Re-Visiting Ursula le Guin's the Dispossessed: Anarcho-Taoism and World Resource Management

By Habib, Samar | Nebula, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Re-Visiting Ursula le Guin's the Dispossessed: Anarcho-Taoism and World Resource Management


Habib, Samar, Nebula


I called it "an ambiguous utopia". I think it's a perfectly natural step to go from Taoism to anarchism. That's what I found myself doing [in The Dispossessed]. They are definitely related, they appeal to the same type of person, the same bent of mind. (1)

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the most influential science fiction and fantasy writers of the twentieth century and is easily the most prolific female author we have seen in relation to these, often male-dominated, genres. Born in 1929 in Berkeley, California, Le Guin has led a somewhat parochial lifestyle and has rarely ventured away from the "West Coast" since her return from Paris to live in Portland, Oregon, in 1958. (2) Her works received numerous awards and honours and they continue to be the subject of critical and analytical scrutiny across the academy. The series of novels that take place within her "Hainish Universe" (3) yield complexity and insight beyond the scope of most science fiction writers. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, which won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1975, was Le Guin's last Hainish universe novel to be published, but in the chronology of that world it is the first story to occur along the timeline. However, it is not this intricacy and combination of geographically plausible worlds and timelines that have made The Dispossessed a classic, but rather the unassailable philosophical contribution to Utopian discourse that it has made and continues to make.

Le Guin had managed to imagine and put in motion an alternative economy and styles of living which could work and whose inhabitants were all equally stripped of an infrastructure that would enable the power-hungry to exercise that power, once obtained, on others. But this utopian world did not prevent the existence of, or annihilate, such individuals. Take the character Sabul for instance, in his attempts to suppress fresh intellectual ideas that disprove his own, (4) or that incidental character, Desar the mathematician, who compulsively hoards and accumulates material for himself, despite the free availability of amenities and paraphernalia (133-134). Such individuals continue to exist but they are disabled from inflicting themselves absolutely on others. There is a utopia even in this simple idea of de-centralizing power, of turning governments into administrations of "things" not people. Recently, an anthology of thoroughly researched critical essays on The Dispossessed was published, but there was an omission of a rigorous treatment of what Le Guin saw at the time as a relationship between anarchist theory and Taoism. (5) Although articles on both anarchism and Taoism in relation to the novel exist, (6) there has not been a serious attempt to consider the interrelations of these modes of thought and how they are represented in the novel. In this article my intention is to explore Le Guin's imperfect Utopia and to expose the intertextual influences of Taoism and anarchist theory on Le Guin's profound novel and vision in the hope of filling the hiatus which currently exists in this area.

The Background to the Story

The story of The Dispossessed begins with its hero, Shevek, boarding a shuttle from a planet called Anarres to another satellite planet called Urras. The ancestors of the inhabitants of Anarres came from Urras, some sixteen hundred years prior to the timeline of the text, after a revolutionist by the name of Odo led an insurrection against the government system of her nation. The anarchic theory of "Odonianism" gathers support and momentum after its founder's death, so that a small group of internationalist, Urrasti inhabitants, identifying themselves now as Odonians, are given the means to colonize Urras's arid, desert-like moon. With this opportunity the Odonians set out to create a society which observes the paradigm of anarchic political theory.

This theory of Odonianism, is not to be mistaken, as Ursula Le Guin tells us, with "the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism . …

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