The thing most interesting about the book is how it has held up against the ever-changing world of physics and theory in the years since it was written. UK LeGuin truly wrote well in that she picked a topic both universal and ageless. Shevek is the “wandering Jew” of ages past who is constantly looking for a home and finding none because he’s not looking in the right places.
Is the domain of physics free of metaphysical considerations?
I think the whole notion of physics theory as expounded in the text would have us ask this question, even though the field of physics itself may not appreciate the necessity of doing so.
The other obscure allusion that has piqued my interest is to Odo’s “Analogy” which seems to posit that human community is able to be structured and thought of as a biological (meta)-organism, this being the premise of her design and the basis for ensuing Odonian civilisation. Reading on using this lens to view the description of life within this constructed social sphere may provide insights into where the current push for biomimicry in social, business, and construction design could lead.
I’m sorry I missed the first hangout, but I enjoyed listening to your discussion. I’ve been enjoying the book so far – I think I’m on the fourth or fifth chapter. The book has a number of odd, anachronistic elements which give me pause – not in a bad way, but just a disconcering effect, an odd mixing of retro- and futuristic themes. Some of this is the result of this having been written in the 70s, I expect (future-tech still seems a bit out-moded), but I wonder if she also wanted (with her notion of simultaneity) to bring these different elements of blocktime, different temporal artifacts, into contact.
Some of the “familiar” themes I’m noticing in her simultaneous mix: patriarchal hierarchy & (50s-esque) chauvinism vs. feminist collectivism and anarchy, cold war distrust, Buddhist notions of suffering and relation, current scientific tensions between quantum and relativistic paradigms, etc. I’m curious where all of this is going. How will the echoes of his Urrasti visit play out in Shevek’s life?
I have to say, I think the field is so beyond me, particularly the mathematics, I feel foolish holding an opinion. Which is why it would be great, like you suggested, to have real (friendly, neighborhood) physicist as part of the discussion.
I believe you’re referring to the “social organism” idea (also the title of a book, I think)—which entails that a social body can healthy or sick, and that (this comes up quite poignantly) it produces excrement.
There’s something strangely puritanical (and shadow) in the Odonian hatred of excess and waste. (“Excess is excrement,” Odo had said. Recurring theme.) It doesn’t seem quite right to me. Is it only a function of their being on such a sparse, inhospitable planet? A vilification of what they don’t have the luxury to experience, for the most part, anyway?
Really interesting to me is when Shevek begins to feel that all the “excess” (in the form of abundance of life) on Urras is actually quite beautiful. (Takver had show him this first, with the aquatic life on Anarres.)
Of course, then he goes shopping on Urras and feels disgusted again at all the excess crap there is to buy.
Which makes me wonder, could we use biomimicry to design a mall that functions like some kind of organic system in harmony with nature rather than a machine for maximum extraction of wealth and reproduction of consumer fetishes? And could such a mall somehow still enact and celebrate abundance? Hmm…
@rbruce11, glad you’re reading! I agree, there’s a bit of a 70s vibe to the book. I’m finding some layers of themes, however, that still feel very vital—connected especially to the “post-capitalism” debates. There’s even a little of the Zeitgeist resource-based economy idea, including the computer system (Divlab) that assigns work and presumably coordinates resources.
And of course, there are passages that brush up to the “timeless”—not only in theme, but also aesthetics.
I’m curious, what’s your subjective experience of reading itself been like, not having read a novel in so long? How is it different and/or the same as engaging with philosophy and spiritual texts?
Hi, yes, I was thinking this book is complementary to – and maybe an interesting ‘resource’ for – some of the post-capitalism discussions and debates that have been taking place (inside and out of the integral community).
I’ve been enjoying novel-reading: several times I’ve gone on a break at work, which is often when I read non-fiction, and I’ve pulled out Le Guin’s book instead. I agree with the observation on your first video chat that the book builds ambiance nicely. There’s a kind of perfume some books give off, one of those scents that immediately transport you to a time and place when you catch it again, and this book has that quality.
Comparing it to philosophy reading: I’m enjoying the philosophical (and scientific) references so far, but they also have the feel of ‘teases’ – just little hints or tastes of an idea or perspective, and sometimes I wonder if there’s a “there” there … if this is just an evocative-sounding series of words or ideas, or if there is a fuller, more developed vision behind them that will be revealed later. Knowing some of Le Guin’s other thoughtful works, I expect there is a “there” there, so I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes.
The little bits about the languages of these worlds are also engaging for me – having experimented myself with creating new languages (with radically different grammars) and attempting to ‘feel into’ the different sorts of worldspaces they make possible. If I had a paper copy of the book (instead of Kindle), I already would have flipped to the back to check for a glossary or a conlang appendix). For a world like Anarres, I can imagine the language being similar to the conlang, Lojban (Lojban).
How do you keep the immense scale of the books from wobbling out of control in your head? The sheer intensity of it would cause me to dream constantly of the alien worlds I’d created.
I’m a writer. My imagination works most actively and vividly in my writing, and the imagining and planning of it. I kind of live there, in the story, while it’s coming to be.
Yes, but for the Hainish Cycle of books you invented over 80 different inhabited worlds, each with its own cultures and physics…
No, no, thank you for saying so, Steve, but if I really had, I would admire myself tremendously. I would be in awe of my own staggeringly great mind. What I did was give the illusion of there being all those different worlds. That’s called art, or fiction, or something. The rule is, you only invent what you have to. And that’s pretty much what’s right in front of the reader. Let’s say it’s an ansible. I do not, in fact, invent the ansible. I do not explain how it works. I cannot, but shhh. I simply present the device as working, and as coming from a society which is far in advance of ours in science and technology, having spaceships that can travel nearly as fast as light, et cetera. And this background or context creates expectation and softens up the readers’ credulity so that they’re willing to “believe in” the ansible—inside the covers of the book. After the ansible had been around for a while, I invented the man who invented it, Shevek, in The Dispossessed. And he and I played around with some pretty neat speculations about time and interval and stuff, which lent more plausibility to the gimmick itself. But all I really invented was a) the idea of an instantaneous transmitter and b) a name for it. The reader does the rest. If you give them enough background/context, they can fill in the gaps. It isn’t just smoke and mirrors. There has to be a coherent vision of how things hang together in that society/culture/world. All the details have to fit together and be thought through as to their implications. But, well… it’s mostly smoke and mirrors. What else is any fiction?
Nice - thanks! That’s a perfect response to my wondering. And I almost believe her! Seriously, of course she’s right that a fiction writer (and world-builder) must rely on the artful deployment of smoke and mirrors, to evoke just enough of an outline that our minds rush in to fill it with living color, vital currents. But I say I half believe her because I know she is, indeed, a very thoughtful and imaginative writer (I recall one book creating a very complex anthropology, language, etc), and I expect that for at least some of her concepts, there very likely is more than just smoke and mirrors involved…
Maybe it’s the time of year – I get a little sentimental around Christmas – but so far science fiction has brought me to tears three times this week! The first was when reading The Dispossessed: I was moved by Shevek’s awkward, poignant meeting with his mother. LeGuin masterfully conveyed the ambiguity of the ‘fruits’ of Anarres’ anarchic system: the human ‘cost’ of its higher ideals. I also watched Childhood’s End (the SyFy special mini-series) this week and teared up during two poignant scenes in the concluding episode. If you watched it, then this (non-spoiler) reference will make sense: the scene with the violin song at the end broke my heart for our lovely planet in all its precious fallibility.
I’ve had similar feelings after watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There are many moments in that film get hits you right “In the feels” as they say; no spoilers, of course. Beyond the nostalgia, a recognition of some distance spiritual hope present in A New Hope glimmered through the film and made me consider our present, and difficult, moment in history.
Shevek’s meeting with his mother was rough, too. Really appreciated the complexity in that. Well put, re: “the human ‘cost’ of its higher ideals.”
Lastly, I’m really going to have to check out Childhood’s End! Loved the book, one of Arthur C. Clarke’s best. Have you read it? Perhaps we should add that to our book club list.
Hey, Jeremy - I’m really looking forward to seeing The Force Awakens. My son and I are going tomorrow morning. I’ve heard from several friends that it made them cry, even while also rewarding them with just what they’d hope for in a (good!) Star Wars film.
I read Childhood’s End when I was a teenager – so long ago that I remembered virtually none of it while watching the film. But Clarke is a master, for sure; I think anything by him would be worthy of inclusion in the book club.
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