Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a tiresome, essayistic treatise about politics with a few bits of juvenile, fantastical crap thrown in to make it saleable to losers. I’m being harsh, but this, a “lauded” science fiction* novel, is engaging in places, but only really in the places where it isn’t a science fiction novel and is instead political discourse spoken by (oooh) “aliens” because the author – to my mind – didn’t have enough faith in her intelligence or philosophical writing to publish the essence of an argument without debasing it with a crappy storyline. The narrative is nothing, dire, dull, empty. I know drunks who tell anecdotes I’ve heard a hundred times that keep me more engaged.**
The “tale” of the novel – and I’m calling it a tale because it is a thin story and unnecessary; more a parable, actually, a parable that grows from its initial and destined place in the middle of an argument and somehow overwhelms it, diminishing its own value as well as the value of the point it is making.
The tale of the novel is thus: out in space are two twin planets, one populated by voluntary exiles from the other, who left in order to run a stateless, anarchistic society in response to the capitalistic, warring, property-owning rules of the old world. In the nicer world, the main character is a skilled physicist who communicates with “profiteering” scientists on their neighbouring planet, sharing information. Eventually he travels there and there’s outcry on both sides, he meets a real alien who – OH MY GOD – comes from the planet Earth in the future, who talks of our planet’s own destruction at the hands of consumerism. That’s kind of a “spoiler”, but as I’m firmly advising you to not read this, I feel no guilt.
In the Arcadian society of the anarchists, all work is pleasure, no one does a job they hate, there is no money, no property, no sexism and no marriage but lots of sex and affection. There is not a lot of food, though, but as the society is so kind to itself, the whole planet pulls together. When the protagonist visits the other world, he finds the opposite – corrupt power structures are everywhere and the ownership of property has led most people to become selfish shells of what they all could be as elevated humans. The protagonist joins in an uprising from the working classes then returns home. Yawn.
What The Dispossessed is, in barely veiled reality, is a discussion of various different political modes that were competing with each other on a global scale in the latter half of the twentieth century. Obviously, you cry, Le Guin was OBVIOUSLY using fictional places and buzzwords to discuss real ideologies. Which brings me to my main bugbear with the book: WHY? Why bother? What is the point in wasting 300 pages of shit storyline when all that really matters is a few pages of intense dialogue and/or intellectual indirect discourse that actually applies to the world we actually live in. Le Guin wrote a reasonably interesting (though now VERY dated) essay about various types of theoretical government, then packaged it in a mediocre novel that offers very little humanity, very little emotion and very little excitement.
Yeah, I probably did learn a few things about the pros and cons of centralised government, yes I did think about all the amenities that would fail to exist if there was no regulation, but equally so about the inevitable rich/poor divide that any successful society inherently creates, and if the suffering of the few is truly worth the comfort of the many. Or visa versa.
So, what I’m trying to say is that Le Guin did discuss some interesting ideas and she did do so in a “novel” way. But rather than create a thought-provoking essay, she has given the world another tiresome novel, which we all know it doesn’t need***. The politics is interesting, but isn’t so intense that it requires 300+ pages of space to breathe.
I’m astounded this is still in print.
* Or “SF”, as the packaging of the book oh-so-trendily calls its genre. Cuz acronyms is well cool, yo.
** I mean, I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but this isn’t a platform for me to recount other people’s drunken anecdotes, it’s the only platform I now write on in this awful future I’ve accidentally ended up in.
*** Please note, I firmly believe that neither of my unpublished novels are tiresome, but one is a peon to excess and the other some kind of accidental humanist Christianity. They, alas, will never be published.