Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Anarchist Moon

"The Dispossessed,” by Ursula Le Guin, 1974

Progressive science fiction is rare in the U.S.  Most science fiction concerns dystopias, machines gone mad, invasions by aliens or socially medieval societies set in modernistic technical worlds.  Optimism about social progress is almost nil – unless you read late Soviet science fiction.  Le Guin is an exception.

Annares, as viewed from Urras

Le Guin’s hero is an anarchist scientist Shevek, patterned after Einstein, living on Anarres, a somewhat barren planet on which exists an anarchist society.  The book is based on Sheveks’ visit to the ‘propertarian’ society that exiled the anarchists 177 years earlier.  The society is on Urras – a place recognizably like the capitalist earth - full of war, poverty, wage slavery, extreme class differences, female oppression, proletarian rebellions and repressive governments.  As if an advanced alien landed on our planet and was ultimately repulsed by what he saw.  

There are many obvious parallels in the book to institutions and ideas existing in 1974.  The USSR is here called Thu.  The attempt to unite quantum mechanics and relativity has an unconvincing parallel here.  The founders of anarchism - like Kropotkin, Godwin and Proudon – is here named Laia Odo and the philosophy, Odonism.  Odo even writes something called the “Prison Letters’ which will remind anyone of Gramsci.  The central city of A’Lo has many sky-scrapers and is reminiscent of New York; the U.N. is called the “Council of World Governments.” And so on.

The book is organized in a non-sequential way, with events in the future and past mixed.  This is a somewhat lame attempt to translate Shevek’s theory of ‘Simultaneity’ – where past, present and future all literally exist at the same time – to the book’s structure.  This theory results in Shevek providing the secret to a hyper-drive that could benefit everyone to more easily travel through space & time.  It is ultimately broadcast to the various worlds to avoid it being owned by the government on Urras, which has been trying to steal it from him.  Shevek has been attempting to create a version of the ‘unified field theory,’ here called ‘general temporal theory.’  This scientific hokum is actually one of the most unconvincing things about the book. 

Of most interest is Le Quin’s attempt to describe life on Anarres – a society without a government or capitalist firms that cooperates among its members to survive.  Anarres is a place where food is difficult to grow, so is subject to periodic famines.  The society somewhat resembles Maoist China without Mao or the CP.  Le Guin calls it ‘an administration of things.’  Physical labor is required of all citizens.  Criticism/self-criticism sessions are sometimes held.  People own few personal items and eat cooperatively in dining halls.  Children live in dormitories, not with their parents and are brought up by society at large.   There are no wages and no profits, so work is allocated by a computer in the largest city based on the needs of the society.  Education is valued, privacy is difficult to find and sexuality is free.  Individualism is frowned upon and is called ‘egoizing.’  Le Guin even mentions their use of solar, geo-thermal and wind power – this in 1974. Life on ‘the moon’ Anarres is simple and practical, and based on the cooperation of nearly everyone.

Yet even on Anarres, the dialectic operates.  As Shevek and a group of co-thinkers figure out, petty bureaucrats develop who control scientific issues, use group pressure to quash any individual ideas and limit the spread of practices they consider objectionable.  The society itself is closed off from contact with any of the other worlds in the universe – not just Urras but several others.  They won’t even let Odonian rebels from Urras join them, as they suspect they will be ‘spies.’  However at the same time they deliver raw metals to Urras, so they are not completely autarkic.

Why social criticism has to be set up as ‘science fiction’ has always bothered me.  It is as if a certain ‘cover’ must be thrown over a work in order for it to slip by internal censors among readers or the U.S. culture controllers.  This is the same method that is followed in any repressive society, where an opposing point of view must be hidden through analogy or surreptitious comparisons in order to soften the blow.   Nevertheless, Le Guin and people like Terry Bisson stand out for not letting the propertarian geeks control the genre.

Several science fiction books are reviewed below – Bisson’s “Fire on the Mountain,” Phil Dicks’ “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” as well as various dystopian books/films like “The Road” “Cloud Atlas,” “Divergent,” “Planet of the Apes” and the Hunger Games series. 

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
December 6, 2015

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