what has become the “norm” on Anarres. Many see utopia as an ideal solution to social, cultural, and economic problems, and that is historically what the genre of utopian writing upheld: a logical explanation of how society could operate if XYZ problems were fixed. But utopia for Le Guin, as for many so-called utopianists who have invested entire scholarly careers in thinking about what “utopia” means, is not so much an achieved state of being or place of residence as a struggle toward something better. In this instance, a heterotopia might be utopian precisely because it strives toward an ideal through difference that seeks to dismantle what those in the heterotopia believe is unjust.
I’ve got no idea why the subtitle An Ambiguous Utopia was removed from some later reprintings, since to me this idea of ambiguity is integral to what Le Guin is talking about. Interestingly enough, utopia is only referenced once in the novel when Pae, an informer for A-Io’s government, tosses a drunk Shevek into bed and rummages through his papers in search of the theory of simultaneity Shevek was brought to Urras to produce. Frustrated, he asks Oiie, “Have we been taken in by a damned naive peasant from Utopia?” In this sense, the actual fact of Anarres as a functioning society is so minor to the capitalist mindset that it is a sideshow to the “real world.” It’s the naive fantasy of “peasants,” the uneducated, the unrealistic, those who don’t know any better. It’s the word liberals use to call Leftists crazy, to demand greater focus on “real” issues and “practical” matters. But neither Shevek nor Le Guin see Anarres as utopia. It’s qualified, it’s ambiguous, it’s unachieved, a work-in-progress—an outopos.
So why call it an “ambiguous” utopia if, for Le Guin and most thinkers on the Left, utopia is always ambiguous? For one, Le Guin wanted The Dispossessed to revitalize the utopian novel, a tradition that traces back to Protestant-torturer Thomas More (as mentioned above, who himself took the idea from Plato and other Greek writers) and which flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the United States and Europe, socialists, feminists, and black thinkers wrote hundreds of utopian novels. These followed a pretty typical format: A utopian society exists; a member from outside of it (usually representative of the reader’s society) pays a visit; some friendly utopians show the outsider around, detailing the social, economic, infrastructural, and other functionings of utopia; the outsider records his observations on the differences between our world and the possible world, usually offering some ideas in a more moralist frame about how “we” could get there. Utopian fiction was rarely plot-based; these were essentially Wikipedia articles on non-existent possible-worlds written out with perfunctory attention to characters and story as met the prerequisites for being labeled a “novel.”
In sum, they were boring and aesthetically rather uninteresting. Le Guin didn’t want to be boring; she wanted readers to invest emotionally in the story as much as she did in the ideas, so she wrote a utopian novel that turned the genre inside-out, that narrated from the perspective of the utopian society and that explored our society. She estranged the propertarian and opened up a space for thinking of capitalism as, well, the pretty shitty system it is. Anarres is not necessarily a sexy utopia; it’s on a resource-strapped desert moon and life is hard work. The main character isn’t even particularly happy there, for fuck’s sake, and that’s pretty clear from the very beginning, when he’s being stoned for trying to leave, and from the first scenes of his life, when he’s chided for his intelligence. Even the gender and sexual politics, if you agree with Delany, aren’t all that great. And the beauty of it is that Le Guin was telling us this all along: It’s not supposed to be perfect. It’s human. It’s… ambiguous, just like utopia itself, a concept that captures dreams as diverse as Thomas More’s Catholicism, Hitler’s Nazism, Marx’s communism, Goldman’s anarchism, Modi’s Hindutva, #NoDAPL’s decolonialism, the current administration’s xenophobia, and #BlackLivesMatter’s abolitionism.
If utopia can capture so much, including ideologies that are directly at war with one another, what matters then is how the utopian impulse—the always unfinished drive toward utopia—responds to the ambiguities inherent in the very idea of utopia. Why is an ambiguous utopia—in other words, any utopia—worthwhile if it won’t be perfect? I might be a smart-ass and say, well if you’re going to ask that, then ask yourself why anything is worthwhile. But to tamp down the snark and get real: Life sucks, why not (try to) make it better? Better isn’t best, but it sure beats this. Utopia isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.
Revolution Is Change
The Dispossessed is a painfully beautiful novel. Le Guin writes about love and longing, desire and connection, personhood and agency so powerfully and yet subtly that many readers feel themselves in her words. I dislike Shevek, but he seems so real and familiar to me that I can see myself in his emotional being. True, Le Guin often writes heterosexual characters deeply invested in a relationship with a single person who is their all; this was Le Guin’s experience with her husband Charles, whom she married in 1953. Le Guin led a rather traditional heteropatriarchal life for a woman in the 1950s, staying home to take care of the kids, and only later, when her kids were older, launching her writing career. This informs her early books, just as Delany’s search for place as a bisexual black man among intellectuals and queer folks in the 1950s and 1960s shaped his fiction. It’s not wholly surprising, then, that despite Le Guin’s radical anti-statism and anti-capitalism, those with political investments in the feminist and gay and lesbian liberation movements of the 1970s thought The Dispossessed didn’t go far enough.
But as we saw with responses to The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin embraced political and personal change as a matter of existence and acknowledged her own inability to think outside of some orthodoxies even as she was thinking inside of others. Indeed, she theorized this conception of utopia in The Dispossessed—not only that utopia is ambiguous, that it is always utopian only in relation to certain historical moments (say, the conditions that brought about Odo’s writing and the revolution that finally got the Odonians their moon), but that revolution is not singular, it is multiple, it is change. To put it bluntly: This shit isn’t simple and positing utopia as a singular solution ignores how difficult (and many) the problems are.
Not only does The Dispossessed play around with what the utopian novel was, as a rather well-known genre form, it also helps us think about the utility of utopia in bleak times, largely by reframing our conception of revolution. We are wont to think of revolutions as moments of ecstatic rupture, of a break between past and future during which time the present is an explosive, almost orgasmic moment that radically transforms the old into something new. Anarres, for example—the whole social experiment in anarcho-syndicalist life—is said to be a revolution. But how can a society be a revolution? How can a thing that has existed for nearly 200 years, with minimal contact with those against whom they rebelled, be a revolution? To think like Shevek, we need to understand where we’ve gone wrong.
Take the Russian Revolution of 1917. It did away with the tsarist state and brought about the Soviet Union in one fell swoop, a wholly different society from the one before. Right? At least, that’s the high-school world history version of the story. But as China Miéville carefully shows in his moment-by-moment retelling of the Revolution, things weren’t so cut and dry, nor were the Leninists the most radical faction operating in the revolutionary fervor of October that year (he killed most of the anarchists!). Moreover, the Soviet Union was quickly transformed into something quite familiar: a state eating up smaller states, relying on authoritarian force to maintain power, and competing within 30 years for global dominance. This is Thu of The Dispossessed, which emerged out of Odo’s revolution just as Anarres did but went a different way; this is Orgoreyn on Gethen.
Look at another revolution: second-wave feminism. Things changed, bras were burned (yes and no), and sexism seemed to be, well, less. But there was a third (and maybe a fourth) wave of feminism. #MeToo was still necessary; judges and elected officials at the very highest level of government have been confirmed and supported despite their troubling histories, statements, and behaviors; the gender wage gap still exists; most jobs in the U.S. don’t allow paid time off for mothers, and so on. The feminist revolution was not boom, bang, done; it’s ongoing, made possible by the constant work of thousands, millions, of people across the world who adhere to a utopian dream. Here is the ongoing revolution of Shevek’s Anarres. To be feminist is to live a constant revolution, always striving for an end to (hetero)patriarchy. To twist Le Guin’s description of Anarres just a bit, feminist “society, properly conceived, [is] a revolution, a permanent one, an ongoing process.”
So, yes, revolution is sexy. But only because we’re thinking of the mythical revolutions, the Les Misérables that are over and done with after some punchy songs, slow ballads, and a rousing chorus. We marched with our pink hats… but misogyny is still alive and well at the highest levels of power. We think of revolution in terms of quick, exciting moments, Che Guevara shirts, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, and movies starring Mel Gibson. These visions of revolution attract because they are easier and glorious: The battle is fought, hopefully won, and things are different ever after. Huzzah, to the rebel! Viva la revolución! Etc.
Le Guin wants us to see revolution anew, the way things have historically worked. She takes the anthropologist’s eye to recognizing that society changes not dramatically but piecemeal, that rarely is one person, one glorious leader, an agent of wholescale change; rather, we are all part of a collective action that can only ever be ongoing and that can only ever be achieved collectively. If this sounds familiar from earlier posts in this series, that’s because it is. I argued as much was Le Guin’s impetus in The Left Hand of Darkness, and we see this continue in her second major novel.
In fact, it’s a lesson that Shevek learned in the same way we all learn our ABCs: as part of growing up, the necessary indoctrination into culture. But it’s also a lesson he has to re-learn, to learn at the deeper level of personhood and identity, to move past the bare ideology of knowing how to use “a” vs. “an,” “he” vs. “him,” and to recognize that there is a grammatical rule at work. Only in going to Urras does Shevek come to understand the true meaning of living in a society that is a revolution, and when he learns this, he recognizes that Anarres is not perfect, that it’s dull adherence to parroted Odo quotes learned in grade school is not enough.
While the Urrasti elite embody all he disdains, and the PDC fails to stop power from centralizing on Anarres, Shevek finds that the struggle for justice among the Nioti, the underclasses of A-Io, is a fulfillment of the ongoing utopian vision of Odonianism. Having cut themselves off from the outside world, having learned to pretend that the only struggle worthwhile is simply to be Anarresti, the lunar anarchists have forgotten what solidarity means and have abandoned it and the principle of change. It is no coincidence that after Shevek rediscovers and truly inhabits the meaning of revolution—revolution is change—while caught up in the Nioti riots that Le Guin takes us back to Anarres, back to Shevek’s increasing radicalism on Anarres against the stultified PDC prior to his departure. Le Guin’s interweaving of moments in Shevek’s life practices the constant need for personal and ideological growth that The Dispossessed argues for. To us as readers, each chapter brings a new Shevek, someone who we have to relearn and place in his altered social conditions. Like society, the individual cannot remain static, but must react, evolve, live the revolution. The Dispossessed is itself an Odonian manifesto.
There is so much to say about The Dispossessed that it overwhelms. Rarely do I read a book and leave the experience feeling exhausted, shocked by just how much one could say, how many pages I could flip between to build arguments and discuss minutiae with others. That I’ve been able to say this much flabbergasts me, and I don’t even think I’ve begun to say anything all that worthwhile! I imagine this is what the very religious experience when talking the finer points of Gospel or Talmud. And I don’t think this is far from what Le Guin wanted… After all, The Dispossessed is not a perfect book and it’s a deeply Taoist one. Like The Left Hand of Darkness, its flaws call out to be seen! We must make something of them and engage our critical senses, and at the same time we love this thing, this messy book, this beautiful and tiring and unforgettable book.
It is, I truly think, impossible not to go unchanged by the experience of The Dispossessed. It is a novel that practices utopia, that changes and changes its readers. It calls us to something greater: not an ideal to be reached, like Heaven or Utopia, but an ideal to be lived. We aren’t going to get there, to our grand vision of what things should be, but the journey lies ahead nonetheless. May we be reborn on Anarres, and may we recognize that it has to be of our own making—here, now, always changing. May we be the revolution.
Join me in two weeks, Wednesday, April 8, for a reread of A Wizard of Earthsea. We’ll read the whole thing and discuss it in one go! In the meantime, take care of yourselves, folks. Stay safe, practice social distancing, and remember that while individual liberty is essential to the Odonian movement, your freedom to carry on as you like does not come at the expense of the health and safety of the social organism. Don’t be propertarian!
Sean Guynes is a critic, writer, and editor currently working on a book about how the Korean War changed American science fiction, and co-writing a book on whiteness for the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series. For politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.