The Dispossessed

February 2, 2013

Freedom is rarely something you simply have or lose. More often, the prices of some freedoms are others.

The Dispossessed is a sci-fi novel of dualities, and as such it opens appropriately with a meditation on a spaceport wall:

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.

Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the Port of Anarres…. The wall shut in not only the landing field but also the ships that came down out of space, and the men that came on the ships, and the worlds they came from, and the rest of the universe. It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.

Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.

This is the double-nature of walls: a wall meant to keep something out also keeps us in, if not literally then at least in our imagination. For example, we build prison walls to keep some people locked up, but while any of us could cross that wall to pay a visit, most of us would be afraid to. By building a physical wall to keep the bad in, we construct a mental wall keeping ourselves, our thoughts, and our empathy out, to the collective detriment of all. Shevek puts this more elegantly later on in the book when he says, “those who build walls are their own prisoners.” The most interesting thing about The Dispossessed is the way Le Guin extends this double-nature of walls to our idea of freedom itself.

But first, some background: Anarres and Urras are two planets completely opposed in disposition. The latter, the seat of an advanced capitalist empire full of cosmopolitan disdain. The former, an independent anarcho-syndicalist colony that broke off from Urras and traded material abundance for absolute freedom. Charmingly, each considers the other its moon. Anarres, where most of the novel takes place, is a strange blend of socialism and libertarianism. All are free to do as they like (within the bounds of social acceptance), but there is no private property. Indeed, private property illustrates this duality perfectly, since my freedom to own something is in direct conflict with everyone else’s freedom to use it.

The two planets illustrate the duality of freedom in their own way. Anarres, having broken off from Urras, won its freedom in revolutionary fashion, but the price of that political freedom, of forging its own destiny on a less resource-rich planet, is perpetual poverty and technological dependence on Urras. And this material scarcity has a way of impinging on that hard-won political freedom. At one point, Shevek wants to print his magnum opus and is told that there simply isn’t enough paper. Necessity can intrude upon liberty. All my have a right to speak, but that doesn’t mean all can afford a megaphone or printing press. Urras by contrast is blessed with material abundance, but this too comes with a price:

[Shevek] had often seen that anxiety before in the faces of Urrasti, and wondered about it. Was it because, no matter how much money they had, they always had to worry about making more, lest they die poor? Was it guilt, because no matter how little money they had, there was always somebody who had less?

While there are certainly situations and regimes which allow for more or less freedom, we shouldn’t let this seduce us into seeing freedom as a simple quantity. In many cases, an increase along one axis of freedom comes with a corresponding decrease along another axis. We might trade some economic freedom for political freedom, or freedom from guilt for material wealth. Love, too, is like this. Shevek’s falling in love with his partner, Takver, is described beautifully as “becoming experts in each other.” But even as he exercises the freedom to love whom he chooses, he loses, eagerly, a degree of emotional independence.

By way of closing, another theme is that of distance, of needing to leave a place in order to return and see it with fresh eyes. Shevek reflects:

If you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives…. But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.

To see the earth as the moon–to see familiar aspects of our world as both recognizable and strange–this is my favorite thing about science fiction.