Science Fiction Studies

#7 = Volume 2, Part 3 = November 1975

Judah Bierman

Ambiguity in Utopia: The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin's utopian tale The Dispossessed (TD) does not merely propose another blueprint for an anarchist commune in the SF skies--an escape from sour democracies or immanent fascist tyrannies on Earth, and so from all responsibility. Subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, this spiritual autobiography and utopian quest of the brilliant physicist Shevek explores some dilemmas in the idea of an anarchist-socialist utopia. Further, like Plato and More, Le Guin also measures how the utopian vision presses a special responsibility and an alienation on the "knower." I propose to consider two senses in which the TD world of Anarres may be read: first, that the place is only ambiguously good, and second, that ambiguity is implicit in its organizing principle, that the dominant life style is not permanently set but permits, indeed demands, personal choices to meet inevitable social and environmental changes. Though obviously linked with Le Guin's earlier SF and wizard stories, TD is a moral allegory that should be read with other contemporary utopian tales. It is a prizeworthy contribution to the debate about the responsibility of knowledge, of the visionary and of the scientist, in a planned society.

Any working definition of utopia, beyond "imaginary, ideal place," begins with such criteria as physical isolation, political community, social beneficence, all generalizable characteristics that fit many particular formulae; but it must center on the modal fact that the institutions of that other country are always presented as obviously better, more desirable, than those of the author's own.

The improvement is seen to result from some special condition-lucky chance, an historical act, more usually the commitment to some organizing principle. In that obvious, non-ambiguous sense, Anarres, Shevek's Moon colony home, the country of the dispossessed, is a utopia. Anarres, the place beyond or without things (res), is the anarchist Moon colony founded some 200 years before the action begins by the followers of Odo. The inhabitants are all Odonians; none other may enter. It is her writings that provide the gospel principles for their practices. These include, most notably, on the personal level, an individual freedom based on absolute non-coercion, and on the social level, a non-profit, need-use economy. The people like it and believe it to be the best. Thus Anarres meets all the criteria for a traditional utopia. What is involved, then, in calling Anarres "an ambiguous utopia"?

What strikes the visitor to Anarres is not the familiar institutions but the setting. On Anarres the scene, continually discussed, continually described and referred to, determines the act. For this utopia is built on scarcity, almost deprivation. A moral choice for communion created and still sustains this holier community, but brute necessity enforces much of the functioning of the institutions. It is a necessity based on a desert landscape; nowhere in the geography of utopia is there an island apparently so fundamentally inhospitable to human flourishing. Thus, in simplest terms, Le Guin's allegory says that the more ideal place, contrary to the whole utopian record and all man's paradises, need not and should not be built on plenty. Perhaps she would not argue that scarcity is a sufficient or even a necessary condition. But to call a land without green leaf a utopia is surely to cast ambiguity over the term, over the whole idea. It is an ambiguity that, like all others, carries its own creative impulse. It forces the reader beyond the "soft primitivist" and other fantasy images to weigh the meaning of plenty.

The absence of plenty is reflected in one central detail worth special mention in a utopian fiction. The biography of Shevek takes him from birth through his childhood, parental conditioning, adolescent learning-all skillfully preparing us for the solitary bargainer who will try to convert the universe with the lever of his knowledge. The first critical hurdle in the quest comes in Shevek's formal training as a physicist: genius soon outgrows the limited facilities of this impoverished country. There is more here than an obvious plea for a world community of science to replace the super-patriotic, nationalistic institutes. It may be possible to contend that a beneficent social order does not require a beneficent natural scene. But the special case of Shevek makes clear that the nurture of genius—scientific progress—requires the materials and opportunity for intercourse that come only from a supported community of science, from the leisure of plenty. There is a very real ambiguity in calling a place where genius cannot flourish an utopia. It is an ambiguity that utopists have kept hidden till now. Utopias make good citizens, good soldiers, but when have they shown us flourishing geniuses other than founders?

Anarres may be considered an ambiguous utopia, then, because it shows us so many traditionally good institutions in a setting that imposes an absence of goods-traditional means to fulfillment. In his synoptic definitional survey, Darko Suvin pleads for the beginning of understanding that utopia is a verbal artifact: "Utopia is the verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author's community, this construction being based on estrangement arising out of an alternative historical hypothesis" (see his "Defining the Literary Genre of Utopia," Studies in the Literary Imagination, 6, ii [1973]:132). We have seen some ways in which the ideal community in TD meets the criteria of this useful definition, if ambiguously.

Structurally, most utopian tales contain a dialogue of criticism and a discourse of showing-the two parts are separated only in the two books of More's Utopia. More's specific criticisms of the penal institutions of England and his more general indictment of the capitalist and war-mongering society is a good example of utopian dialogue; Bacon's catalogue of scientific machines and activities in the second half of New Atlantis is a crude example of discourse: a kind of tour director's slide-show-"We have this, and we have this, and we have this." Calling TD "an ambiguous utopia" involves, minimally, a combination of dialogue and discourse that, in addition to discussing the defects and evil of contemporary society and showing the goodness of an alternative possibility, forces the reader to balance those present evils and possible alternative goods in a way that emphasizes the imperfect, tenuous balance. Le Guin has done at least that. If utopias are allegories of human vocation, the vehicles are more ideal social structures and the tenor is, always, a life in which the work and the play are the vocations to which humans should be called. Shevek's story embodies with formulaic clarity the central ambiguity necessary for all such fictions-a man whose soul rhythm does not vibrate quite synchronously with that of the ideal social structure, however convinced he is that the organizing principle of the society is the best. If a utopia is the tale one tells when one wishes to describe a more ideal place, then Le Guin has made the willingness to live in ambiguity, with continuing change and choice, both the existential condition of the place and the structural principle of the tale. It is one measure of the greatness of this utopian fiction that through her treatment of time and change, Le Guin establishes continuing choice as the human condition, burden and joy. Past, present and future may be distinguishable, but not separable. That instantaneous clear moment of unambiguous choice is only a necessary illusion; it is called the ansible.

The ansible in Le Guin's stories is the correlative for immediately felt, simultaneously held knowledge, the goal of communication to feel and think together across the spaces and times that separate humans. Everywhere the sententiae that are her style prepare us for the brilliant insight to the utopian quest, so simply stated: Means are the ends men seek.

Ambiguity, in this essay, as in the sub-title, is not intended as a euphemism for legitimated confusion. Le Guin is rarely a simple, straightforward storyteller. TD is a complex utopian tale in which she violates the "unities." It opens with the quest journey, Shevek's mission to Urras. Shevek is born in Chapter two, on Anarres. Chapter Three goes back to the mission, Chapter Four to his biography, and so on. The book closes with Shevek returning to Anarres, with a visitor, Ketho the Hainishman, about to start anew. The structure of alternating chapters is more than a device to emphasize the continuity by which past and future are part of present. It is the mode for two journeys, combining romance and satire, quest and rejection. First, Shevek's spiritual biography on Anarres brings him through his own struggles to explore the anarchist paradise and to learn about the limitations of the dream in practice. At the moment of his crisis, Shevek meditates on his possible role in that society. "A healthy society" would let him exercise his "cellular function," "his individuality, the work he could do best" (§10). A good society finds its strengths and justification in the coordination of such diverse functions. If the Odonian society did not quite measure to that ideal, that only increased his responsibility:


With the myth of the State out of the way, the real mutuality and reciprocity of society and individual became clear. Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise: for though only the society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person had the power of moral choice-the power of change, the essential function of life. The Odonian society was conceived as a permanent revolution, and revolution begins in the thinking mind. (§10)

Life is not, therefore, merely a continuing search for pleasure, which always had an end, but outside that closed cycle "is the landscape of time. in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings" (§10). One can often measure a utopian society by its dominant institution or norm. On Anarres the anarchist "syndicate" is the institution of the permanent revolution, given the individual's power of moral choice. But it is the syndicate of initiative that is the paradigm-- it moves the action of this fiction. It is the structure of the choice-making that is the tale.

In the second journey the alternate chapters on Urras-- Shevek takes his quest out into the world. This part criticizes the evils of the capitalist, profit society. What is important for us here is how Le Guin forces Shevek to confront the balancing of good and evil. At this crisis in the quasi-drama, Shevek confronts the alternative side. When he calls Urras Hell, Keng, the Terran ambassador who has offered him asylum, responds by comparing Urras to the destroyed Earth:

'To me, and to all my fellow Terrans who have seen the planet, Urras is the kindliest, more various, most beautiful of all the inhabited worlds. It is the world that comes as close as any could to Paradise....

I know it is full of evils, full of human injustice, greed, folly, waste. But it is also full of good, of beauty, vitality, achievement. It is what a world should be! It is alive, tremendously alive-alive, despite all its evils, with hope....

"My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth.... This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert." (§11)

The burden of Keng's presentation is the lost opportunity-how humans forfeited their chance for such a society as that of Anarres. It is, of course, part of the allegorical warning. My immediate concern, however, is with Shevekwho is about to offer his simulsequentialist formulae which make possible the ansible, about to make the moral choice of giving his knowledge to humanity, not to his own society alone nor to the capitalist Urras, for peace, not war-and with his answer:

You don't understand what time is, he said. You say the past is gone, the future is not real, there is no change, no hope. You think Anarres is a future that cannot be reached, as your past cannot be changed. So there is nothing but the present, this Urras, the rich, real, stable present, the moment now. And you think that is something which can be possessed! But it is not real, you know. It is not stable, not solid-nothing is. Things change, change. You cannot have anything.... And least of all can you have the present, unless you accept with it the past and the future.... You will not achieve or even understand Urras unless you accept the reality, the enduring reality of Anarres. (§11)

And so out of his own balancing, he comes to the realization that his people were right and he is wrong. "We cannot come to you. You will not let us. You do not believe in change, in chance, in evolution. You would destroy us rather than admit our reality, rather than admit that there is hope! We cannot come to you. We can only wait for you to come to us" (§11). The immediate tenor of this allegory is surely that cleavage in our society which for some leaves only pleasure and the sight of the hopeless end, and for others the hope of a yet-to-be new beginning. But I feel this fiction embodies the ambiguity, the terror and the hope which we felt, if we had the strength, in Yeats' "The Second Coming."

I have tried to suggest here two ways Le Guin weds ambiguity and utopian speculation. They come together in her greatest insight, the knowledge and creed, the living principle of all Odonians: the means are and must be the ends. And is it not clear, Adeimantus, that once we have glimpsed that idea we can no longer, like aliens to each other, divide the world into mine and thine, or into knowledge and power? For Odonians, becoming is their being. You can go home again, but only if you know that home is where you have not yet been. The simulsequentialist physics and the ansible are—like the deprived landscape—fictional devices, part of the estrangement-setting that makes the ambiguity a life-force.

The greatest of her SF, TD is certainly no sport among Ursula Le Guin's creations. It is signed with the same moral sententiae, filled with the same compelling allegorical landscapes, uses the same estrangement setting. The common scene suggests a possible continuing purpose. Indeed, if we look back from TD to Rocannon's World, it seems clear that Le Guin is building her own space universe, exploring the crises of her times, preaching the spiritual evolution which alone can save us, as she constructs the history of that universe. Men are moral agents in Le Guin's universe, whether they realize it or not: their actions have consequences. Personal actions create the structure of moral possibility, they matter. Surely the importance of personal actions seem closer to the center in TD than in any of Le Guin's previous SF. What is involved in regarding TD as a terminus ad quem? Is the progression from Rocannon through Genly Ai and Ged to Shevek as real as it seems obvious?

Rocannon's task is to right a wrong, a misuse of knowledge that threatens a world. He is a scientist-spectator moved to action. As the current cover blurb puts it, "Rallying the primitive natives around him, Rocannon sets out to prove that technology was no match for courage and love of freedom." Evil is defined as superior technology without stronger moral purpose, as in our own world. Rocannon's problems are those of the sensitive observer of any imperialistic colonization, But however strongly he moves to redress the balance, Rocannon has no vision of positive alternative possibility-only nostalgic faint hope. He is, in terms of the crucial estrangement-setting, an alien who dies in exile, hero of the good fight.

The Left Hand of Darkness shares with Rocannon's World the excitement of human consciousness facing the dangers of a threatening environment. Beyond that, it shares also the emotional involvement of seeing human, social conflicts replicated in a strange environment. The importance of the terrifying geography may be lost in a book so filled with intrigue and exciting action. For example, if the context were utopian speculation one would expect that the kemmer phenomenon would have a significant effect on social relations. An androgynous society should be one free of "organized social aggression," especially war. The world of Winter-Gethen is free of war as we know it, but not necessarily for that reason:

Did the Ancient Hainish postulate that continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect? ... [The absence of war] may turn out to have nothing to do with their androgyne psychology.... The weather of Winter is so relentless, so near the limit of tolerability ... that perhaps they use up their fighting spirit fighting the cold.... And in the end, the dominant factor in Gethenian life is not sex or any other human thing; it is their environment, their cold world. Here man has a crueler enemy than himself. (§7)

I draw attention to that small, almost hidden note, out of all the social and moral speculation in a complex book, because the physical environment becomes the critical factor in TD. One other note related to Le Guin's developing universe and reappearing in TD seems worth mention. Near the end of their terrifying and absorbing journey across the ice, Estraven wants to know, finally, why the Ekumen sent Ai alone, why the task of conversion is made so difficult. Genly Ai explains:

Alone I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political. Not We and They, not I and It; but I and Thou. Not political, not pragmatic, but mystical. In a certain sense the Ekumen is not a body politic, but a body mystic. It considers beginnings to be extremely important. Beginnings and means. Its doctrine is just the reverse of the doctrine that the end justifies the means.... (§18)

This is the philosophy that makes Shevek run.

Yet like Rocannon, Genly Ai is essentially an outsider. He may be more knowingly involved in the making of a better world, but the story does not offer a compelling vision of a more desirable alternative possibility. Of course it need not. Nor are.utopian fictions necessarily better than science fictions. But a moral allegorist must have a character who chooses and whose choices are central to the tale even if not necessarily. decisive for the world. A spectator, a visitor, is not enough.

Moral choice does fill the center of the so-called "children's fantasy" world of Earthsea. That is also an estrangement-setting, and the working out of its moral allegory could well be seen as the proving ground in the development that brought Le Guin to Shevek, Urras, and Anarres. Seen in that limited and perhaps falsely colored light, Ged's spiritual quests are designed to teach the obligation of knowledge-Roke's magic is but science with another name-- to power. He must learn to govern himself, to know the limits of application of his secret power, lest his learning remain still-born and he never come to exercise his art. And second, he must make the contribution he can—as Archmage or other—to preserve the social fabric, to close the hole in the wall of the world. In writing the Earthsea Trilogy, perhaps the most perfectly finished of all her works, Le Guin learned to focus the ponderables of moral choices in the acts of individuals who are at the center, not merely observers, of other social worlds in which the estrangement-setting provides the frame for moral allegory.

What distinguishes Shevek from the protagonists in her earlier stories is not his humanity, nor simply that he is an actor in his own environment rather than an observer with political intentions. What distinguishes him finally is the world he lives in. On Anarres we have no division of human capacities among differing species or even among contending nations. The qualities of men on Anarres and on Urras are much the same, in spite of the differing customs and costumes. But the means of expression and fulfillment are different, the social forms are different, political institutions are different. Shevek is the product of and embodies the principles of his utopian environment.

The acts of some men on Anarres are power-corrupted, even the acts of men of science. Yet, though power corrupts even in an anarchist society, though the same crippling conflicts arise in its incipient bureaucracy, still the acts themselves are part of the utopian truth of community. It is a community no longer so pure as in the founders' dreams. But Anarres is that special place where work is not for something in exchange, but a human vocation, the social task. Its slogan "to be whole is to be part," may seem no better than the slogan of Zamyatin's fascist United State in We "Nobody is one but one of."

But we can glimpse part of the difference if we rephrase Plato's original utopian question, "What is the best form of organization for a community and how can a person best arrange his life?" to read "What is the ideal social form for releasing human energy and capacity?" Is it not one which involves each person in the making of his own destiny-where the means are the end he seeks, and where the destiny is to find his place among other men and women?

Finally, it is Le Guin's fictional centering on the burden of moral choice that merits the judgement that in TD she "raises science fiction to major humanistic literature," as the quote on the cover-jacket says. Utopian fiction shares the estrangement-setting, its powers and limitations, with science fiction. But their real closeness, generic and sociological, is best seen in the common central theme, the social obligations of the "scientist"-him whose knowledge brings opportunities and dangers. Knowledge has a gift and a moral obligation to power, ambiguous but real, perhaps essential to its survival.

One must go back to Herbert Read's The Green Child or to Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game to find a fiction that so vitally embodies the central paradox of utopian speculation. For "What is the ideal form of the ordered society?" demands more than a simple utilitarian answer. The question also asks "How can the ordered society produce and support 'creative' individuals, beyond the leader?" and it asks, even more profoundly, "What is the relation between beneficent order, freedom and creativity?" Of the more recent popular fictions that set out for utopia or skirt its shores, Walden Two and Island are primarily part of the perennial science-as-progress frontier of utopian speculation, whereas We, 1984 and their spawn are primarily the "power-corrupts" anchor for such speculation. These all reflect a proper concern for the meaning of the means, but none measures how the vision of order presses on the creative and concerned citizen. Whether TD revives the tradition, perhaps never dead, never dying, it does like other great utopian fictions transport us through a country of the mind we detour round only at life's and society's peril. "To be whole is to be part-true voyage is return." Shevek breathes with the hope that a utopian vision need not be alienating.

If these speculations have any validity it should be possible to predict where Le Guin's voyage will take her next. I am struck by her need, the inner logic of the universe she is constructing, to return soon to "first causes." In TD Ambassador Keng suggests what I feel is the next, or a soon to be treated, part of that world. It is the oft mentioned world of the Hainish.

We are here now, dealing as equals with other human societies on other worlds, only because of the charity of the Hainish. They came; they brought us help. They built ships and gave them to us, so we could leave our ruined world. They treat us gently, charitably, as the strong man treats the sick one. They are a very strange people, the Hainish, older than any of us, infinitely generous. They are altruists. They are moved by a guilt we don't even understand, despite all our crimes. They are moved in all they do, I think, by the past, their endless past. (§11)

I feel Le Guin must go back to explore that Hainish guilt and past, and I hope she does. If she does, the book will surely begin with a lyric evocation of the theme, as in TD:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on. (§1)



Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopian tale The Dispossessed (TD) does not merely pose another blueprint for an anarchist commune in the SF skies—an escape from sour democracies or immanent fascist tyrannies on Earth. Subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, this spiritual autobiography and utopian quest of the brilliant physicist Shevek explores the difficulties besetting the idea of an anarchist-socialist utopia. Further, like Plato and More, Le Guin also measures how the utopian vision presses a social responsibility and alienation on the "knower." I propose to consider two senses in which the TD world of Annares may be read: first, the place is only ambiguously good, and second, ambiguity is implicit in its organizing principle. The dominant life style is not permanently set but permits, indeed demands, personal choices to meet inevitable social and environmental changes. Though obviously linked with Le Guin’s earlier SF and wizard stories, TD is a moral allegory that should be read in the context of other contemporary utopian tales. It is a worthy contribution to the debate about the responsibility of knowledge (both of the visionary and the scientist) in a planned society.

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