Friday, February 08, 2013

Loneliness II: The Dispossessed

As I mentioned before, the two unrelated books that I've been reading have turned out to be about solitude, loneliness, and being apart from your community.  This could have been the grimmest month in reading history.  Fortunately, the two books are very different and they're both really enjoyable.

It took me a long time to dig into Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed.  I love so much of her work, but her books are always about Ideas, and in some of them--especially some of the older ones--these themes can eclipse the characters and the story.  Even though I've come around to start enjoying this one very much, it's definitely a novel of ideas.

Shevek is a scientist who has left his home world of Anarres for the nearby Urras.  More like defected; Anarres was colonized hundreds of years ago by Urrasti exiles who followed the philosophies of anarchy.  Anarres has no laws, no government; people work for the love of work, and the cooperate because it's the best way to get things done, and if this seems idealistic, well, it's got its flaws.  Urras, on the other hand, is a world much like ours, where the dreaded "propertarians" rule all.  The story of Shevek's adaptation to this new world is told alongside the story of his life in the old one, and we come to see what's wrong with each society, and presumably with human nature.

This is a "man without a country" story, so loneliness and alienation are naturally on the menu.  What's sadder is the loneliness that follows Shevek throughout this life.  It's perfectly possible to be alone in a crowd, especially if the crowd kind of depends on everyone doing the same thing.  Somehow, this book more than most others illustrates for me the poignancy of the fact that the status quo usually works for the majority of people.  That's why it's the status quo.  It's those few people who don't fit nicely into the system who suffer for everyone else's comfortable stasis.

There's a lot of unhappiness in Shevek's life, but it's alleviated in a weird way by the fact that the story switches back and forth between two unhappinesses.  In the chapters on Anarres, Shevek starts to see the problems with the idealized society he was raised in and the gaps between himself and his fellow Annaresti.  In the Urras chapters, you see a man of ideals trapped in the bureaucratic machine of a materialistic society, without allies or a way out.  Both situations are kind of miserable, but they're so differently miserable that just when you feel like you can't stand another minute in the soul-crushing environment of (X), you switch over to a chapter where the totally different environment of (Y) is described--until you start to remember just why (Y) seemed so oppressive two chapters ago.

Annares reads like an analog of Soviet Russia, with anarchist custom in place of the machine of state in stamping out alternate ideas.  But there's an interesting twist, in the Urras actually has two major nations, and there's an actual communist state to compare things with, as well.  The notions of personal freedom in this book--its idealized status on Anarres and the complexity of what freedom really is and what it is meant to be used for--are, I think, the most interesting part of it. 

Honestly, all the philosophical discussions are fascinating.  When teenaged Shevek and his friends debate Odonian philosophy, when professor Shevek discusses the implications of sequential physics on morality, these are the most fascinating parts of the book to me.  I wish I had more opportunities to think like this, to have these discussions.  But the plot of the book holds it together enough that I'm able to enjoy the story, too.

I'm not sure how many stars I'm going to give this book when I rate it--do I base the rating on the value the book holds for me, or on the pleasure I got reading it?  On how long I think it'll stick with me?  However I go with that, this is a stretch, an intellectual book, and one I'm quite glad to have read.

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