After taking a look on the very particular world proposed by Ursula K. Le Guin, the “odonianism” and life in Anarres, main character´s odyssey and enlightenment process will be better understood.
(Read the first part of this article here)
A unique world
Life in Anarres, given the mandatory job service and the difficult life conditions existing of the planet, is not too easy, at least in appearance. The place is rather hostile to life, with a mostly arid land, scarcity of resources and a difficult climate in which human population, although already beyond the mere subsistence level, still strives for their future.
There are no luxuries, personal possessions do not abound, and buildings or towns have usually just the most basic amenities. Cities are simple and functional, small and without too many incentives or ornaments. There are no vices, drugs, or entertainment; even the food is not especially hearty or flavourful. Public services are elementary, and cover just the most basic needs. Individuals have to reconcile their own personal interests with their service for the community, have to work hard and have to get used to and educate themselves in order to not be jealous, possessive or unsupportive.
On the other hand there is real equality among individuals, which leads to almost nonexistent social differences, crime, conflict or dissatisfaction. Basic needs are certainly well covered, and health care, transportation, housing, education and food are free, austere and simple but of good quality. If necessary anyone can freely get items from public warehouses, usually equipped with anything citizens might need. Coexistence is carried out sanctioned only by individual conscience. Individuals are not discriminated by reason of sex, age, race or ideology. There is freedom of speech and criticism, belief, circulation (except in case of urgent mobilization), gender and sexual orientation. There is no police, no bans, army or prison system, and reprehensible behaviour simply receives open censorship by other fellow citizens, something that works better than any coercive power or authority.
One of the more curious facets of Anarres is that, in order to ensure the rule of such principles, certain terms that might denote even the slightest glimmer of possession do not exist, such as “marriage”, and even a kind of specific language called “pravico” is applied, which consciously avoids the use of possessives or any expression that might denote control or property over something or somebody. In addition, children are educated to be suspicious of Urras, which is usually portrayed as an example of waste, inequality, injustice and oppression.
Shevek and the “ansible”
The plot is set around 200 years after the arrival of the first “odonians” to Anarres. Shevek, the undisputed main character in the book, is a young and intelligent anarrensi who struggles within the particular society and culture of his planet while pursues a promising career as scientist.
Through various life experiences such as friendship, sex, work and many different difficulties, Shevek seems to grasp the sense of the social structure governing his home world, this without being critical and denouncing certain aspects which, from his point of view, are negative. During his life sets a long-lasting relationship with a young woman named Takver, with which he even has a daughter, despite those periods of forced separation both have to face given the needs of the planet and the mandatory job service. Meanwhile, and amid great efforts and deprivations, the main character continues with his scientific career as long as he can.
At some point Shevek´s brilliant intellect, which works in a “general theory of time”, is close to build an instrument called “ansible”, in essence an interstellar communication device capable of overcoming limitations of relativistic physics and speed of light rules in order to facilitate immediate communication between planets from distant solar systems. Nevertheless, and once he has arrived at that point, his curiosity collides with the autonomous character of Anarres, whose population and institutions, always suspicious and reserved when it comes to their neighbours from Urras, are not too interested in any innovation that could facilitate interstellar communication.
However, Shevek finally gets a permit to travel to Urras, his race´s original world, and specifically to the country of A-Io so he can meet with various other researchers and university lecturers and enhance his own research. And it is because of this that the scientist says goodbye to his partner and friends and departs, becoming probably the first Anarrensi backtracking his predecessors pioneering steps in such a long time.
Revelations of an anarchist in Urras
At first the newcomer feels overwhelmed. Vegetation, sky, rains, seas, rivers, forests, luxury, art, big cities and the huge number of citizens that inhabit them, the clothes and ornaments they wear and exhibit, consumerism, abundant animal life, high technology… everything seems to be more beautiful, opulent and lush than what he has ever seen or dreamed of in his home world. A very warm welcoming is dispensed by universities, scientific community and other relevant personalities of A-Io, as well as from many other countries, and there he finds an enthusiast support opposed to what he found at home, becoming soon a celebrity, and being able to spend most of his time enjoying luxuries he could have never imagined on his own planet, while traveling, attending social events, and learning about Urra´s society, culture and history.
Over time, however, Shevek begins to feel disenchanted. The educational system seems inefficient to him, society looks unequal, unfair and classist, and people are profoundly selfish and possessive. Faced with aspects such as poverty, war, oppression, lies or manipulation, he perceives with big surprise that those are common elements there while being practically unknown in his home planet. In general, and although being still critical with Anarres, Shevek comes to the final conclusion that there is much more freedom and, almost more importantly, greater moral and ethics at home than in such a rich and opulent world as Urras.
Eventually, and after several months, having seen both good and bad, his scientific knowledge already exposed to the greater thinkers of the place, and finding himself so much advanced in his investigations that he is finally able to build the “ansible”, Shevek begins to get into trouble by openly expressing his point of view in politics and, more importantly, by establishing contact with various libertarian clandestine and subversive groups of “odonian” philosophy sympathizers. In the end, the Anarrensi is forced to flee to Terra´s embassy (earth planet) after taking part in a massive protest against government which ends up violently disbanded by police, and after realizing their hosts in A-Io are interested in his research mostly to obtain advantage over their rivals of Thu. From Terra´s embassy, therefore, Shevek openly radiates his newly acquired discovery to the rest of the galaxy in order to make public the technology required to build the “ansible” so that any country or civilization can freely benefit from it.
Once out of danger, Shevek decides to return to Anarres at the risk of facing distrust from his fellow citizens due to his prolonged stay on Urras. On the return journey, however, befriends an inhabitant of Hain called Ketho, who openly expresses his willingness to accompany him so he can learn as much as possible about his home world. Shevek agrees, but at the time they put their feet on the planet none of them really knows for sure what is waiting for them.
Stories that make you think
The dispossessed is not only an evocative science fiction´s tale full of worlds and characters as complex as well defined and described. In fact, it is interesting not only for those who are sympathetic with libertarian ideas, as it is in fact given its great popularity among many filo-anarchist around the world. This is also a novel that raises issues transcending any political belief while giving us a fierce critique of a world, Urras, which seems maybe too similar to ours.
On this book there are indeed complex issues such as if the effort to keep a certain philosophy of life may involute in oppression or excessive rigidity, if the will for isolation carries the risk of regression, the danger that bureaucracy and inflexibility represent for any regime or social system, the need of always maintaining a critical stance, the impossibility of creating an always perfect society, the necessity and even inevitability for everything to change and evolve, the importance of decisions and commitments made purely out of personal convictions… and all that through the classical figure of the “traveler”, that person who always abandons his own people, who comes out of his comfort zone to contrast his points of views by visiting realities that are completely different from his.
(Understanding Anarchy, documentary)
(Lee este artículo en español aquí)