As usual, I’m a month or so behind the Mythgard Academy. Had I been present at the sessions, or had I an ansible that could reach back in time with a text message, these are the things I would have said about The Dispossessed. No overarching theme, just three disconnected observations.
The Physicist at Work
This book has the best descriptions I’ve read of a theoretical physicist at work. I searched the Web for biographies of Ursula LeGuin to find out if she had any physicists in her family — no. She did this all with imagination, and it’s spectacular. I recognized myself in almost every line of those scenes. Usually, works of fiction that deal with a subject I know about in real life are excruciating. The only fictional scientists I can handle are the humorous ones: Dr. Zarkov from Flash Gordon; Chris Knight (Val Kilmer) from Real Genius (I know what you’re thinking, no, Laszlo was my college roommate). But Shevek’s struggles with his work, and how it affects his relationships with other people, ring true.
Also, the way LeGuin describes Shevek’s original insight isn’t wrong. There’s nothing there that’s obviously insane; were relativity one day to be falsified, the explanation might well sound like that. Only exception is the paragraph that talks about “the interval” as the key insight. Replacing the absolute position of objects in time and space with intervals as the fundamental description of a system is, in fact, the heart of special relativity. But by that point I was too smitten to care.
I found myself yelling at my iPod whenever Corey referred to Annares as a communist society. Anarres is anarchist (see it in the name?); Thu is the communist society. The people of Anarres refer to citizens of less-evolved societies as “archists”, a collective term for capitalists and communists. (If you want to hear more about anarchism, here you go. It’s all Real Genius, all the time, here at Idiosophy.) Anarres draws heavily from Marxism, but Communism was not much like what Marx had in mind.
Putting myself back in the mindset of the early 1970s, the Cold War is all over this book. It’s all happening on Urras, though. There weren’t any neutral observers to the Cold War, because nobody could be far enough from the bombs to be safe. LeGuin is showing us what the USA (which I can hear inside “Nio Esseia”) would have looked like, if anyone could be neutral.
Vea, Siegfried, and Roy
Corey did a good job getting through the uncomfortable politics of Vea. All through that disquisition, I found myself thinking of Siegfried and Roy. Vea is in the same line of work as they: There’s an awesomely powerful force around, and by making a public show of dominating it, you gain wealth and status. In Urras, that force is the patriarchy.
Vea didn’t passively accept dominance, she figured out how to manipulate it and turn it to her own ends. Because she was so good at it, she became wealthy, popular, and influential. However, when you’re playing that game, you have to be perfect. One mistake, and it all blows up in your face. When Roy Horn got bitten by a tiger, his career was over. He was lucky to escape with his life and his fortune mostly intact. Vea got off easy, by comparison, with just a dry-cleaning bill and (one presumes) a case of the shakes in her room after all the guests had gone.
Update: Brad DeLong, to whom I have referred readers before, was posting a discussion of “communism and related issues” on his blog as I typed this. The Dispossessed features prominently. As does an interesting discussion of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” which TIL comes from the Acts of the Apostles.