The Dispossessed: A society is only as good as its people

Do you believe in the perfectibility of mankind? I think all of us like to believe that there is some kind of template for a society that will bring out the best of everyone, where a person will do what is right and just and make decisions that are in the best interest of everyone — not just themselves.

And yet, how many novels have you read about some utopian society which turns out to be anything but a perfect world.

I think utopias are bunk. There is no ideal society. Any society is only as good as the individuals that live in it. Human nature trumps structure. Mostly, the world sucks, and we only have ourselves and our neighbors to blame. That’s the message of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

I’ve been mixing some classic scifi into my reading in 2010 (such as Zelazny’s This Immortal). It’s been fun. Older scifi doesn’t always age well, but there’s still some entertainment to be had and some wisdom to be gained. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed exemplifies that.

I recently listened to Tony C. Smith’s interview of author Connie Willis on his Star Ship Sofa podcast. Willis astutely pointed out, in so many words, that when scifi or any literature makes its political message plainly obvious to the reader, it loses its power. Le Guin’s message is rather plainly made, and that makes for a heavy-handed approach. She creates a whole world, inhabited by 20 million people, who are performing a 150-year social experiment. That seems pretty unlikely to me, but Le Guin depends on this as a device to prove her point.

Still, despite the heavy-handed approach, there’s a powerful message in The Dispossessed. The book is a tale of two worlds: Urras and Anarres. Urras is a big, verdant, and messy planet full of individual nations vying for political domination of the globe. It is a physical paradise with lots of political and economic problems. Anarres is a dry, harsh world colonized 150 years before by millions of anarchic, communist idealists from Urras. It is a harsh world where people live without government, yet they organize to work together to shelter themselves and stave off starvation.

The residents of Anarres think they live in a perfect society. They’ve eliminated the concepts of ownership and power and authority. There is no money. There are no leaders or bureaucrats. Everyone works collectively to serve the common good. They make decisions together on how to organize their resources. Everyone is supposed to be 100% free to pursue their lives as they see fit, so long as they contribute something to the world. They view Urras as “hell,” an ownership society where poor people work for low wages, oppressed by the wealthy and the political classes.

But Le Guin’s genius is on display when she reveals that the ideal society of Anarres isn’t quite a utopia. The main character, Shevek, is a physicist struggling to prove a scientific theory that is so advanced that no one on his planet can understand it, not even Sabul, the physicist who serves as his mentor at his university. Only a handful of scientists on Urras can follow his work.

Because the science is so esoteric, Shevek’s work is devalued. He is also ostracized from academia. Sabul works behind the scenes to strip Shevek of his ability to teach about his theories and he inhibits Shevek’s communications with the Urrasti scientists who understand his work. How can this happen? Sabul shouldn’t have the power to do that. No one on Anarres should have that power.

Well every society needs someone to make the decisions. On Anarres decisions are usually made by syndicates of experts who are supposed to rotate in and out of their positions. Sabul is a mediocre scientist who has found that he has much more aptitude as a bureaucrat. So he’s decided to build a little fiefdom in academia for himself. He uses his power to oppress Shevek, mostly because he doesn’t approve of the type of work Shevek is doing, but also because Shevek refuses to let Sabul take partial credit for the work. How does Sabul get away with this? Probably because there is no one in a position of authority for Shevek to appeal to. Even in an ideal society supposedly free of the power structures that people use to oppress others, that society can only be as good as its individual members.

This corruption of the Anarres ideal is on display throughout the book. A playwright who pens an unconventional comedy is ostracized by the public because people don’t understand his black sense of humor. The syndicate that organizes theatrical performances determines that his play is offensive to Anarres ideals and blacklists him.¬† He has no way to express his art anymore, so he’s forced to do manual labor as a vocation. Eventually he goes insane.

Le Guin makes it clear with countless examples that anyone who promotes ideas that defy any of Anarres’ conventions is met with scorn, hostility, harassment, and even violence. How is that possible on a world where personal freedom is placed above all else and individual wealth and power are banished?

Any society is only as good as its individual members. When enough of those individuals give into their own selfish desires, their fears, and their prejudices, those desires fears and prejudices can manifest themselves into something oppressive. We’ve seen it happen throughout history with slavery and Jim Crow and the Nuremberg laws of Nazi Germany. We’ve seen books banned from schools and libraries over trivialities. We’ve seen people burned at the stake. And in Le Guin’s utopia, we see it again. On a world¬† where millions of people have committed to serve an ideal, individuals who give in to their base desires and fears can ruin it for everyone else.