In 1872, Dostoyevsky published his most intensely political novel, a work
long known in English as
The Possessed (although more recently dubbed
The Devils or Demons).  A century later, Ursula K. Le Guin unleashed her
own political novel, embedded in a sci-fi framework,
The Dispossessed.
The Russian novel looks at the ruminations and actions of conspirators
hoping to topple oppressive political structures and create a quasi-anarchic
utopian state.  Its science fiction successor can be read as a clinical analysis
of what happens when that kind of utopia is actually realized in practice.

But the similarities between the two books end
there. Doestoevsky's characters are passionate,
brooding, intense and extravagant in their response
to situations and adversaries. Their heirs, who
inhabit Le Guin’s anarchic moon Anarres are
rational, cooperative and tolerant.  She could just
have easily entitled her novel
The Dispassionate.  

The settlers of Anarres, the moon of the planet Urras,
established their non-coercive anarchic society two
centuries before the events described in
. No centralized government authority
exists, nor do political parties strive for control, or
aim to change the ground rules of this utopian society.
Meanwhile on the nearby home planet Urras, two
contesting political models battle for supremacy—one
based on capitalism, the other built on authoritarian institutions that claim
their power is an expression of the will of the proletariat. Le Guin is clearly
modeling her world on Cold War political structures, even to the point of
including a Vietnam-type flareup in Benbili, her equivalent of Southeast Asia.

In most sci-fi novels, political ideologies are typically dealt with as excuses
for individual or national conflicts, preferably with ultra-high-tech weaponry
and faster-than-light spaceships. The nitty gritty details of how political
institutions evolve and interact with other social phenomena are rarely
addressed in genre books.  Even the dystopian novels, so central to the
sci-fi tradition, typically treat the evil authoritarian governments as a
given, requiring no elaborate explanations of how or why they exist. Nor
do readers need much convincing on this front.  Who doubts, based on
even the most meager reading of history if not the daily news, that
governments sometimes take on totalitarian tendencies, and their
leaders implement evil policies?

See also
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

But Le Guin faces a much more complicated challenge in writing her novel.  
If the jaded readers of a modern day find dystopia familiar and credible,
they bristle at attempts to depict a realistic utopia. Le Guin anticipated
this skepticism, and hedged her position accordingly.  Her novel has
sometimes been published with the subtitle "an ambiguous utopia," and
in other settings she has described the political structure described in
her work as "a utopia of sorts."  In the course of the novel, she discloses
tension lines and failings in her ideal society—no doubt realizing that
simplistic utopian fiction will strike many readers as a naïve fairy tale.  

The ruling philosophy of Anarres, embraced by all, is
Odonianism. Le Guin
later described its guiding principles in the following terms:

"Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is
terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with; not the social-
Darwinist economic 'libertarianism' of the far right; but anarchism, as
prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and
Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism's principal target is
the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical
theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic,
and to me the most interesting, of all political theories."

But if cooperation makes for a superior society, it provides a feeble
framework for fiction, which thrives on conflict.  Le Guin addresses
this by removing her hero, the physicist Shevek, from her cooperative
Garden of Eden into the Earth-like world of Urras, where he hopes to
further his research. This contact between representatives of opposing
worldviews also sets off discord back in Paradise. Residents of Anarres
are fearful of the impact of increasing contact with outsiders, and
Shevek's research into advanced methods of trans-world communication
is especially troubling because it threatens to disturb the equilibrium of
their peaceful, isolated society.  

Shevek's observations as an outsider in a culture much like our own, as
well as his experiences as a quasi-dissident in quasi-Utopia, provide
Le Guin with a promising platform for social commentary. But the
phlegmatic personality of her protagonist limits her at every step.  With
a different main character,
The Dispossessed might have been a comic
novel or social satire. But Shevek is, as one critic has complained, a
"humorless bore." And his fellow citizens back on Anarres are much the
same. We must give them credit for volunteerism and generosity, but they
also combine smugness and groupthink to an unsettling degree. If this
were a reality show instead of a sci-fi novel, the contestants from Anarres
would be the first ones voted off the island.   

But are Shevek and his ambiguously utopian society even vaguely
plausible?  A host of political scientists, from Hobbes to Nozick,
have shown the inherent instability of anarchy as a political system.
Empirical data confirms their findings. Perhaps the closest equivalent
to anarchy in the historical annals is the ‘Wild West’ towns in the period
before these terrorities became US states.  But even in those settings,
a sheriff presided over the town, and if he died or left, another one was
soon found. Nature abhors a vaccuum, and society abhors a power
vacuum. I doubt that a peaceful society of any sizable population could
exist without government for 200 days, let alone the 200 years Le Guin

Le Guin, to her credit, tries to find a way around these objections. She
draws on the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, which postulates that linguistic
practices can shape behavior. She can thus claim that the citizens of
Anarres are no less realistic even if they act in ways unsubstantiated by
our political theories and empirical data. Their language and education,
and other social factors, have given them options closed to us, as well
as allowed them to avoid our humanly foibles.

I am unconvinced. To my mind, Le Guin has tried to rewrite political
science from the perspective of a hippie commune, circa 1967.  She
has cleaned the place up, put away the tie-dyed shirts and pot brownies,
and shifted the setting to outer space; but the summer-of-love ambiance
is unmistakable. Yet even if I remain a skeptic while gazing at her
ambiguous utopia, I still applaud her forthright novel. This book won't
provide any blueprints for a future society—heaven help us if it did!—but
it will continue to provoke hard thinking, and probably some heated
arguments. I'd love to assign this book to a group of smart political
science grad students, and watch them bicker over the implications.
Those peaceful folks in Anarres would certainly not approve, but—as
Le Guin makes unambiguously clear—they don’t really care what we
think anyway.

Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His next book, Love
Songs: The Hidden History
is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: June 30, 2014
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
To purchase, click on image
The Dispossessed

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Essay by Ted Gioia
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

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A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

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Fahrenheit 451

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The Illustrated Man

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The Martian Chronicles

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Something Wicked This Way Comes

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The View from the Seventh Layer

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The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

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A Clockwork Orange

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Ender's Game

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The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

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The Yiddish Policemen's Union

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Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

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Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
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Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

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The End of the Affair

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The Magicians

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The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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