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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Robert Shea on 'The Dispossessed'

Robert Shea

After author Ursula K. Le Guin died on Jan. 22, Reason magazine published an article by Victoria Varga on the debate that raged for years in the Libertarian Futurist Society over whether to give a Hall of Fame Award to her novel The Dispossessed. It finally received the award in 1993. The article mentioned that one of the LFS members arguing in favor of the book was author Robert Shea. I asked Varga if I could see Shea's article about the book, and she generously mailed me the newsletter it was published in, The Prometheus, along with other issues that showed me what Shea's piece was referring to. Here is Shea's piece, from the Fall 1987 issue. Illuminatus! also won the LFS' Hall of Fame award, in 1986, in a tie with The Syndic by Cyril Kornbluth. As far as I know, the Hall of Fame is the only literary award Illuminatus! ever received. -- The Management. 

Again, The Dispossessed

By Robert Shea

After reading the two commentaries on Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed in the Summer 1987 Prometheus, I had to offer my opinion. I was happy to vote for The Dispossessed for the Hall of Fame award this year. I think Le Guin does a remarkably good job of portraying a real live anarchist society.

The objections I've seen to this novel as libertarian science fiction seem to come from people I would call right-wing anarchists -- I can think of no more efficient way to describe them -- who believe that freedom is impossible without private property. If Le Guin had portrayed everything as hunky-dory in her anarcho-collectivist society their criticisms would be easier to understand, although The Dispossessed would in that case be a small, flat, banal, propagandistic book. But Le Guin's novel is primarily about the things that have gone wrong in this society.

The Odonians, banished to a world where everything is scarce, have managed to create a society that is, in many ways, quite attractive. It is non-violent, nonhierarchical, ascetic, sexually free. But in the generations since it was established, it has ossified. Shevek begins a rebellion against this ossification.

Annares has oppressive institutions, but not because Le Guin fails to understand the nature of freedom. She understands freedom quite well. The Annaresti, in their struggle to survive on an inhospitable planet, came up with solutions that later led to more problems. Le Guin knows that the business of any revolution -- perhaps especially an anarchist revolution -- is never finished.

Other sf novels advocating anarchism often show the society's problems as stemming from internal subversives. Everything would be just peachy were it ot for the small group of evil people who want to bring back the state. Odonian problems stem from their society itself, which makes for a far more subtle and profound thought experiment.

Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which deservedly won LFS's Hall of Fame award, describes an anarchist society on the Moon which many libertarians find attractive. But his more recent The Cat Who Walked Through Walls returns a few generations later to find it, like Le Guin's Odonian society, plagued by creeping archism. This does not mean Heinlein's view of freedom is flawed. Like Le Guin, he knows that freedom is never won once and for all and there is no perfect blueprint for a free society.

George Orwell pointed out in an essay on Gandhi that in an anarcho-pacifist society people would be subjected to the most pervasive tyranny of all, the unlimited power of collective opinion. 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 due, Le Guin has done.

The Dispossessed is a cautionary tale for anarchists. The people who hate it remind me of those who want Huckleberry Finn taken off bookshelves because they see it as a sympathetic portrait of a slaveholding society. Because Le Guin shows that life on Annares has its positive side, people who want their fiction to have a simple good vs. evil message are offended.

Le Guin is too fine a writer to appeal to people who insist on taking their propaganda straight. But that's why The Dispossessed deserves a place in LFS' Hall of Fame.

Robert Shea co-authored the Iluminatus! trilogy with Robert Anton Wilson.

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