I’ve decided I’m just crazy enough to try to read every book that’s ever won the Hugo Award for Best Novel…and, of course, that I want to share this insane experience with all of you. This week we explore the dual planets of Urras and Anarres in Ursula K Le Guin’s second Hugo-winner. Sixty-odd posts of science fiction, speculation and social justice continue!
Ursula K Le Guin
published in 1974
The twin worlds of Urras and Anarres could not be more different – one, a fertile planet teeming with life, dominated by the capitalist nation A-Io; the other, a desert world on which a society of anarchists scrape out their existence in seeming harmony. Each planet looms large in the skies of the other, but there has been virtually no communication between the two in centuries. Until a frustrated temporal physicist from Anarres crosses boundaries of space and ideology in his quest for a grand temporal theory, and maybe – just maybe – a real utopia…
Warning! Mild spoilers ahead!
Another stealth novel from Le Guin. I wish I hadn’t gotten so behind on my reading – I’d like some more time to let the ideas integrate into my brain before writing this review. As it is, I’ve mostly got a lot of “Hey! I remember that from Religion 202/Modern European History/etc!” – the detritus of a liberal arts education. Anyway, I’ll do the best I can.
I love the unofficial subtitle of the book: An Ambiguous Utopia. It’s so full of meaning, both obvious – both Urras and Anarres are viewed as utopias by some – and less obvious. One of the central themes of the book, and the sentiment underlying it, is tension. Tension between Urras and Anarres, tension between the individual and the state, tension between freedom and safety, tension between our ideals and our reality. If we take ambiguous to mean not “unclear” (the common usage these days) but “having double meaning,” (ambi- technically meaning both; think of ambidexterous or ambivalent – another good word for this book…) it’s even more appropriate.
Is utopia even attainable? Anarres is, at first, presented as an utopia, if a bit of a bleak one, but is later revealed not to be so. The anarchists have fallen into stability, building a government without realizing that they did so. Is this kind of accumulation of organization inevitable? Is it antithetical to utopia? Anarres is supposed to be a society of constant revolution, but revolution is uncomfortable. How many would choose constant change over some semblance of stability? Would they be wrong to choose otherwise?
As you might have guessed, this book has left me with many questions and no answers. I am caught in the ambiguous, ambivalent – in the sense of being unable to choose among, rather than not caring enough to choose among – to the options presented to me.
Freedom and safety are, in their purest forms, opposites. The contract between the individual and the state is the attempt to balance the two – the sacrifice of some personal freedoms in exchange for the promise of some safeties. Shevek and his fellow anarchists look for ultimate freedom, but is the choice of safety so wrong? Walls can be limiting and dangerous; but they can be good things, too. Most people crave boundaries, operate best within them. And boundaries can be fountains of creativity – necessity being, after all, the mother of invention.
Let’s throw some physics at the problem, shall we? I love Le Guin’s incorporation of Shevek as a physicist, a seeker of truth and freedom of ideas, and his work, attempting to reconcile both a sequential and a simultaneous view of time. In the end he decides he must accept both, contradictory though they may seem – just as acceptance of both the wave and particle models of light was necessary for the development of quantum mechanics.
(Wheee! Physics! Ahem.)
Part of quantum mechanics is accepting the fact that we can’t know everything – we obtain certain information about a particle by sacrificing other information. Whatever “picture” we may get is only a small part of the reality. Perhaps this is true of Shevek’s Grand Temporal Theorem; perhaps it is true of utopia. By attempting to attain one aspect of it, we sacrifice the others.
That’s about as profound as I’m going to get for today. The book is still steeping, so to speak, so let’s move on to the privilege review:
Race: In Le Guin’s usual way, not a lot of mention is made of skin color; usual descriptors are “brown,” “yellow-brown,” “pale,” etc. There is some indication that the people of Urras and Anarres have lighter skin than the human average.
Gender/Sexuality: Men and women are equal on Anarres; traditional patriarchy reigns on Urras. In Anarrean society, partnerships (hetero- or homosexual) last as long as both partners want them to. Most individuals have sexual experiences with both* genders while young, in doing so discovering where their preferences lie. Sex is considered a private matter, in that it would be rude to flaunt a partnership in front of those who are lonely, but not stigmatized in any way. There does not seem to be any consideration of genders other than cis male and cis female.
Other: Nothing that I noticed?
OVERALL RANKING: 9 out of 10 (rankings subject to change as my sample size increases).
The Hugo Project will continue next week with Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War!