Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Human nature tends towards, not entropy, but bureaucracy.

I think my father would have enjoyed this book immensely. It would have been exactly up his alley, as one of his favourite hobbyhorses is well and lovingly encapsulated in The Dispossessed.

I fear my review might focus more on Anarres and less on Urras, as it was the Anarrian sections that interested me more, the attempts to sustain (founding was the easy part) an anarcho-syndicalist society over a long period of time. For Urras, I thought that it was painted in clear terms, and avoided a polemic, although it did have very pointed things to say about class, and war, and conscription, and property, and the gendering thereof. 

(For the record, I think this novel had much more interesting things to say about gender than The Left Hand Of Darkness, with which I had major issues. Hopefully I'll review that one someday and get into them.)

And just once, I'll give in to the obligatory anarcho-syndicalist Monty Python joke, and then I'm done, I promise.

"You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you."

Although, truly, talking about supreme executive power, with all the centralization that implies, doesn't seem very anarcho-syndicalist to me. But it's Monty Python. And I've digressed enough.

It was the Anarrian sections that held me, that showed a very thoughtful consideration of human nature, of a system of living that requires constant revolutionary thought, and how that must fight against the even more powerful human characteristic of desiring comfort and predictability, and how that can crystallize even the best ideas into strictures, into rules that once addressed something specific well, but tend to constrict over time until they bind everything badly and too close, and are in constant need of the goads, the people who kick over the traces and cause a fuss, even when they are under intense pressure to conform.

My father would have loved this book.

And I think I love it too, for its attempt to take this society seriously, to engage with the actual problems that might arise, for the care in which it shows what this society does well, which is really quite a lot, as well as how even the most revolutionary of societies settles eventually into becoming more restrictive.

My Dad was always of the opinion that organizations fracturing was a good thing, and that bureaucracy was a bad thing, because the first kept the organizations vibrant and engaged, and the latter threatened to stifle them. He also believed that big blanket bureaucratic solutions often helped no one at all very well. They might be necessary, sometimes, but when he was dying, someone wrote him a lovely letter that talked about what my Dad had taught him about "family and personal and small and imperfect."

And those are the solutions I'm working for myself, these days. We need people working on the big stuff, but we also need people trying to find small, imperfect solutions for these things right here.

This review has meandered away from the book, I'm afraid. But what I'm trying to say is that Ursula K. LeGuin does a wonderful job of showing a non-polemical view of a radically different society, tries to address in real ways the issues and the joys of such a society, and it left me with the feeling that something like this would be worth fighting for and against. To protect and to challenge.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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