The Dispossessed

An Ambiguous Utopia

A planet named Urras is host to a habitable moon known as Anarres. Some seven generations ago, a group of anarchist settlers left Urras to build a colony on the moon, after which communication between the colonists and the planet all but ceased. The novel begins as one of the colonists, a young physicist, is about to return to the planet—the first colonist to do so. In the ideological battle that follows, Le Guin unequivocally favors the settlers, but not without also leaving them open to criticism. The book’s subtitle refers to it as “an ambiguous utopia”—but of course, all utopias are ambiguous.

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Reading notes

All prose is fiction

Here’s Le Guin, responding to criticism of The Dispossessed:

So The Dispossessed, a science-fiction novel not only concerned with politics, society, and ethics but approaching them via a definite political theory, has given me a lot of grief. It is generally, not always but often, been discussed as a treatise, not as a novel. This is its own damn fault, of course—what did it expect, announcing itself as a utopia, even if an ambiguous one? Everybody knows utopias are to be read not as novels but as blueprints for social theory or practice.

But the fact is that, starting with Plato’s Republic in Philosophy 1-A when I was seventeen, I read utopias as novels. Actually, I still read everything as novels, including history, memoir, and the newspaper. I think Borges is quite correct, all prose is fiction. So when I came to write a utopia of course I wrote a novel.

I wasn’t surprised that it was treated as a treatise, but I wondered if the people who read it as a treatise ever wondered why I had written it as a novel. Were they as indifferent as they seemed to be to what made it a novel—the inherent self-contradictions of novelistic narrative that prevent simplistic, single-theme interpretation, the novelistic “thickness of description” (Geertz’s term) that resists reduction to abstracts and binaries, the embodiment of ethical dilemma in a drama of character that evades allegorical interpretation, the presence of symbolic elements that are not fully accessible to rational thought?

Le Guin, Words Are My Matter, page 22

It occurs to me that to read everything, including the news, like a novel—to be cognizant and accepting of discontinuities and conflicts, of multiple interpretations, of symbol that sits alongside more objective truths—is maybe the skill we most need to employ in navigating the world of news today, when there is so much news, and so few ways of making it all cohere.