the corner office

a blog, by Colin Pretorius

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Ursula Le Guin: The Dispossessed

I love sci fi, but I don't read much of it, because being a cheapskate, I don't buy a lot of new books, and at the charity shops and second hand book stores, you only ever get Volume IX of the Granthor Cycle and Book 4 of the Swinging Nut Trilogy and the like, which is pointless if you're not lucky enough to find Book One and have dim prospects of getting your hands on the remaining books in sequence.

Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed is a standalone book, and so I bought a dusty old copy, and read it, and here's the review.

The problem with Sci Fi written in 1976 is that lots of things have happened in 30 years. Some indulgence is required when scientists a thousand years hence are still holding on to their prized slide rules. Nonetheless, the point about a good book is that context is secondary to the story, and this is an interesting story. The gist of it there's a moon to which a colony of humans exiled themselves 160 years ago and who now live in a functioning anarcho-communist society. They've had minimal contact with the statist capitalists back on the mother planet, and the society is almost completely insular. Shevek, a brilliant scientist, decides the society need a kick in the pants and combined with professional jealousy and some such grist for the story mill, somehow ends up returning to the main planet. Cue interesting experiences trying to make sense of a world totally different to his own. Turns into getting caught up in politics and a rebellion by the poor masses, turns into fleeing for his life and then going home to anarcho-communist heaven and his wife and kids, and being happy about it. The end.

A good read, most interesting for the comparisons drawn between the two societies. Imagine a world of no government, no laws, no possessions, and stretch the thinking to no possessive pronouns, no ego, an incredibly open-minded and enlightened approach to sex and interpersonal relationships, and your name cranked out by a computer when you're born. (No ego, remember?) No poverty, no opression, no greed. What's left? What matters? Would it work? Le Guin's thought experiment dwells on how desirable and how practical such a society would be, what the problems might be.

An interesting intellectual journey, but the one drawback is that anarcho-communism strains modern credulity. It might have been more relevant to 1970's society, but feels less so in the 21st century. In practice, absolute freedom with communism versus economic freedom under the yoke of an oppressive state? We have examples of the latter, and plenty of them, but they're hardly models for real economic success (no matter what the Income Statements say), and we have none of the former. The cookie just doesn't crumble that way. And besides, neither of these systems appeals to me.

The book isn't about political evangelism, though, it's about a world where things are different, and inspecting those differences helps to put our own into better perspective. I give it three stars, but I'm not sure out of how many.

{2007.12.18 - 23:36}

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