Science Fiction: Journey to Utopia


Utopian science fiction has rarely had much success in this or any other country. And the reasons aren't hard to find if one reads a few such attempts at utopian visions. Novels about "perfect" societies just don't seem to make for good literature. Not only is there no room for moral conflict, but the visions of "perfection" tend to be painfully naive. So ingrained is the tradition that a utopia can be nothing but a travelogue wherein a tourist-hero is inexplicably inspired to rapture by boring descriptions of vacuous "happiness," that many have concluded true utopian literature is an impossibility.

A lot of minds may be changed, however, by a single novel published a few months ago. That novel is The Dispossessed, and its author is Ursula K. LeGuin. LeGuin was perhaps the most brilliant new science fiction writer to emerge during the 1960's. She has already won two Hugo awards, for The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and "The Word for World is Forest" (1972).

The daughter of world-famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber (An Anthropologist Looks at History) and Theodora Kroeber (Ishi, Last of His Tribe), LeGuin has a grounding in the social sciences that is comparatively rare in the genre. She also has distinguished literary credentials, having studied literature at both Radcliffe College and the University of California, Berkeley. Only last year, she won the National Book Award for her fantasy novel, The Farthest Shore. Her science fiction career began in 1962, with a short story called "April in Paris." But she soon began concentrating on longer works, which gradually revealed themselves to be parts of a consistent future history in the tradition of those of Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson and others.

In LeGuin's imagined universe, not only Earth but other Earthlike planets within a few hundred light years were colonized millennia ago from a single mother world called Hain. Their inhabitants therefore derive from a common human stock—but environmental differences have caused wide divergences. In The Left Hand of Darkness, for example, the natives of Gethen (Winter) derive from an ancient Hainish experiment in androgyny. The Athsheans of "The Word for World is Forest" live in a mystical as well as biological symbiosis with their global forest. Eltanin's natives have adapted to a seasonal cycle that lasts 60 of our years, while those on Rokanan have split into several independent species.

Historical events tend to be part of the background of human drama. Through hints we learn that in our near future of interstellar communication, there is founded a League of All Worlds ("The Word for World is Forest")—an attempt at strong central government made possible by the instantaneous message transmitter, or ansible. The League collapses within a few centuries—both from discontent with its authoritarian tendencies and an invasion by a mysterious alien race, the Shing (Rocannon's World, 1966). League planets, whether Eltanin (Planet of Exile, 1966) or Earth itself (City of Illusions, 1967) are left in isolation during a new Dark Age. Finally, the rediscovery of the ansible and the resumption of interstellar travel leads to creation of the Ekumen,  an experiment in voluntary association among worlds that seeks to promote unity while preserving diversity (The Left Hand of Darkness).

The Dispossessed is set in a period earlier than those of any of LeGuin's other novels—before the League of All Worlds, before the ansible. But like the others, it contributes to our understanding of the whole.

Urras and Anarres are twin planets circling Tau Ceti. Urras is a world much like our own—one of the original Hainish colonies. Anarres is not. A bleak, largely desert world, it apparently wasn't considered fit for settlement by Hain. But for the past 200 years, as The Dispossessed opens, Anarres has been the home of more than a million communal anarchists who chose exile from the home planet rather than continue to live under what they considered corrupt and oppressive governments.

Inspired by the Urrasti revolutionary thinker Odo—a sort of Cetian counterpart to Kropotkin—the Anarresti have created a society built around their own invented language, ethics and philosophy. All contact with the mother planet, save the most essential trade, has been barred. Among the Anarresti, voluntary syndicates take the place of both government and private industry. "Initiative" substitutes for the profit motive, and the "mutual aid" principle—carefully distinguished from both egoism and altruism—substitutes for commerce.

Such a capsule description implies a sentimentalized utopia—especially to capitalistic libertarians who don't share LeGuin's communalist bias. But this is not the case: Anarres is a realistic world, as realistic as any created by Anderson, or Hal Clement or (in her previous novels) LeGuin herself. LeGuin's Anarresti are a hard-working, surprisingly individualistic lot. Diversity is tolerated, and even encouraged—homosexuality and heterosexuality, "free love" and permanent partnership exist side by side–and each man or woman is free to choose his or her life's path while also taking part in the common labor. The planetary struggle against the harsh environment of Anarres makes life itself a drama, full of both triumph and tragedy. And Anarres is no static society—the spirit of freedom and adventure is in constant confrontation with that of conservatism and conformity.

Shevek, the protagonist of the novel, is a brilliant physicist who fears conservatism and complacency are growing too strong on his world. Author of a unified theory of time that tries to reconcile sequency and simultaneity, he has no peers on Anarres—his work is ignored and he is isolated. Determined to end both his own isolation and that of his world, Shevek opens communications with physicists on mother planet Urras—and even founds his own syndicate to promote initiative and communication. Conservative Anarresti are outraged—but when he decides to actually visit the mother planet, he is considered a virtual traitor.

Alternate chapters tell of Shevek's life on Anarres—his struggle with conservative syndicates to assert his ideas, his love for the biologist Takhver and their long separation (and later joyful reunion) when a world-wide drought forces them to take separate postings in the life-or-death battle for their world—and of what befalls him on his mission to Urras. Leguin's Anarres chapters are totally convincing—both her world and her characters, in their common humanity and individual eccentricities, compel belief.

Urras—which one might think a more "realistic" world—is in fact less so. LeGuin appears to be too self-conscious in making it a dramatic contrast to her utopian world, and in making too-obviously "relevant" parallels to our own. Although the Urrasti have long-since solved their population and environmental problems—perhaps LeGuin feels she has played those themes too strongly in other recent works that refer to the environmental collapse of Earth in the near future—their culture otherwise seems to rest too much on arbitrary, yet predictable surface virtues and hidden vices.

A-lo, the nation that has invited Shevek, is a state-capitalist society obviously intended to parallel the United States. Thul is the stronghold of State Communism, and the two major powers still fight proxy wars in backward countries like Benbili—although they have been partners in a Council of World Governments for a century. Urrasti live a life of seeming grace and luxury that impresses Shevek at first—but he learns that even the most enlightened physicists are patriotic militarists and share the mid-Victorian class and sex prejudices common to Urras (or at least A-lo). For some reason, neither an Oppenheimer nor a Sakharov is to be found.

LeGuin forces Shevek into a rather mechanical climax in which he becomes caught up in an abortive revolution and must seek refuge in the Hainish embassy. Meanwhile, he has completed his theoretical work, which will make the ansible possible—and the Hainish agree to broadcast the knowledge to all worlds. Shevek returns to Anarres "with empty hands," his mission seemingly a failure. But perhaps not: for both the ansible and the philosophy of the Anarresti, it seems, will one day create the foundations for the Ekumen.

The Dispossessed isn't a perfect novel—the cliche evils of Urras tend to weaken its overall impact compared with that of The Left Hand of Darkness. But it is still a fascinating work—fascinating because its convincing utopian vision is almost unprecedented in science fiction or anywhere else.

John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.