Sometimes I read a book and it is like a stone hitting the water and creating continuous ripples or a light going on that shows things in the darkness that no-one realised were there before. Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ has been one of those books. It is really about what is ostensibly two different cultures crashing into each other though it actually turns out to be about several different ones colliding – a good lesson that there are rarely just two choices in anything. And this cultural clash is actually a theme that she writes about often; it is a central fault-line of her writing.
Dispossessed was written in 1974 and my first thought was that although this was science fiction it was also a reflection of our world at the height of the cold war. About a man leaving one ideological world to live in another. Like dissidents of the seventies going from the USSR to the USA or in more recent times North Koreans managing to escape that lunatic Stalinist state. However, there is a twist in that the planet the dissident goes to from his own is itself divided into two ideological camps and there are other planets as well where things are done differently (including Terra and a key world called Hain thus the rounding up of a number of Le Guin’s books into the ‘Hainish cycle’). So not a simple black-white divide but several choices and comparisons.
The book is scarily prophetic in many ways. Certainly the story links very much to the life of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who incidentally left (was forced out of ) the USSR in 1974 but later returned. His book ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ about life in a Siberian work camp is amazingly grim but one of the best I have ever read. Indeed one of my criticism’s of Dispossessed would be that it creates an almost nirvana-like good place that the main protagonist leaves and goes to a place that is ostensibly somewhere better but in many ways is a lot worse. This reflects some of the naivety of the left in the seventies (and even now) seeing life in Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc as some kind of paradise compared to the evil capitalist West. Personally I wouldn’t have to think very long at all if I was offered the chance to live in Moscow or New York at any time. The book also touches on what happens in those rare situations where people are moved to mass protest and the unexpected changes that follow, as we have seen in real life in the 1989 people’s revolution in Eastern Europe, Ukraine’s Velvet revolution, and the Arab Spring. And certainly in the latter, as one sees as in Dispossessed, achieving change may not always be for the good at least in one’s own lifetime (and what else really matters?)
I have only read only one of Le Guin’s other books ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ (1969) which has been claimed to be subtly about homosexuality (such a clinical word I love to hate) – Le Guin was a bit radical for her time and genre in inferring gay events in her books though without being explicit. ‘Left Hand’ is also about different cultures and societies meeting each other on a world of eternal cold, snow and ice – my idea of a complete nightmare.
This has all made me look anew for more info on Ursula (what a very beautiful name – it rolls around the mouth). I knew she had also done the EarthSea quartet but I have never yet read this. She is now 85 and turns out she has her own website www.ursulakleguin.com with plenty of info (including reasons for her dislike of Amazon) though it really could do with a bit of a makeover reminding me of a site styled in the nineties and unfortunately it doesn’t look like its updated too often either which is a loss. Good details on Wikipedia as ever including her awards, influences and ideologies all of which are very interesting. Key to note her strong belief in the power of writers to shape societal thinking and the importance of books as more than just profit-making commodity – she really hates Best Seller lists.
Overall, an author I would highly recommend (start with Left Hand and Dispossessed to see if she works for you). And I have been persuaded to go and check out her back catalogue starting with her very first published book ‘Rocannon’s World’ – written in 1966 so nearly fifty years old! Might as well start at the beginning, always a good place to head out from.