It is clear that science fiction serves well as an excuse for many varied topics such as feminism, totalitarianism, eugenics or even computer metaphysics. On this occasion, however, the subject to be treated will not be less, because The Dispossessed, by the great Ursula K. Le Guin, gives a much inspired vision, as rich as substantial, of an interesting anarchist society set in a distant planet and a distant future.
A queen of the genre
Social fiction, the most common and certainly among the most lavishly cultivated genres by Ursula K. Le Guin, is that branch within science fiction in which those social issues the author wants to highlight have clearly a much greater presence and prevalence in story than mere fantasy.
Ursula, born in 1929, in Berkeley, California, is without a doubt one of the most renowned, famous and respected science fiction’s writers in history, and probably one of the most popular also, bearing in mind that she is still a living legend.
Early writer, Ursula published her first book at the age of eleven, and focused on her studies in Italian and French literature, which earned her a scholarship to France, where she met who would eventually be her husband, historian Charles Le Guin. Together with him she first moved to Georgia and then to Oregon, where she set her residence to date.
Although her studies (which she left aside to prioritize her husband´s career), her children, the little success of her first books and her work kept her away from writing for some time, she began to consecrate herself as a science fiction´s novelist in the 60s. True recognition finally came in 1970, however, with the book The Left Hand of Darkness, which would be followed very soon by The Dispossessed, published in 1974, those two pillars of a neat and successful career whose most recent milestone was released in 2008.
As daughter of an anthropologist and writer, and having been educated within the liberal and cultivated atmosphere of one of the most respected universities in the world as it is Berkeley, it is not surprising that Ursula permeates her works with social affairs such as anthropology, sociology, psychology and politics, very common issues in her books along with anarchism and environmentalism. In fact, Ursula has finished creating a suggestive and rich universe of her own that commonly served as a perfect stage to play those different themes her author has ever considered of any interest, a plentiful universe in which this novel is set.
The worlds of the Ekumen
The framework in which the story of The Dispossessed develops is not; as it has already been said before, exclusive to this book, but it succinctly appears in many other works written by Ursula K. Le Guin, serving as a pretext to introduce all those social issues which have interested her author for one reason or another. This being the case, the truth is that it is not; therefore, a very important matter nor it is essential when it comes to analyse some of her varied plots, because that universe isn’t even a structured or clearly defined system but, far away from any attempt of creating a saga, its creator was happy just by splashing its various books with small tracks, commentaries and brief references which, sometimes, are even contradictory. In any case, however, all those evidences, if analysed together, shape a certainly picturesque picture.
Such varied sources indicate that millions of years ago some kind of humanoid civilization known as “Hain” was devoted to colonize planets, including earth, always retaining the same genetic essential characteristics of their breed but making at the same time certain changes on each settler´s group so that they could better adapt to the particular environment of their new home world. Hain civilization collapsed later on, by unknown causes, and contact between their colonized planets disappeared, so each humanoid species forgot about the others and evolved in a completely autonomous and isolated way over millions of years.
At some unspecified moment of the future, in a time and a universe somewhat distant from ours, technology and space travel have enabled different humanoid civilizations scattered through the Galaxy (including earth) to re-establish contact, interacting even with the Hain who, after all, survived their own debacle and continue dwelling on their home world. All the collective efforts undertaken in order to enhance friendly relations, as well as certain conflicts incurred with an unspecified alien race, finally created the Ekumen, a federation of dozens of planets (it is said they are up to eighty-three) inhabited by intelligent humanoid life forms which are essentially similar among them given their common origins but also different due to millions of years of divergent evolution.
Although having been in contact for some time, travelling between distant solar systems is still hard and uncommon, given that required ships are extremely expensive and relativity does so that, very often, a journey which takes just a few days or months for the traveller means years or decades in the destiny planet. Thus all this, and even if members of the Ekumen are starting to know each other, given that formidable distances in space still mean a difficult obstacle all the varied worlds find themselves at an exciting stage of discovery of their own neighbours. It is the differences of all kinds that arise while contrasting different species, which gives the author the perfect excuse to propose us her anthropological, sociological, political or psychological ideas and reflections.
Urras and Anarres
There are two planets inside the Ekumen that have undergone a quite striking parallel evolution, on which The Dispossessed focuses: Urras and Anarres.
Although they form, in fact, a double planetary system, by convention Urras is considered the main planet, among other things because of its greater size, and Anarres its moon. Apart from this difference in dimensions, however, Urras differs from Anarres in the fundamental fact of being a fertile and big world, with abundant water, mild climates and widely populated, while its satellite is a much more bleak and poor in resources place, where human life is arduous but still possible.
Urras has numerous continents divided in different countries with various kind of governments, cultures and political systems, most of them post-industrialized and highly developed with clearly superior technology to the current earth, although there are also strong social and economic differences between those different countries and also within their own societies. Among all these nations there is A-Io, possibly the most powerful one, a parliamentary capitalist system, and Thu, some kind of totalitarian socialism whose relations with A-Io are not at their best moment. Anarres, however, is based on a communitarian-anarchist system, which will be detailed later, with the humble town of Abbenay taking the role of capital by purely administrative reasons.
Urras is considered the home world for the system´s human race, commonly called “Cetians”, because it was from there from where Anarres was colonized. Due to the ideological differences between both worlds, however, contact is limited to some freighters that, from time to time, land and depart from Abbenay ´s spaceport exporting minerals to Urras.
The “odonianism”, a futuristic anarchism
The most important difference between Urras and Anarres is, above all, their opposing political systems, reason of why their contacts are so limited and why Anarres, a poor world in comparison, was originally colonized from Urras, a much richer world, and not the other way around.
The original inhabitants of Anarres were initially a group of political exiles turned into pioneers, moved from their home world in an especially turbulent period of its history. These pioneers followed the teachings of a legendary woman named Laia Odo, precisely born in A-Io, who essentially preached anarchist and austere lifestyle in opposition to hedonism, materialism and social injustices that, in her opinion, abounded in her own country.
Based on the “odonianism”, Anarres has been an anarchist and communitarian society, repelling any sense of ownership or possession, whether individual or collective, when it comes to objects, power or even people. “Odonianists” reject any authority imposed by coercion and hierarchy, among them the religion does not exist; free love is tolerated and even encouraged; and family is not a recognized institution, although unions or living together conditions based on affinity or free choice are widely accepted, no matter which kind of sexuality is exercised.
In Anarres unions, formed by free association of different individuals, are responsible of various industrial projects and the economy, merely based on the interests of their members and the whole society, while an agency named “Divlab” seeks and works in order to cover all the basic needs of the population. The administrative structure is decentralized and, as already mentioned, Abbenay is the capital just by purely practical reasons, since it is not significantly different from the rest of the settlements spread around the planet.
Citizens are allowed to engage in trades or fields according to their own interest, but rotational job is compulsory, even if practiced with a certain capacity of choice, so that no task becomes repetitive or turns into some kind of obligation or necessity, prioritizing individual self-realization before work efficiency. Also, in certain circumstances, and since Anarres is a planet of limited resources where the struggle for survival is real and where common interest is considered to be more legitimate than individual one, there are occasions in which compulsory tasks or jobs are issued at a particular place and for a particular period of time, in the case of urgent events such as agricultural crisis which may degenerate into famines or energy shortages.
(Maybe anarrensi people might have sang this song… in the case they had lived on earth)
(Read the second part of this article here)
(Lee este artículo en español aquí)