Ursula Le Guin and the Persistence of Tragedy

At least when their authors avoid offering a thesis, novels acquire peculiar value in deranged times. They allow us to see cracks in our political and social foundations from another perspective, and as a result, open paths to conversation and thought that might otherwise remain closed. Lots of genres can unsettle us, but one peculiarity of science fiction is that its authors have the freedom to create worlds.

At the genre’s most stereotypical, this license to invent lends itself to both ham-fisted allegories and didacticism. But if the author happens to be coming from the “right” direction, so to speak, and has some real talent, it’s relatively easy to take an imaginative leap into their world. Reaching beyond one’s own tribe may present a challenge, however. It is difficult to read David Drake, Iain Banks, China Miéville, Robert Heinlein, or John Varley without observing how they view human nature, what they think family means, or the political order they endorse—and a lot more besides.

Critics often complain that such novels fail precisely because they think the author is stacking the deck in favor of their pet ideas. It’s easy for partisans to forgive this because such novels entertain while also fortifying our opinions against a hostile world. And it’s not surprising that sci-fi readership so often divides along partisan lines.

The Work of Sympathy

It is harder to name many great works of science fiction that offer a definitive point of view, while also presenting us with unresolvable tensions and latent anxieties that no attentive reader can quite escape. Neal Stephenson’s best work probably qualifies. Arguably Frank Herbert’s Dune or Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos also do this. We need the sympathy and broadening of horizons that such novels can cultivate more than ever, and for the present moment, the most compelling book of this kind remains Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

From the opening of the novel, Le Guin seeks to disorient the reader. A physicist named Shevek narrowly escapes a crowd intent on killing him rather than allowing him to board a spacecraft. We quickly learn he is a man forced to leave home to pursue his scientific work and to separate his family from the dangers he’s put them in—to protect them from the increasingly unstable closed society that reared him. The irony here is that Shevek remains deeply loyal to his home and to the idea of socialist anarchism that it embodies, and he suffers for it in exile among a people who can cannot comprehend his point of view.

The story presents a tragic view of two very different societies, and offers a glimpse at a third: The first is the arid moon colony of Anarres—Shevek’s home—an anarcho-socialist community that has drifted from its anti-authoritarian founding into something far less congenial to individual happiness. The second is the aristocratic and corporatist republic of A-Io, on the planet Urras. And at the end of the novel, Le Guin confronts us with her fears for Earth’s future through a conversation between Shevek and Earth’s ambassador to Urras.

This is a novel that avoids the peril most philosophic novelists fall prey to—and while it’s clear where Le Guin’s sympathies lie, she’s altogether too honest and deep a writer and thinker to entirely succumb to any one single perspective in the novel. Even Le Guin’s most conviction-driven scenes, the ones with clear analogues to problems of order and justice in American life, leave ambiguity in their wake. This makes it an uncommonly rich check on our assumptions—a novel with something to unsettle everyone.

Le Guin interweaves two distinct timelines into the novel. The first begins from Shevek’s departure from his home on the moon Anarres and leads him into the company of the aristocratic elite in the nation of A-Io on his people’s home planet of Urras. The other traces Shevek’s life on Anarres from his earliest memories to the moment he undertakes the decision to leave. I won’t spoil how the novel unfolds—you should all read it—but I do want to outline why the book might spur greater thoughtfulness about the necessary tradeoffs that so many of us want to ignore about our pet political projects.

Real Socialism

Through her presentation of the socialist-anarchist experiment on Anarres, Le Guin demands that we consider what achieving some kind of workable socialism in the real world would actually require. She compels her readers to see that a new world would require radically new thinking, and demand we make some genuinely tragic choices.

Throughout the evenly-numbered chapters of the book, The Dispossessed paints the best possible picture for socialism. By making her society at least putatively anarchist, Le Guin frames her characters’ lives as open to mostly-free choice. Without the need to make a living, each person can undertake the work they choose. But labor for the community they must, or they will face social sanction. There are no laws, but instead, relatively inflexible social standards that each person can choose to live within or not, and face the consequences.

At one point in the novel, Shevek tries to explain what motivates the Anarresti to labor to one of his hosts in “propertarian” A-Io:

life on Anarres isn’t very rich…. In the little communities there isn’t very much entertainment, and there is a lot of work to be done. So, if you work at a mechanical loom mostly, every tenth day it’s pleasant to go outside and lay a pipe or plow a field, with a different group of people. . . . And then there is the challenge. Here you think that the incentive to work is finances, need for money or desire for profit, but where there’s no money the real motives are clearer, maybe. People like to do things. They like to do them well.

Le Guin freely accepts that socialism probably means poverty for those who undertake it—and that it might fray amidst too much wealth. Instead, Anarresti socialism promises happiness earned through equality of conditions.

The bourgeois, property holding family presents a stumbling block to equality and community. Le Guin seems to accept the necessity of doing away with it while also insisting that people lose something in subjecting their entire lives to the society at large. The citizens of Anarres practice free love from a young age, but the characters find that establishing lasting bonds of friendship and love remain difficult.

Anarres offers them comprehensive sexual equality and respect, and they achieve this in part through the abolition of marriage. Freely chosen partnership remains open to anyone who can find a willing mate, but even that choice was subject to the mercy of labor assignments from the central planning board:

An Odonian undertook monogamy just as he might undertake a joint enterprise in production, a ballet or a soap works… It was not an institution but a function. It had no sanction but that of private conscience. A couple that undertook partnership did so knowing that they might be separated at any time by the exigencies of labor distribution.

Throughout, Le Guin thinks about some of the extremes to which anarcho-socialists would need to go to attenuate the unequal affections and bonds of that family generates. She imagines that parents would not even get to name their children—in her story each Annaresti receives a computer-generated name at random, so that no two are alike, but also, parents cannot claim ownership of them. Children remain with one or both parents for a few years, and then move to dormitories. This follows the need for all adults to engage in productive labor, but also hints at other egalitarian imperatives: by existing over generations and passing on distinctive virtues, vices, traditions, and the like, families necessarily generate inequality. How else could you begin to break that chain of inheritance except through undoing the means by which parents perpetuate inequality through their children?

One inescapable condition The Dispossessed grapples with is that of power, and how it tends to accumulate in people, places, and institutions. Despite the wish for it to be otherwise, anarchism cannot do without politics and order. Le Guin uses the idea of “the wall” to describe how individuals would face disheartening bureaucracy and authoritarianism. A friend of Shevek’s laments the continuing presence—against their founder Odo’s wishes—of an

unadmitted, inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind…. It’s anywhere on Anarres. Learning centers, institutes, mines, mills… one-product communities—anywhere that function demands expertise and a stable institution. But that stability gives scope to the authoritarian impulse.

In a way, Shevek and his friends ultimately agree with Robert Higgs: crisis abets leviathan. Yet, throughout the story, Shevek remains faithful to the egalitarian promise of Anarres, and commits himself to unbuild walls with open eyes. Anarres rests ambiguously between utopia and dystopia, and Le Guin doesn’t resolve that tension for us.

Aristocratic Longings, Oligarchic Realities

The Dispossessed’s oddly-numbered chapters lead the reader into the vaguely aristocratic republic of A-Io, the nation that gave birth to the socialists now living on the moon Anarres. Le Guin sketches A-Io as a wealthy stand-in for the United States, a rich continental super-power with the world’s best universities and finest scientific minds. The nation is locked in a cold war with a totalitarian communist regime, Thu, and prosecutes hotter proxy wars with them in the politics of smaller nations. It may well be that Le Guin thought A-Io to mirror what she perceived as America’s gross injustices, but it offers food for thought that reaches far beyond partisan caricature.

The homeworld of Urras offers as stark a contrast to its anarchist moon as one could want. And for today’s readers, A-Io suggests its own tragic set of choices. Faced with resource depletion and environmental catastrophe roughly a century before the events of the novel, the republic chose a path of tight controls and high taxation. Cars, cheap consumer goods, and the like were put out of reach for nearly everyone: “such luxuries which if freely allowed to the public would tend to drain irreplaceable natural resources or to foul the environment with waste products were strictly controlled by regulation and taxation.”

Instead of yesterday’s luxury becoming tomorrow’s everyday household item, Le Guin depicts a dramatically unequal but well-ordered economy that restrains luxury consumption to the upper classes, with the result of deep class distinctions and little in the way of social mobility. She offers a reminder that this kind of economic order cannot come from nowhere. You can implore the politically equal citizens of a free market society to restrict their consumption, but what has forty years of environmentalist scolding really accomplished in this respect in our own world? But instead of turning to entrepreneurial activity and technological ingenuity as a solution to their environmental crisis, Le Guin’s elites of A-Io took a different course: they asserted their natural superiority, shaped a culture that would support restrictions on economic activity, and embraced a class system that would pass these limits on through the generations.

In other words, Le Guin imagines something like an Aristotelian “natural economy” where the aristocratic masters simply imposed control on the unruly passions and acquisitive ambitions of their subjects. Perhaps Aristotle isn’t the best comparison for us: A-Io’s economy also bears some resemblance to Silicon Valley’s in its focus on the needs of the elite—and corresponding unconcern for everyone else. But whatever her explicit intentions, Le Guin does us a service in thinking through the implications of imposing stability in place of growth.

The class distinctions are real and pervasive. Lower class workers speak an almost entirely different language. Every good or service they consume is lower-quality and there are few opportunities to rise. Men and women are equal in the lower class, but their equality flows from their shared burdens. And as long as the government can maintain order, who’s to say this can’t persist for generations? After all, didn’t most places in our own history look like this until at least the 18th century?

Elite life in A-Io looks quite different, but the mandate of stability imposes certain costs here as well: men receive tremendous opportunities for advancement, education, and comfort while women do not. Unmarried women work in support positions or teach at lower levels. After marriage, they hold primary responsibility for their households, and not much else. Le Guin depicts a few elite women in rebellion, but most live with quiet conformity. And yet, even the novel’s great rebel woman attempts to convince Shevek that they have the better part of the social bargain.

Answering the Tragic Questions

The Dispossessed provides us no resolutions. For most of the story, Shevek is a man trying to find his way home, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring. That along with the way Le Guin refuses to let the reader see either of her settings with rose-colored glasses suggests one of the novel’s great values today. Reading the book can help readers clarify what their deepest aspirations and longings will really cost.

Those on the Left should ask how much they’re willing to give up in pursuit of equality. Modern socialists often try to harmonize their opposing desires: they think we can have the tremendous wealth of a modern economy alongside deep equality; they want radical, autonomous choice and also the opportunity to enjoy familial and communal solidarity; they want political and religious conformity without a diminution of cultural and artistic ingenuity; and they desire ongoing technological innovation without the dramatic inequality that entrepreneurs and inventors so naturally generate.

Far from being a platform for family to succeed, socialist intervention may well require the ongoing shredding of those bonds for the simple reason that families undermine the broader solidarity real socialism requires.

Socialists—especially Christian ones—now praise immigration as a great moral imperative. What does it suggest that all of the world’s most successful solidarity-driven socialist experiments are small-scale monocultures? Isn’t it telling that Le Guin’s relatively successful socialist scheme on Anarres is a hermetically-sealed unit speaking a common language and sharing a single, tightly-unified culture?

Traditionally-minded conservatives naturally look to old modes and orders for inspiration. This certainly doesn’t mean that they’re averse to creating new ones, but taking Le Guin seriously might force them to ponder some little-considered questions. What does reestablishing moral order really mean, particularly in the context of a national economy? There’s the obvious (banning porn) but what about the not-so-obvious elements of this, like the moral status of the goods and services we buy and sell?

If the new conservative goal is limited to a worker-friendly industrial policy, that’s one thing, but conservatives ought to keep an eye on where the aspiration to live with the right sort of virtuous economy can lead. The barely-concealed aristocratic longings enjoyed among some traditionalists risk making them into the caricatures of conservatism that Corey Robin imagines who simply long to “keep the lower orders down.” It is good to be clear about what we really mean when we ask for a new economy. Just as a growth oriented economy leads us down disruptive paths, we shouldn’t forget that a stable, virtuous pattern for economic activity might necessitate a return to older patters of life.

Le Guin also offers an implicit reminder to liberals: be attentive to the necessary conservative foundations of politics and economics. So, market-oriented liberals of all stripes might be led to ponder their own questions: What does society risk in relentless pursuit of growth and prosperity? Are there hidden—or completely visible—costs that relatively free markets carry with them that the market’s defenders would prefer to ignore? Doesn’t the pursuit of education and career—the creation of nomadic elites—accomplish much the same anti-family process that socialism requires? Staunch liberals can certainly say that the market lets people can choose their spouse, church, friends, schools, and even sometimes our cities. But they should always admit there are tradeoffs here, too.

The Dispossessed offers not just a beautiful story but food for thought. We ought to take the story up to appreciate complexity—and the imperfection of our political and economic theories in the face of life’s messy reality.