The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
I owe Ursula K. Le Guin an apology. A big one, and I owe it to her because I’m about to write a medium- to long-length blog post comparing and contrasting her with Ayn Rand. My only reason for this, which may not be at all strong enough, is that they are both women writers who write politically charged allegorical novels with a strong u- and dystopian bent. But one might refer to Rand as the “wrong-headed Ursula K. Le Guin,” and, conversely, one might call Le Guin the “not-retarded Ayn Rand.” And they would be correct.
The Dispossessed is a “soft science-fiction” account of the Cetians, a race of humans from a planet in the Tau Ceti star system. Two hundred years prior to the narrative, a small community of egalitarian anarchists seceded from their home planet (Urras) and settled on their desolate, germ-free moon (Anarres), where they set up an anarcho-syndicalist non-government (if you don’t feel like reading that whole wikipedia page, which you should, anarcho-syndicalism is a method of resource and labor distribution in which there are no bureaucratic hierarchies, all prescribed work is voluntary, and private property doesn’t exist. This last point goes so far that the possessive ends of language are nullified, ie. “my parents” becomes “the parents,” and even “my hands” becomes “the hands”, as in “the hands hurt.”). In the present, the moon society is secure, but not particularly thriving. A talented physicist named Shevek decides to travel to the home world in an attempt to reunite the cultures of both societies, which have completely isolated themselves from each other. The anarchists consider him a traitor; the “propertarians” of Urras consider him an amusing mascot.
Unlike more toss-off, Larry Niven-ish sci-fi, Le Guin’s fiction has actual cultural value. Her story is a literary allegory for a series of political and social beliefs. Which, unfortunately, is what elevates it into the realm of discussions about Ayn Rand. Rand’s own sci-fi collectivist allegory, Anthem, is a staunch criticism of community, and her message at the end of the novel is clear: some people are better than other people, and they deserve more. She expands this idea in The Fountainhead (you can read more of my thoughts about it here), which, while not as science-fictiony, certainly elevates her concept of the übermensch. By setting her story in a world that resembles the real world in every way (minus the ways that people act and the consequences of the actions her characters take), she turns her concept into a lauding of redefined pseudo-real world values like integrity and freedom, while sticking it to their inevitable antonyms, kindness and charity. I have not yet read Atlas Shrugged so I won’t discuss it in detail, but from what I hear it’s a pro-business allegory about high-speed trains (which, in real life, hardcore capitalists hate).
I admit my bias; my political leanings veer far in the direction of Le Guin. But it’s important to note that, unlike Rand, Le Guin offers criticisms of her system. In fact, it’s hardly “her system” at all. She acknowledges that a functioning anarchy is impossible, and that to attempt one is a negative symptom of idealism (the subtitle of the story is “an ambiguous utopia”). And she acknowledges that property-obsessed societies are capable of producing technological and cultural marvels, which, without private investment, would be impossible. And she’s right. Le Guin’s novel is less an advocation of one system than a study of both.
And here her work differs from Rand’s. In both The Fountainhead and Anthem, Rand offered no perspective but her own. The characters who oppose her twisted vision of “integrity” are depicted as slimy and incompetent and sometimes, as in the case of Ellsworth Toohey (a character who makes no sense and doesn’t seem to represent any sort of real life anything), super-villainous. Rand’s work isn’t really an argument for her philosophy, because an argument needs to address a real issue. Rand’s “argument” addresses her redefined notions of selfishness (good), kindness (bad), community (bad), and rape (good). She invents situations which no one in their right mind would disagree with (there’s a good thing and a bad thing, and everyone in the world decides to do the bad thing. Everybody but one man and that makes him a hero), but have no grounding in the real world, and uses those as justifications of her point. It’s not an argument as much as it is political marketing.
The thesis of my argument is this: Rand is celebrated for her belief and insight. Le Guin is considered a fringe figure and a genre specialist despite the fact that she is (1) a better writer and (2) in possession (or dispossession. Get it? Anyone?) of stronger reasoning faculties. I think we need to reconsider who we venerate.
I’m sorry, Ursula. I had to do it. For the greater good.