Saturday, June 25, 2022

Utopias and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed

The point of dystopian science fiction is usually to take some aspect of our present society and exaggerate it to produce a terrifying but recognizable world. What if the government put extreme limits on free speech? What if we forced fertile women to give birth? What if advertising and consumerism got really out of control? It’s a tool for critiquing society, but tends to produce criticism in the form of warnings of slippery slopes. There’s an implicit acceptance of the status quo, except for this one part of it that society needs to be concerned about. Because of this, dystopian fiction stories often lack a solution to the problems in society they have identified, other than simply “don’t do the bad thing.”

Utopias start from the exact opposite premise, critiquing our current world by leaving it unchanged, foiling it against a better world. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel, The Dispossessed, we follow a physicist, Shevek, as he grows disillusioned with his isolated anarchist society. Over the seven generations since its founding, shadowy bureaucratic hurdles and fears of trespassing ingrained social norms have produced a static, sick society that no longer upholds the radical individualistic and free-choice ideals on which it was founded. To pursue his scientific work, he turns traitor to his society, and visits the liberal, capitalist planet. Through his eyes, we explore a world virtually indistinguishable from our own. Elegant and highly educated people enjoy sumptuous cocktail parties, wear fur coats that cost two years of minimum wage salary, eat chocolate that comes wrapped in far too many layers of paper, and rarely have to encounter the miserable working poor. Escaping from the clutches of his well-spoken, well-shod captors, Shevek finds working class revolutionaries and becomes a figurehead for a mass strike — one brutally repressed by the liberal government's military. The violence the government exacts on its own people, the gender and class inequality he sees, and the way money and property distort all relationships lead him to view his own society in a more positive light. He broadcasts his research findings to all civilizations in the universe so as to prevent the capitalist society using it for profit or for colonization. He then returns to his home planet as a proud anarchist, fortified with the knowledge that revolution is hard, and has no end, but is ultimately worth it.

Because utopian fiction critiques our current world undistorted and through comparison with a hopeful alternative, it lends itself well to revolutionary fiction. In What Is To Be Done?, an 1863 utopian novel that inspired many within the Russian Revolution, Chernychevsky writes:

A person who’s never seen anything except hovels would look at a picture of an ordinary house and mistake it for a luxurious palace. How can one ensure that such a person should perceive the house as a house and not a palace? In the same picture one must depict at least one corner of a palace. From this corner it will be clear that a palace is really a structure of a completely different sort than the one in the picture, and the observer will realize that the building is really nothing more than a simple, ordinary house in which all people should live (if not in better ones).
The reader of The Dispossessed is presented with a palace of a sorts, if a flawed one, in which resources are shared equally with everyone within a community, where people view each other as a brotherhood, where there is complete gender equality and no shame in sex. Shevek, in a sense, goes through the reverse journey, discovering the hovels so that he can see the promise of the palace. Le Guin’s world-building is thoughtful and deep, exploring how everything from language to education to “who does the dirty work” might be different, better, in an anarchist society. 

While dystopian movies and novels have been staples of the box office and bestseller lists, utopian fiction is rarer. Dystopian stories are lauded as smart political commentary, while utopias are impractical, unserious. Indeed, Margaret Atwood, author of the dystopian “what if we forced fertile women to give birth?” story, prides herself on not imagining anything new or better at all: “One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened in (...) history” (Foreword to The Handmaid’s Tale, 2017). The Dispossessed at the very least demonstrates that utopian stories can be Serious Literature. Utopian fiction being rare and dismissed isn’t unique to our current era. Chernychevsky accused those dismissing utopian fiction as suffering from sour grapes:

And as for the fact that [the idyll] is no longer fashionable, and therefore people spurn it, that’s no real objection at all. They shun the idyll as the fox in the fable spurned the grapes. They think it inaccessible; consequently they conclude, ‘Let it no longer be fashionable.’ But it’s pure nonsense that the idyll is inaccessible. 

— What is to be Done? (1863)

Chernychevky’s writing was crafted to get through Tsarist censorship, so some of his more ambitious designs for a better world are cloaked in metaphors and codewords difficult to follow a century and a half later without an annotated edition (the Michael Katz translation is good). The difficulty in producing utopian fiction today is perhaps no less fraught. Those with decision power over producing big-budget movies might find more appeal in stories like “our world, but what if the government put draconian limits on free speech” than “our world, but without money or property.” Regardless of issues on the "supply" side, is there demand for utopian fiction, or is it too unfashionable?

Chernychevsky was writing shortly after the abolishment of the serf system in Russia. The era in which Le Guin was writing was shaped by the Cold War, protests against the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights Movement.  Our present era, marked by pandemics and wars and increasingly evident climate change, seems similarly unstable, perilous. How can we work towards a better society if we don’t first imagine what that could be?  I wonder if we might therefore be ready for a change in fashion, a rediscovery of utopian fiction. I am, at least.

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