I’m breaking the rules (ahem, guidelines) a bit, as to our “reading schedule,” and posting something from chapter 7, which I just read.
In this scene, Shevek gets drunk at a dinner party in the big city of Nio Esseia, where he’s spent the day with Vea Oiie, the coquettish (and nihilistic) sister of one of his hosts at the university, Demaere Oiie.
He’s gotten into an argument with a businessman, already, regarding the necessity and importance of both Sequency and Simultaneity physics. (The businessman can’t see the point of simultaneity, if it can’t be put to practical (profitable) application. Now the discussion has turned to politics. Passions are beginning to flare. Vea asks Shevek, in her charming mode, "But tell us about Anarres—what’s it really like? Is it so wonderful there really?
He was sitting on the arm of the chair, and Vea was curled up on the hassock at his knees, erect and supple, her soft breasts staring at him with their blind eyes, her face smiling, complacent, flushed.
Something dark turned over in Shevek’s mind, darkening everything. His mouth was dry. He finished the glassful the waiter had just poured him. “I don’t know,” he said; his tongue felt half paralyzed. "No. It is not wonderful. It is an ugly world. Not like this one. Anarres is all dusty and dry hills. All meager, all dry. And the people aren’t beautiful. They have big hands and feet, like me and the waiter there. But not big bellies. They get very dirty, and take baths together, nobody here does that. The towns are very small and dull, they are dreary. No palaces. Life is dull, and hard work. You can’t always have what you want, or even what you need, because there isn’t enough. You Urrasti have enough. Enough air, enough rain, grass, oceans, food, music, buildings, factories, machines, books, clothes, history. You are rich, you own. We are poor, we lack. You have, we do not have. Everything is beautiful here. Only not the faces. On Anarres nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces. The other faces, the men and women. We have nothing but that, nothing but each other. Here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes. And in the eyes you see the splendor, the splendor of the human spirit. Because our men and women are free—possessing nothing they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes—the wall, the wall!
“Splendor” is the word that comes to Shevek’s mind upon seeing Urras for the first time.
We of course, on Earth, in the “developed world,” all this splendor too. We are owners. As indebted as we may be individually, our society essentially owns everything in the world, and we benefit by being part of this society.
At what cost, though? Our own inner splendor? Our own human freedom? To some degree at least?
Samuel R. Delaney challenges Le Guin slightly for creating Annaras as a world of scarcity. It makes human solidarity too easy, he suggests—since the people must band together just to survive. Community and mutual aid become necessary. But what if you were to add outer splendor to the mix of a utopian anarchist society? Would it hold up?
This is from On Triton and Other Matters: An Interview with Samuel R. Delany (Science Fiction Studies #52 = Volume17, Part 3 = November 1990):
SRD: […] The fact is, I don’t think SF can be really utopian. I mean utopia presupposes a pretty static, unchanging, and rather tyrannical world. You know: “I know the best way to live, and I’m going to tell you how to do it, and if you dare do anything else…”
Q: Even an anarchistic utopia?
SRD: Even an anarchistic utopia.
Q: That becomes a contradiction in terms.
SRD: Not really. A problem Ursula makes all but vanish by setting her “anarchistic utopia” in an extreme scarcity environment (and I’m sure it was what she wanted) is the problem of surveillance et punir. When the landscape is as harsh and ungiving as Annares’ and your laws are set up in ecological accord with it, you don’t have to worry too much about individuals—or groups—deviating too far from these laws. Those who deviate, the landscape itself punishes—if not obliterates.
In scarcity societies, you just don’t have the same sort—or frequency —of discipline problems as you do in an affluent society. In a scarcity society the landscape itself becomes your spy, your SS, and your jailer, all in one.
But if the Odonians had set up their “non propertarian” utopia on Urras (and Le Guin says as much in the novel), you’d simply have too many individuals—and groups—saying: “Look, since there’s all this stuff, why can’t I own some of it?” And the expulsions and disciplinary actions would bloom all around—no matter how anarchistic they started out!
The “ambiguities” Le Guin wanted to examine in her ambiguous utopia are not, I believe, the internal contradictions of a foundering utopia. Rather, she wanted to explore the bilateral contradictions highlighted between two very different societies, one harsh and spiritual, one rich and decadent, but each of which considers itself the best of all possible worlds.
I’ve always seen SF thinking as fundamentally different from utopian thinking; I feel that to force SF into utopian templates is a largely unproductive strategy.
Further, I think that possibility is what Le Guin is raising by calling The Dispossessed “an ambiguous utopia.” It’s only by problematizing the utopian notion, by rendering its hard, hard perimeters somehow permeable, even undecidable, that you can make it yield anything interesting.
Which leaves me with the question (which perhaps DeLany explores in his book Triton, I don’t know, but I’m ordering the book…speaking of splendorously splurging!): Can there be human splendor and solidarity, even amid the abundance of a splendorous world and the endless social and individual differences which affluence spawns?
Are we even capable of real human community, given that we live in the richest (in all the ways Shevek describes) civilization in the history of the planet?
Is it even possible for us? Can it be?
Are we too atomized, differentiated, dissociated?
Is a certain amount of (voluntary) scarcity preferable to abundance, given a social structure (anarchist?) where the poverty is equally shared?
Would any of us even be willing to go there? Or do you think we can be rich and authentically connected to each other and loving and happy and just (in a planetary context), simultaneously, too?