Daily Archives: January 31st, 2011

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

I have loved Ursula le Guin for a long time; I think we read A Wizard of Earthsea for school, and when I discovered there were sequels – many years later – I was very happy indeed. But it wasn’t until many years after that that I discovered she had written a lot of serious, awesome, adult work too. It took me ages to get to The Left Hand of Darkness, which now rates as one of the best SF books ever for me, and I have slowly been getting to her others. Happily, The Dispossessed is the February book for the Women of SF Book Club – a perfect opportunity.

A spoiler-filled, and whimsical, discussion

Narrative

The conceit of calling this post ‘spoilery’ makes me laugh, since the plot itself is so simple – and there’s really nothing to spoil. A man goes from one planet to another; learns some stuff; gets involved in some political stuff; goes home. Has flashbacks about meeting his partner and about his evil boss. That is, Shevek – a highly-regarded physicist – leaves his planet Anarres and goes to its sister-planet Urras to further his research. Anarres was colonised 170 years before by people fleeing Urras, determined to set a society with no property or ownership (a philosophy called Odonianism). In alternating chapters we get his experiences on Urras – learning what it is to be ‘propertarian’ and then getting involved in the beginnings of a revolution – and then his life to that point on Anarres, involving a stick-in-the-mud physicist, meeting his partner Takver, and Shevek coming to terms with his own attitude towards Odonianism. I was a bit sad that it ended with Shevek landing back on Anarres, though; I would have liked to see the reaction to his return. I guess leaving it ambiguous is part of the point.

I would not be surprised to find that a lot of people find this a very boring book, because the plot is indeed quite slow, and straightforward, and really almost nothing happens. But the point, of course, is that this is not a plot-driven book; while the plot itself is actually interesting and I enjoyed it, it’s there – I think – to enable the character-driven and politics-driven book.

I loved the past/future back and forth of the chapters. To see where Shevek ends up, while also seeing how he got there, is a fascinating narrative trick. It almost denies causality, in some way, which ties in very neatly with Shevek’s own thoughts and dealings with time and temporality: we know he got together with Takver before he meets her, we know he becomes an immensely important physicist before he becomes one. On p162 of my copy, he suggests that “The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.” Although Shevek isn’t dead at the start of the book, I think we best appreciate his experiences on Uras by looking from the vantage point of Antarres… and vice versa.

Characters

Shevek is not entirely likeable, but almost always admirable – with one horrendous exception, where he possibly rapes Vea (I think it’s unclear whether he does or not). Interestingly, the fact that all we know of Vea’s behaviour is from Shevek’s point of view – coloured by his naivety – made me quite surprised when it appeared that Vea was not, actually, interested in ‘copulation’ there and then. Anyway, he has those outsider/loner characteristics that so often seem necessary for making an interesting character, even if ultimately he ends up appearing like the most ‘inside’ Odonian politics. Most of the other characters are mere sketches – even his partner Takver. This is not to say that they are caricatures or stereotypes; more, perhaps, that being entirely fleshed out is unnecessary for the story to take place.

Politics

Undoubtedly some readers will see this book as overly polemical. But tying it all in with the science, and some intense personal relationships, tempers the politics in my mind; and besides, when it’s as well-written as this, and as critical, passionate, and searing as this, polemical definitely has its place. I love that this was written in 1975 and it’s a critique – almost a damnation – of both capitalism (called propertarianism) and perhaps the ultimate expression of communism (Odonianism). USSR-type communism comes in for a brief condemnation, too, via a discussion Shevek has with the physicist from Thu, Chifoilisk. At times, both Anarres and Urras appear to be fine places to live: Urras is very familiar, while Anarres comes across as so worthy – or maybe that’s just me and my left-leaning sensibilities (it will be very interesting to see how the American readers in the book club respond…). Then on the other hand, Urras is so stifling, its attitudes towards women so 1950s-esque – and the government’s response to a mass, peaceful, demonstration is so extreme – that I shudder to think Australia could be like that. In turn, Anarres feels so poor, and has its own brand of stifling and unpleasant, that neither appears as a utopia; hence the subtitle given to the book, I guess. I think I would still opt for Anarres, given the opportunity to pick – despite le Guin warning that it too is imperfect, in its application of Odo’s philosophy.

Odonianism as a philosophy

I need to think more about what le Guin is suggesting here, I think. It has aspects of Marxism, especially of its Leninist interpretation; the ‘free love’ aspect (copulation brings no lasting attachment necessarily, has no moral component, sex is not dirty) was advocated to some extent by the Russian Alexandra Kollontai (a Bolshevik) and is also familiar from Brave New World…. Attempting to rid humans of all feelings of ownerships feels like a hopeless task to me, but it’s interesting to see how le Guin imagines it might be undertaken; her point that language itself would have to change is brilliant. On that note, the idea of making the word for work also the word for play is quite revolutionary and truly intriguing. It would have an enormous impact on people’s attitudes.

The science

I haven’t done physics in a very long time. I am sure that a physicist reading this could get frustrated by the vagueness of le Guin’s science if they wanted to, and no doubt pick holes in her ideas of simultaneity etc if they really wanted to. For me, it was techy enough that it gave Shevek and his friends the semblance of true science, without totally losing me. More interestingly, though, as a whole, is the fact that she ties the ideas of physics into ideas of morality and responsibility. How utterly awesome and mind-boggling. Too often ‘pure’ science is seen, and even sees itself, as devoid of political or moral connection. I don’t agree with that, and I’ve never seen it argued so well and passionately in fiction before.

What it made me think

Well, a lot of things, really. The sympathy I feel for Marxism is of course tempered by my knowledge of the USSR, China, etc. But Anarres shows a different way of how things could be. While things are not shown as perfect, by any means, and that the philosophy can be bent, there is still a feeling that it could work – with the will and intention of people who truly hold to Odonian philosophy, working in genuine solidarity. On a more personal level, the idea of working with time, rather than against it, was more provocative than almost anything else, given that I am already a sympathiser of the political ideas.

Overall

I got it from the library. I think I need to own it now. It ought to sit next to Naomi Klein’s No Logo.

Managing Death

 

Some spoilers for Death Most Definite. (By Trent Jamieson)


When we left the somewhat hapless Steve at the end of Death Most Definite, he had just managed – through no intention of his own – to become Australia’s Regional Manager of Mortmax. Essentially, he became Australia’s Death. He had also discovered that the Stirrers – that ancient foe of the Psychopomps (employees of Mortmax, responsible for ensuring souls get to the Underworld) – are awaiting the imminent arrival of their god, meaning that they are ‘stirring’, or breaking through into our world via the recently deceased, with increasing frequency. To help him cope with this, he’s changed several people into Pomps, most of them Black Sheep – those with family connections to the Death business but who had themselves not chosen it. Oh, and he’d also brought back to life the woman with whom he’d fallen in love when she was already dead, and turned her (back) into a Pomp, too.

It’s not really a surprise that Managing Death opens with Steve having a nightmare.

The first few chapters deal largely with Steve being his normal whingy, drinking-too-much self, despite his greatly enlarged powers and the fact that he now actually gets to hold Lissa without fear of sending her to Hell. Through him we get to meet a few new characters – my personal favourite being Aunt Neti, an eight-armed and totally intimidating character who helps guard Hell, usually with a batch of scones served on some awfully nice bone china (heh). Also newly introduced, and getting a significant amount of page-time, is Suzanne, the Regional Manager for America. She’s a fairly standard cutthroat business/vixen type, but she gets some pretty good lines. I think her 2IC (or Ankou, in Jamieson’s terminology), Cerbo, is more interesting, although he gets less space to himself. There are also a number of characters from the first book who reappear, of course, including Lissa, who sadly doesn’t get quite as much of an increased role as I had hoped. While she is important, and is never just a damsel in distress or bed-warmer, I was disappointed by the short shrift I think she got particularly towards the end. Steve’s cousin Tim, now his Ankou, has a fairly significant role, and we also get more Wal. Ah, Wal: the fat cherub tattoo Steve got when drunk one night, who pops off his arm and bad-mouths Steve whenever he’s in Hell. Even more than the fact the story is set in Brisbane, Wal is a sign that this is a very Australian book. That, and a burnt-sausage Christmas lunch.

The plot of Managing Death, on the face of it, is simple. It revolves around Steve (well, Tim) having to organise the Death Moot – a get-together for all the Regional Managers – and Steve trying to convince them that the approaching Stirrer god is a problem they all need to deal with. Along the way there are also business issues that must be resolved: particularly how to recruit more Pomps so that they don’t get overworked (can you imagine trying to write that job advertisement? Or answering it?). Jamieson complicates matters with someone attempting to kill Steve. Although there are several lulls where little seems to actually happen – Steve is a bit too whiny and introspective in this novel for my tastes – it is nonetheless exceptionally page-turn-y. Something always seems to be going wrong.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The characters are generally likeable or disagreeable, depending on their relationship with Our Hero; they have just enough depth so as to not be completely transparent. The plot largely kept my interest, although I do think Jamieson wrapped everything up a bit too quickly towards the end, and there was one particular solution to a problem that I thought came from far too far out of left-field to be entirely comfortable with. It’s definitely a “Book Two”: Jamieson does a fairly good previously-in-Death-Works wrap-up, but nonetheless I don’t think it would work well without having read Death Most Definite. Similarly, although some problems are tidied up, there are numerous issues left hanging to be resolved (I hope!) in the third book, The Business of Death, which I believe is due in 2011. Despite niggling issues with the book, I am definitely looking forward to the third book. Call me sadistic, but I am looking forward to just what Jamieson does to Steve next. And given the original way in which he has dealt with the idea of Death and the Underworld, I expect that the ultimate resolution will also be appropriately original.