Last year I started a vague ‘Reading out of my comfort zone’ project beginning with China Miéville’s sci-fi classic, ‘Embassytown’. The comments on my initial post were really encouraging and there appeared to be a consensus that
1. I was right to branch out into more genre reading and
2. Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ had to be high up on my reading list if I was to do the thing properly. All I can say is that you were right.
In general, there seem to be three main strands to science fiction writing: scene setting, plot/character and ideas. This means the genre is already going to be tougher to get right than literary fiction which generally has to work less hard at the first item on the list; books set on earth in the recognisable past or present simply require less explanation of the world in which the action takes place. There is also an expectation that the setting, the characters/plot and whatever philosophical concepts are raised will all work together in harmony, each supporting and enhancing the other. It’s a big ask and requires extremely precise writing if the strands are to be balanced, without any one becoming an overwhelming and so empty or didactic presence in what should also be an engaging work of fiction.
Needless to say, ‘The Dispossessed’ balanced these elements masterfully. Take the introduction:
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared; an adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on…
…The wall shut in not only the landing field but the ships that came down out of space, and the men that came on the ships, and the world they came from, and the rest of the universe. It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.
Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.
… People often came out from the nearby city of Abbenay in hopes of seeing a space ship, or simply to see the wall. After all, it was the only boundary wall on their world.
Here we have complex ideas beautifully interwoven into the setting. Anarres is a planet-wide philosophical experiment, an anarchic society with no leadership, no money and next to no contact with the nearest world, Urras. Complex and challenging ideas about ownership, leadership, community and economics are going to be explored through the fraught relationship between the two planets. The eponymous dispossessed hero is a man who escapes the theoretically boundary-less ‘freedom’ of Anarres for the hierarchical and restrictive possibilities of Urras. He is a brilliant physicist whose plans for ‘instantaneous communication’ across the galaxy will have profound philosophical and economical consequences for the two planets. Anarres is a proudly anarchist society, but the ‘leaders’ they claim not to have are profoundly troubled by the implications of Shevek’s work and have spend years blocking his progress and pressuring his supporters. Urras has offered to assist his work, but can he trust that such a individualist and unequal society will use his findings for the general good?
I found ‘The Dispossessed’ a difficult and troubling read. The ideas it raises about borders, exiles and outsiders are frighteningly pertinent and the characters are so believable that their inner conflicts struck a deep and personal chord. It is a book that will open your mind and force you to explore important and relevant issues about societies and the control they exert. Everyone who suggested I read this was right. It is rare for a book to be so challenging and so imaginative, with complex philosophical views transformed into the backbone of an enthralling story of human ambition, endeavour and aspiration.