Le Guin, Ursula K(roeber) (Vol. 8)

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Le Guin, Ursula K(roeber) 1929–

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Le Guin is an American writer of science fiction and fantasy whose primary genre is the novel. She has also published a compilation of short stories, The Wind's Twelve Quarters, and a volume of poetry, Wild Angels. Le Guin has likewise extended her creations of fantasy to the world of children's literature. The Earthsea trilogy is her most noted contribution in this field. (See also Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

The Dispossessed belongs right in the middle of the literary genre announced in its subtitle [An Ambiguous Utopia]. Le Guin creates for us a society that is in her view significantly better than our own, but one not beyond our capacity to achieve. We see how the people of this society live, work, play, love, hate; how they are organized politically, exchange their produce, educate their children, manage their sexual relations; we see what they value and disvalue and we witness how their values stand up under extreme stress. The book is organized so as to display the virtues and (uncharacteristically for the genre) the weaknesses of a "good place." In another traditional function of the genre, just as Thomas More's Utopia is a slashing satire on the sixteenth-century European social order, so The Dispossessed constitutes a severe critique of twentieth-century industrial society. In these respects and in others The Dispossessed is close kin to most utopian fictions one can think of from More to H. G. Wells.

The story concerns a people who have voluntarily left the fertile mother planet Urras to live on Anarres, Urras's barren and desolate moon. Urras is a transparent stand-in for Earth in the twentieth century…. Anarres, on the other hand, is a stand-in for no existing country or government; it represents possibility only. (pp. 256-57)

Le Guin has not tried to depict the "just" or "perfect" or "happy" society that utopian theorists have from time to time evoked. Life on Anarres is hard; people suffer; some are selfish, narrow, power-loving. There is conflict and the anarchistic ideal is flawed. Still, the principles are there in action; and despite a lynching mob and encroaching bureaucratization, the moral level of Anarres, its success as a humane society, is high. (p. 257)

It is as though Le Guin had set out to test Socrates' contention in The Republic that the ideal state is one in which people lead hard, simple lives, producing only necessities…. These are recalcitrant materials for a writer: how does one show, how does one make interesting, a truly simple happiness?… Utopian writers have always found it easier to define the good life by showing what it is not.

The genre is full of traps. For example, how does a utopian society come into being? More's King Utopus simply founded Utopia by decree. Edward Bellamy's Americans slid into it by accident. Marxists tend to like William Morris's News from Nowhere, an otherwise rather delicate book, because it faces the question of how revolutionary violence can give birth to the good life. Plato was most forthright of all: the philosopher who is to create the ideal society will "take society and human character as his canvas, and begin by scraping it clean." The image has given liberal commentators fits. Le Guin's way of scraping the canvas is to have her anarchists abandon not only their native planet but their native language as well. They create, and use exclusively, an artificial language, with all the losses that entails, in order to start afresh.

Another trap, source of much tedium in utopian fiction, is that of exposition. "Tell me," say innumerable visitors to Utopia, "how your society is organized," and the flat expository prose rolls on endlessly before us. The Dispossessed avoids this as much as possible, showing instead a non-authoritarian communist society in operation;...

(The entire section contains 2311 words.)

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