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Re-reading The Dispossessed

As with many other people, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was both a gateway into science fiction for me as a child, as well as a very early political textbook. The bleak egalitarianism of Anarres, the striking contrasts with Urras, the scenes of the general strike, and the character of Shevek himself – all these stayed with me for many years, even as the details grew hazy in memory. Earlier this year, I returned to the book, after the passage of a decade and a half. It was a fascinating experience to come back to such a formative piece of work as an adult, and now with a long-standing interest in philosophical anarchism. Of course, The Dispossessed is canon; it’s been analysed extensively over the last fifty years. I don’t intend to add more words to that corpus, so this post is essentially a set of reflections upon re-reading the book.

For me, the most striking part of The Dispossessed is the level of detail with which Le Guin constructs the anarchist society upon Anarres, much of which – I think – has held up particularly well over the decades. At various points in the book – whether as vehicles for advancing the plot, or just as passing mentions in conversations or through the narrative voice – the spheres of production, reproduction, and distribution are all touched upon: from urban infrastructure to art, from supply chains to the naming of children – it’s all there. Much of the discussion, indeed, speaks to radical political texts and arguments that (at least in some cases) were contemporaneous with – or written after – The Dispossessed.

For example, in one of the first descriptions of the urban centre of Abennay, we are told that: “Abennay was poisonless: a bare city, bright, the colours light and hard, the air pure. It was quiet. You could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt. Nothing was hidden.” (p. 84) This reminded me powerfully of Pablo Sendra and Richard Sennett’s book, Designing Disorder: Experiments and Disruptions in the City. Sendra and Sennett speak of “publicising infrastructure” as an element of radical urban design, or to “unblackbox infrastructure through architectural design.” (Sendra & Sennett, p. 65) The basic idea is to mitigate differences in power that arise out of urban infrastructure being kept out of sight – and opaque – to those who actually live in the city, and to provide the collective with a measure of control over where the resources are coming from and how they are used. Le Guin does not, of course, get into the technicalities of the urban architecture of Abennay, but the novelist’s task is suggestion, and in that sense, the words “you could see it all, laid out as plain as spilt salt … nothing was hidden” indicate how the anarchist foundations of Anarres also constitute the – literal – foundation of its cities. While Verso has published Designing Disorder in 2020, the original – solely authored by Sennett – was published in 1970 – four years before The Dispossessed. I can’t but help wondering if Le Guin was inspired in some way by the Sennett’s radical infrastructural proposals.

The art of Anarres is equally interesting. Shevek’s intense reaction upon attending his first concerts in Abennay sets in motion a chain of thought that leads us to this observation: “Thus, architecture had developed, early and freely, a consistent style, pure and plain, subtle in proportion. Painting and sculpture served largely as elements of architecture and town planning. As for the arts of words, poetry and story-telling tended to be ephemeral, to be linked with song and dancing; only the theatre stood wholly alone, and only the theatre was ever called “the Art” – a thing complete in itself.” (p. 131) This reminded me immediately of Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s book, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology – also, coincidentally, published in 1970! While that book is primarily about science, its core point – that the division (and hierarchy) between “intellectual” and “manual” labour, where the former is sought to be abstracted from social relations – is a construction of capitalism, applies equally to the distinction between artistic and manual labour. Sohn-Rethel’s proposal for a world in which intellectual labour is “re-embedded” – so to say – within the social relations of production appears to have been accomplished with respect to art on Anarres, as the quoted passage shows (although there is some chafing about it). Once again, I wonder if these ideas – then in wide circulation among leftists and radicals – formed part of the base upon which Le Guin built Anarres.

A third feature of Anarres is that de-growth is very evidently a part of material life – and not just something determined by the harshness of the terrain. The origins of the term “de-growth” are, of course, much more recent (in SF, the idea has been most recently articulated in Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built). We are told this early on when the complex organicism of Anarres is described, as well as its apparent liberation from the commodity form and the capitalist imperative of ceaseless growth. There is, therefore, a strong political economy thread running through The Dispossessed, and I thought it made a particularly vivid re-appearance later on, after the protest marches on Urras: “.. the revolutionists in Nio, they come from the same tradition. They weren’t just striking for better wages or protesting the draft. They are not only socialists, they are anarchists; they were striking against Power” (282) Now, there is of course an open question about whether “power” has been abolished on Anarres (and evidently, insofar as public opinion constitutes a power structure, The Dispossessed is quite clear that it has not), but Le Guin’s clarity here about the distinction between reforms within capitalism (better wages etc) that have historically been the end-goal of mainstream trade unionism on the one hand, and the quest to transform social relations altogether, which has been part of the tradition of more radical unionism, is fascinating (needless to say, socialists would disagree with the accusation that their own manifestos are limited to better wages and having the draft abolished).

The Dispossessed also deals with questions around the institutionalisation – and putrefaction – of revolution. Shevek-the-rebel is always in an ambiguous position because of who – or what – he is rebelling against. In one of the most moving passages in the book, he thinks to himself that “he could not rebel against his society because his society, properly conceived, was a revolution – a permanent one, an ongoing process” (p. 147). I had a somewhat funny mental association while reading this: I found myself thinking of the Mexican political party, PRI – Partido Revolucionario Institucional – whose name literally translates to “the Institutional Revolutionary Party”. But somehow, it fits perfectly – Anarres has become an institutional revolution which formally denies to its citizens the moral authority to revolt, because how do you rebel against the Revolution, how do you question power when your interlocutor has disavowed power itself? Indeed, I think that The Dispossessed’s sub-title – “An Ambiguous Utopia” – has to do not so much with the harshness of life on Anarres, as it has to do with the tension between the idea of freedom upon which Anarres is built, and the freedom to rebel that it nonetheless denies to is citizens.

My final point is a mildly critical one: there is one respect in which I think that The Dispossessed is not particularly convincing, and that is in its treatment of gender relations. I mean, in particular, the gender relations on Urras: Urras is an advanced capitalist society – I’d put them at around 2050/2100 in earth equivalent – but the gender relations there are borderline feudal, and feel almost caricatured at times. We have known, of course, that one of the features of the 20th century was that discrimination – whether gender-based, racial, or otherwise – moved from being formal and direct to being structural, institutional, and indirect. Urras, I think, would have been a far more convincing foil to Anarres had gender relations been treated with the same subtlety that the rest of the world-building was.

But overall, I think it’s striking how much of The Dispossessed continues to hold up, how well it has aged, and how much of it continues to feel relevant – a true sign of a classic. Its highlight-reel of lines is truly memorable: “Men always have theories and things always have to fit them” (179); “… separation is educational alright, but your presence is all the education I want” (210); “We make justice here or nowhere” (243); “If you evade suffering, you also evade the chance of joy” (275); and of course, the devastating “Weigh it in the balance with the freedom of one single human spirit,” he said, turning to her, “and which will weigh heavier? Can you tell? I cannot.” (289)

I can think of no other writer whose finest line also doubles up as a comprehensive critique of methodological utilitarianism!

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“… overwhelmed by the dizzying madness of reality”: Yoss’ ‘A Planet for Rent’

The idea of the voyage was Jowe’s, and when he speaks of it, the words that emerge from his lips sound like beauty itself.”

Space-faring science fiction has often been associated with the narrative of colonialism. There is more than a kernel of truth to this assertion: Galactic exploration across the terra nullius of open space, chiseled pioneers opening the gates to the unknown, and Contact stories that invariably portray alien species as the impenetrable Other, incomprehensible at best and dreaded enemies at worst. Starship Troopers is a particularly crude version of this phenomenon, while Avatar is a more subtle account that ostensibly undermines the tropes while continuing to reinforce them.

Sooner or late, of course, each narrative produces its counter-narrative. In Embassytown, China Mieville writes of Contact gone horribly wrong, as cynical human attempts to exploit a species incapable of telling a lie descend into a bloody conflict. But if Mieville’s novel is still written from the perspective of colonizing humans, it is Jose Miguel Sanchez Gomez – or “Yoss” – in whose work we find a true “writing back” to the dominant register. Yoss is a Cuban punk-rocker science-fiction writer with a degree in biology, who knows a thing or two about being at the receiving end of economic and military colonialism. And A Planet for Rent is an incredibly powerful, haunting set of interconnected short stories of a Galaxy in which all earth has become a Colony.

The premise is simple. After watching the leaders of Earth take the planet to the brink of destruction with their ceaseless internecine conflicts, the benevolent space-faring species of the Galaxy intervene and take over. Like the “Mandate” system imposed by the Western “Great Powers” under the League of Nations, humans are kept in tutelage by “the Galactic community, into which they would be accepted one not very distant day, with the rights of full membership…” (p. 12) In the meantime, the landscape of Earth is regenerated, and the Planet transformed into a tourist destination for the well-endowed amongst the Galactic races, whether it is to embark on big game hunts, observe the local populace, or simply experience what it is like to be a different species, through entering the bodies of human criminals sentenced to the punishment of becoming “body spares” for a period.

“Body spares” is a particularly disturbing manifestation of this futuristic, inter-species colonial relationship, but the rest of it sounds rather familiar. It is. And so are the corollaries. Under the velvet glove of benevolent tutelage lies the grasping, iron hand of violent repression, cynical collaboration and futile resistance, tightly controlled emigration implemented by a brutal colonial gendarmerie, an economic embargo that suffocates any attempts at terrestrial development, and systematic brain drain to the many metropolises (“You didn’t invent the brain drain, but you perfected and institutionalized it” says an immigration applicant to his Cetian interrogators).

Yoss’ characters are human beings struggling to survive – and negotiate – their existences as colonial subjects at the bottom of the Galactic hierarchy. In a series of interconnected stories (interspersed with wry and savage interludes containing nuggets of tantalising information about the social and economic structure of the Galaxy), Yoss explores the lives of a sex worker trying to escape Earth by becoming attached to a “Grodo”, a performing artist eking out a living from Planet to Planet, an athlete dreaming of revenge by defeating a multi-species team in a game of “Voxl”, a guard at the space-port, a scientist trying to immigrate for a better life, a rebel dreaming of Galactic spaceflight, and an Earthbound girl taken under the protection of a “Colossaur”. What makes the stories of A Planet for Rent particularly compelling is that in Yoss’ world there are no heroes, no tales of organised resistance (whether triumphant or tragic), no grand conflict in the theatre of space, no sanctity or sublimation. His characters are so occupied with bettering the conditions of their existence, that they have no luxury of thinking through the deeper questions of the injustices of colonialism and the possibilities of resistance (and those who do either meet a tragic end, or disabuse themselves of such notions before things come to such a pass.)

If Planet for Rent tells the story of a colonized world, but consciously eschews a story of resistance, then what is it about? It is about the everyday interactions between the colonizers and the colonized, the exercise of power not at a grand level but in the organisation of thought, feeling and action that constitutes the lifeworld, the capturing of that nameless experience that structures an unequal relationship. This is where Yoss is a consummately skilled craftsman: his characters are of a type without losing their individuality: grafters, collaborators, pragmatists, opportunists, human; his encounters are familiar without losing their authenticity: the insufficiency of benevolent masters who nonetheless remain masters, betrayal in a world where loyalty offers no reward and has lost its meaning, the impossibility of ideals in a compromised relationship; and the clear political undertones do nothing to take away from the spinning of a jolly good yarn: Yoss is particularly masterful at that last twist of the knife that ends the story (sometimes literally), that leaves you shaken and grasping for support at the dissolving straws of hoped-for happy endings. All this is done in a wry, ironic tone, often with hilariously funny dialogue (or interior monologue) that draws the reader into laughter for that brief moment before she becomes aware of the darkness that lies beneath. In its review, The Nation has the best set of words to describe it: “riotously funny, scathing, perceptive, and yet also heart-wrenchingly compassionate.”

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Samuel Delaney, Language, and Representation

I just read Samuel Delaney’s novel Babel-17 and (accompanying) novella, Empire Star. Babel-17 won the Nebula in 1966, and would probably find a place on most Science Fiction canons. The interesting thing about reading Babel-17 in 2015, however, is that it rests upon a largely discredited scientific theory: a strong version of the Sapor-Whorf Hypothesis. As its protagonist, Rydra Wong puts it:

“… most textbooks say language is a mechanism for expressing thought… but language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language…. When you learn another tongue, you learn the way another people see the world, the universe.”

Babel-17 is an invented “analytically perfect” language that is used as a secret weapon in an inter-galactic war. It’s mastery not only results in mental ascent, but even physical superiority. While it is well-accepted now that language has an influence upon cognitive processes, its influence is nowhere near as strong as Delaney puts it in Babel-17 (for a lucid discussion, see Guy Deutscher’s The Language Game). This makes many of the central events in Babel-17 – and indeed, its central plot – at odds with science.

While time and science have not been kind to Babel-17, the book is perhaps the best example of how science-fiction grounded upon a falsified thesis can nonetheless be a great read. Like the other SF masters of the 60s and 70s, Delaney has a great sense of plot and pace. His protagonists race across the galaxy to decipher the alien language, and the narrative is pock-marked with entertaining starfights, intrigue and treachery, and the craters of love. However, Delaney is not simply a gifted plotter: like M. John Harrison and James Blish, he is a wordsmith as well. In the first chapter, I was pulled up short by this marvelous line:

“… he needed another moment to haul himself down from the ledges of her high cheekbones, to retreat from the caves of her eyes.”

And this could be right out of A.S. Byatt at her best:

“I listen to other people, stumbling about with their half thoughts and half sentences, and their clumsy feelings that they can’t express – and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels, so it doesn’t hurt anymore: that’s my poem.”

Empire Star, on the other hand, fares much better against the march of time – perhaps because it is a novella about time paradoxes themselves. Reading it, I was strongly reminded of Robert Heinlein’s classic 1941 short story, By His BootstrapsIn both stories, time loops back upon itself, and characters meet their past and future selves again and again, as realisation begins to dawn slowly. Like in By His Bootstraps, Delaney parses out his revelations piecemeal, leaving the readers in deep confusion for much of the novella, and without any satisfactory resolution at the end (think of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, and the lingering feeling of non-fulfillment with which one finishes that book. But that, in the end, seems to be the nature of time-paradoxes. Trite to say, but they would hardly be paradoxes if they could be resolved.

(After finishing the book(s), some quick googling informed me that Babel-17 is said to have influenced both Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and China Mieville’s Embassytown – two books that I love to bits. Embassytown itself draws from the Sapor-Whorf hypothesis: its central premise is that alien beings with no physical brain-mouth filter find it impossible to lie, and are therefore easily colonised by human beings. The influences are clear. About The Dispossessed, I’m not so sure. Curiosity held me for a little while more, until I came across this fascinating article about an invented script exclusively for women, in medieval China:

Only men learned to read and write Chinese, and bound feet and social strictures confined women to their husband’s homes. So somehow — scholars are unsure how, or exactly when — the women of this fertile valley in the southwestern corner of Hunan province developed their own way to communicate. It was a delicate, graceful script handed down from grandmother to granddaughter, from elderly aunt to adolescent niece, from girlfriend to girlfriend — and never, ever shared with the men and boys.

So was born nushu, or women’s script, a single-sex writing system that Chinese scholars believe is the only one of its kind.

 

 

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“We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives”: Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Warning: Some minor spoilers about the endings of 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451.

In the Republic of Gilead, built upon the ruins of a United States torn apart by economic, social and environmental conflict, women have been reduced to breeding machines. Offred, the protagonist of the story, is a “handmaid” – that is, a woman specifically selected for the role of producing offspring, through copulation with one of the rulers of the society, known generically as “commanders”. Sexual intercourse outside that strictly defined boundary is punishable with death or exile to the “colonies”; any form of rebellion against the established order is similarly treated. The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Offred attempting to shape her own life – through resistance, submission or escape – in this society.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopic novel – belonging, I think, rather clearly to the dystopic tradition through its use of certain common elements: a future world, an oppressive order, a combination of force and ideology to maintain that order, and a protean resistance movement. Nonetheless, in certain respects it is a rather atypical dystopic novel, and I think this is evident in a vivid and striking way through the character of the protagonist and narrator, Offred. Through an analysis of her character one can also, I think, come to a better understanding of some of the main themes of the story. So, here goes:

When I think of great dystopic novels, three immediately come to mind: 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451. Though very different from each other in their own ways, they are similar in that the protagonist(s) in each of these stories – Winston Smith (and Julia), John the Savage and Guy Montag – are all clear, unambiguous rebels, taking on the System through a series of consciously defined acts of rebellion, acts which they are aware put their lives at risk, acts which they carry out nonetheless because they believe in resisting the System. Offred, however, is a far more ambiguous character. She is not brainwashed or willingly compliant, like many of the persons she interacts with. She has not succumbed to the ideology but neither is she willing to act against it. So, at one point, she goes as far as admitting:

Is this what I would die for? I’m a coward, I hate the thought of pain.”

And, at another point, when the she spots the summary execution of someone else on the street, her immediate reaction is: “What I feel is relief. It wasn’t me.” And even when she does commit acts of rebellion, they are not motivated by ideals of resistance – simply pure physical need. Indeed, it is Offred’s friends and companions who are actively involved in the resistance movement, but Offred herself is almost completely passive – things happen to her, and she responds to them, events move her, but she never moves – or even tries to move – them. This makes Offred a less inspiring character than a Winston Smith or a Guy Montag, but I also think that it makes her a truer character, and one easier to identify with – for the truth is that most of us aren’t actually willing to put our lives on the line in order to resist power. 

(Let me put it this way: Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451 is Edward Snowden. But for one Edward Snowden, there are a million others who feel the same way, but do not act. Offred stands for – speaks for – thinks for – those million others.)

Concomitant with the ambiguity in Offred’s character is the ambiguity in the conclusion of the novel itself. Again, here, Atwood seems to depart from the canonical dystopic novels. At the end of 1984, Winston Smith is broken; at the end of Brave New World, John the Savage dies; and at the end of Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag escapes and meets others like himself. Contrast this with the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale:

And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.”

The Handmaid’s Tale, therefore, is interesting because of its conscious insistence on leaving threads untied, loose ends as they are, in resisting the idea of a conclusion. And once again that, perhaps, makes it truer to reality.

In other respects, The Handmaid’s Tale is a solid dystopic novel, treating the themes of power, ideology and resistance with a subtle and deft touch, creating a world that is different enough to be terrifying, but not so alien that it is incomprehensible, and creating characters that are instantly recognisable. There is, for instance, that ironic breakdown of the useful-work-versus-useless-toil dichotomy:

“Sometimes I think those scarves aren’t sent to the angels at all, but unraveled and turned back into balls of yarn, to be knitted in their turn. Maybe it’s just something to keep the wives busy to give them a sense of purpose.”

There are sharp – and beautiful descriptions – of the sense of alienation, hopelessness and entrapment that are the lot of anyone who is disenfranchised and has lost control over the shaping of her own life:

We lived in the gaps between the stories…

“… the amount of unfilled time, the long parenthees of nothing.”

“I am like a room where things once happened and now nothing does, except the pollen of the weeds that grow up outside the window, blowing in as dust across the floor…”

I am a blank here, between parentheses. Between other people.”

There is, of course, the compulsory account of the workings of ideology, in a way that the oppressed comes not only to accept her oppression, not only to endorse it, but – most horrifying of all – to identify with it (Kundera makes a similar point in The Joke when referring to defendants pleading for punishment in show trials – as does Orwell in Animal Farm):

I have once again failed to fulfill the expectations of others, which have become my own.”

This works, as it always does, through language and images. One point that emerges clearly from the writings of Ismail Kadare on myth is that a central issue of contestation is who will have the power to define the existence and content of myth; similarly, here it is about the power to control vocabulary and image – in other words, what images come to mind when certain words are mentioned? Consider:

“I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will. I could use it to run, push buttons, of one sort or another, make things happen. There were limits but my body was nevertheless lithe, single, solid, one with me…  now the flesh arranges itself differently. I’m a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping. Inside it is a space, huge as the sky at night and dark and curved like that, through black-red rather than black. Pinpoints of light swell, sparkle, burst and shrivel within it, countless as stars. Every month there is a moon, gigantic, round, heavy, an omen. It transits, pauses, continues on and passes out of sight, and I see despair coming towards me like famine. To feel that empty, again, again. I listen to my heart, wave upon wave, salty and red, continuing on and on, marking time.”

The body being envisioned as a vehicle of fertility implies that Offred’s very thinking – her conceptualisation – of herself is in the specific terms, the language of fertility – and as we know, rebellion against language is the most difficult rebellion of all. The message is clear – he who has power to define the meanings of words, and the images that are associated with them, has power simpliciter. The point is made with striking clarity in Aunt Lydia’s peroration to the (potential) handmaids, as they are being trained for their new roles:

We want you to be valued, girls. She is rich in pauses, which she savours in her mouth. Think of yourselves as pearls. We, sitting in our rows, eyes down, we make her salivate morally. We are hers to define, we must suffer her adjectives.

Perhaps one of the best scenes in the book is the Dionysiac episode in which the body of a condemned rapist is ripped to shreds by the assembled women bears strong resemblances not only to some of the scenes in Arthur Miller’s Crucible, but also exhibit another method of control – providing one avenue for the release of all the emotions, all the energy, all the violent hatreds that are suppressed elsewhere through force and ideology, providing one tightly controlled and defined avenue to power that somehow makes suppression at all other times acceptable, and the need to rebel less urgent (Sundays for factory workers!). Part of the greatness of this book lies, I think, in its refusal to identify one, monolithic locus of tyranny operating through particular forms of control, and one particular form of resistance. Atwood understands (in an almost Foucauldian vein) that power and control operate at all levels of society, tailored to the specific circumstances in question – and resistance takes the appropriate form itself. In this sense, the book is a more subtle exploration of the theme than, say, Brave New World (soma and genetic engineering) and Fahrenheit 451 (book burning and television), where the forms of control – and therefore, forms of resistance – are more clearly defined, and thus more… essentialistic. Once again, we come back to the point about ambiguity – at all times, The Handmaid’s Tale refuses eschews reductionism – but nor does it makes things so complex that the narrative loses force.

Lastly – Atwood is a rare writer who combines a great sense of plot and pacing with poignant and moving language. I leave you with three particularly striking passages:

“I sit in my room at the window, waiting. In my lap is a handful of crumpled stars.”

“The way we’re talking is infinitely sad: faded music, faded paper flowers, worn satin, an echo of an echo.” 

“Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water.”

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