Science Fiction

R.I.P. Ursula K. Le Guin, Author of One of the Greatest Novels About Freedom Ever Written

How libertarians learned to stop worrying and love The Dispossessed


Harper & Row

One of the most important purposes of science fiction, fantasy, and other imaginative fiction is to examine what is possible for human societies. Ursula K. Le Guin, who died this week at 88, not only wrote beautifully, but she took her duty to the imagination very seriously. When Le Guin entered the field, novels that imagined statelessness as anything other than bloody chaos were few and far between—it was Heinlein or bust. Le Guin's psychologically complex characters and gorgeous depictions of social and political dynamics influenced many science fiction writers, from Salman Rushdie to Margaret Atwood. Libertarians have another reason to love her.

In one of her most famous novels, 1974's The Dispossessed, a solar system contains two habitable bodies. On the larger planet, Urras, is a state capitalist society. On its smaller moon, Anarres, is a communalist anarchist society made up of the great-grandchildren of revolutionaries from the home planet. Le Guin examines both societies through the eyes of an anarchist physicist named Shevek.

The book was beautiful, brilliant, and personally liberating—I encountered it when it was published in 1974, right around the same time I became involved with libertarianism—and so in 1983 I nominated it for the Libertarian Futurist Society's Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, a prize that honors libertarian-themed fiction. Never in the ongoing history of that award has there been such a battle.

Many members of the Libertarian Futurist Society were up at arms. People threatened to quit the group if the book won. Although everyone admired the book as literature, the fact that the society on Anarres was communalist made the book suspect. It was called "socialist propaganda," and it was deemed not at all what we were supposed to be advocating. "Give it the Lenin Prize instead," said one member. Other members, some of them past winners of the award, defended the novel with passion and grace. We nominated it year after year. Le Guin herself got involved a little, thanking us for the nominations but telling me in a private letter that she expected a blue moon and pigs to fly before she would expect to win. I didn't know what a blue moon was at the time, and I didn't know that they sometimes occur.

In the Libertarian Futurist Society's newsletter, which I edited, I replied to the membership: "It should be repeated, a million times if necessary, that the essence of libertarianism…must be freedom of choice. Although most libertarians may believe that the best society is technologically advanced, economically laissez-faire, with private property cemented into the cornerstone of every community, other free people might choose communalism, back-to-the-bushes hermitism, or any of a thousand cultures, religions, or eccentricities possible to humanity and still remain within a libertarian framework, as long as those societies eschew the initiation of violence and respect the right of others to choose their own way of life." But the dissenting libertarians were not so easily convinced.

From 1983 on, we argued back and forth every time one of us nominated the book. The arguments were good ones on both sides. Socialist countries generally do devolve into fascist and repressive societies, held together with the bindings of terror. And they don't take 400 years to do so. What made Anarres different was that it was self-isolated, small, and committed to nonviolence and personal freedom. This isolation, Le Guin admitted later, might be one of the few ways that such a society could endure. Even then, she shows that the Anarresti were becoming ossified. Although individual behaviors were tolerated in many ways (one man hoarded blankets and broken equipment like a throwback "propertarian"), the society used censure and guilt to control its citizens. In his defense of The Dispossessed, novelist Robert Shea said: "Orwell, who created the archetype of tyrannies that rule by force and fraud, might have given us a novel about tyranny by guilt and shame had he developed his insight. What Orwell did not do, Le Guin has done."

If some members of the group hated that a communal society survived for 400 years and actually had some very positive aspects (no prisons, no jails, no laws to break), they hated even more the depiction of Urras. One member said that "Le Guin tried to paint Urras in the worst possible light." She didn't. Samuel E. Konkin III answered: "Doesn't [Urras] deliberately represent the capitalist United States of America? You bet. Now you tell me: If Murray Rothbard had half of the fictive talent of Ursula Le Guin (and he claims none), how different would his portrayal of Imperial America be in 1972."

And so the arguments ran, until 1993, when The Dispossessed was finally admitted into the Hall of Fame. I don't remember anyone jumping from the Libertarian Futurist Society's ship. Perhaps we just wore the opposition down. Perhaps they re-read the book in light of our arguments. Perhaps there was a blue moon that year. But no pigs flew—I would have heard about that.