By Matthew Appleton
In his introduction to the 20th anniversary edition of Neuromancer, William Gibson discusses the challenges of reading classic sf when you start reading it in your teens. In particular, the very nature of the genre means that unforeseen technological innovations or the unanticipated consequences of correctly projected technological evolution will eventually rip away the referential moorings of a particular work as it progresses into its imagined future. Thus, a reader encountering for the first time a classic work of sf will need to compensate, thus “shouldering an additional share of the imaginative burden.”
When I recently finished reading Le Guin’s classic, The Dispossessed, it was the first time I read it. However, I don’t believe that merely knowing that I read a 40-year-old novel gives the proper context. To provide perspective by way of example, when I was a teenager, I read reprints of two Groff Conklin Golden Age anthologies: The Omnibus of Science Fiction and Treasury of Science Fiction. At that time, the majority of the stories were of the same relative vintage as The Dispossessed currently displays. Although the experience of reading a novel written when I was still a toddler required less of an imaginative burden than reading short fiction from the ‘40s whilst in my teens, at various times I contemplated whether, technological issues aside, my perspective must be far different than that of a contemporary reader when The Dispossessed first appeared in bookstores.
This difference in perspective became most obvious in the passages of the book that dealt with feminist ideals. Admittedly, I’m a self-professed “crunchy-granola, bleeding heart liberal,” so I was predisposed to supporting the way women were integrated into the professional and social structure of life in Annares. In fact, if Le Guin presented life on Annares before clearly delineating the rather sexist attitudes of Urras – specifically, the nation of A-Io, the only culture on Urras she actually details – I might not have properly appreciated the fact that the women on Annares enjoyed all the same rights and privileges as men. Did the average white, liberal, heterosexual, middle class American male from 1974 react similarly when reading the novel? I’m inclined to believe not. Although we still don’t have the type of equality that people of all genders, sexual orientation and race should enjoy, the socio-political culture in the United States has changed drastically over the past four decades. In the interim, we’ve seen our first women astronaut, Vice Presidential candidate, Secretary of State, Speaker of the House, Supreme Court Justice, and CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Because of all this, I thought absolutely nothing of seeing on Annares women such as Mitis, the closest thing Shevak has to a supportive mentor, and Rulag, his mother and ultimately the leader of the opposition to his Syndicate of Initiative at the end of the novel.
While the progress enjoyed by women in the US over the past 40 years renders many of the sexist, patriarchal attitudes in A-Io as the comical relics of another era, some remnants of those attitudes still exist today. On one hand its comforting to know that no one today would argue that women cannot be scientists because of their inability to “do the math; no head for abstract thought.” (p. 65) However, the sad fact is that feminist ideals haven’t completely permeated our society. Take the following passage from the novel:
“But the loss of—of everything feminine—of delicacy—and the loss of masculine self-respect— You can’t pretend, surely, in your work, that woman are your equals? In physics, in mathematics, in the intellect? You can’t pretend to lower yourself constantly to their level?” (p. 15)
Though no one today would ever suggest women aren’t as smart as men, there are plenty of people who insist that transforming American society to promote equality of the sexes actually caused a loss of masculine self-respect. As stated fairly recently on WND.com (formerly World Net Daily), an influential conservative online publication:
“And the fourth awful legacy of feminism has been the de-masculinization of men. For all of higher civilization’s recorded history, becoming a man was defined overwhelmingly as taking responsibility for a family…
“…In little more than a generation, feminism has obliterated roles…. Most men want to be honored in some way – as a husband, a father, a provider, as an accomplished something; they don’t want merely to be ‘equal partners’ with a wife.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter what women want – men cannot adapt to a changing society; ergo, we need to go back to the old ways. This is just one element in the pushback against feminism. The fact that such a statement can still be made today illustrates that despite all our progress, we are not as free from the vestiges of sexism as might like to believe. The battle is far from over.
While cultural changes over the past 40 years have blunted the impact of the material regarding sexism, economic changes have only sharpened some of the economic issues presented in The Dispossessed. This country still hasn’t fully recovered from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and income inequality is approaching levels last seen in the late 19th century. In light of the 2008 banking crisis and the havoc that years of economic austerity is wracking upon various European states, Shevek’s attempt to understand A-Io’s economy sounds frighteningly prescient:
“He tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him past endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream. He could not force himself to understand how banks functioned and so forth, because all the operations of capitalism were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion, as barbaric, as elaborate, and as unnecessary. In a human sacrifice to a deity there might be at least a mistaken and terrible beauty; in the rites of the moneychangers, where greed, laziness, and envy were assumed to move all men’s acts, even the terrible became banal.” (p. 115)
Even with the economic shocks caused by the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the US economy at the time of the novel’s publication was still in fundamentally much better shape than it is today. In that context, I-Ao’s form of capitalism, as perceived by Shevek, reads like the criticism of an outsider raised in a culture excessively hostile to such an economic system, thus is likely to overstate its flaws. But, given the rise of the Occupy Movement and the fact that the notion of the 1% has entered the American lexicon, I’m willing to bet that many Americans today are far more sympathetic to his views (if not in full agreement with them) than were 40 years ago.
Up to this point, I’ve focused on I-Ao. What about Urras? As the title page of the book states, this is novel about an ambiguous utopia. Thus, while the book is constructed to make Urras’s anarchist society the more palatable of the two described in the novel, it is a flawed one as well. The reason for this is quite simple: there is no such thing as a perfect socio-economic system. Any attempt at constructing an ideal society will inevitably need to deemphasize or devalue some social element in a fashion that members of said society will resent. This happens on Urras with artists of all types, with detrimental personal results – as shown with Shevek’s friend Tirin. Those, such as Shevek, who wish to work in theoretical fields that offer no immediate applications to a society poor in resources face similar challenges. In addition, any model, no matter how carefully designed, is governed by humans, and, eventually, a group of like-minded people will start viewing any attempt to change the system as an attack on the society, rather than an attempt to properly address a harmful deficiency. Le Guin wonderfully illustrates this by showing the way that Shevek, his family, and the Syndicate of Initiative all face ostracism for his efforts to see his work through to its completion. (I won’t even explore the fact that eventually some people will figure out a way to exploit and/or subvert any system to gain power.)
While it was certainly fascinating to read Le Guin’s vision of a working anarchist society, the current political climate in the US makes me more interested in reading a work that attempts present a working libertarian society. Yes, I am aware that there is a large body of libertarian sf (as demonstrated by the fact that the Libertarian Futurist Society has consistently awarded the Prometheus Award yearly since 1982), but the impression I get is that much of it depicts struggles against various forms of institutional repression and very little of it attempts to present an honest, properly ambiguous presentation of a libertarian utopia. However, I will admit that my own aversion to libertarian sf makes it much less likely for me to encounter such a work.
I cannot say for certain why it took me so long to read The Dispossessed. I actually love Le Guin’s work, and have read a great deal of it; in particular, I’ve read The Left Hand of Darkness and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” on multiple occasions. Over a dozen of her books rest on my bookshelves, and I’ve actually owned my copy of The Dispossessed for nearly 20 years. As a result, I truly cannot fathom why I delayed so long. Whatever the reason, I am glad I finally took the time to read it. Now that I have finally done so, I am off to my copy of Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw in order to read his criticism of the novel, “To Read The Dispossessed.”
Gibson, William. Neuromancer: 20th Anniversary Edition. 2004. Read by Robertson Dean. Compact Disc. Books on Tape. 2011.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York, NY: Harper & Row. 1974.
Prager, Dennis. “Four Legacies of Feminism.” WND.com 31 October 2011. <http://www.wnd.com/2011/10/362649/> (22 April 2013.)