In Theory by Rory Ewins

Ambiguous Utopias: A Comparison of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and More’s Utopia

Rory Ewins

This is the fifth in a series of essays I wrote as an undergraduate, honours, and then masters student in political theory. This one is from my masters year, 1991–92, and is presented here almost unchanged. It deals with a novel well-known within its genre then and now, but from a genre that was less accepted in literary circles at the time than today.

Utopias are not popular with today’s fiction writers, perhaps because they sense that the modern reader would give little credence to tales of “perfect” societies. The tastes of the twentieth century, affected by world wars, revolutions, and environmental disaster, run more to dystopias such as Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984—warnings rather than rallying cries.

Nevertheless, a powerful and persuasive vision of a utopia has appeared as recently as 1974, one which has the potential to become as well-known as those famous dystopias, and one of particular interest to political and social theorists. This is the novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, by Ursula K. Le Guin.1 The term “ambiguous” makes an important qualification today, when “utopia” implies “perfection”. But the source of the latter term, Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516,2 was also framed in an ambiguous manner, and the society it describes also appears flawed to the modern reader.

Striking similarities can be seen between the two works.3 In this essay I study those similarities, important differences, and the ambiguities in each. More’s book shows that the utopian genre has long been more subtle than the simplistic connotations of the word “utopia” suggest; Le Guin’s shows that it is a genre far from exhausted—indeed, that it is an ideal fictional complement to the nonfictional realm of political and social theory.

The Dispossessed is a rich and complex novel; it has much to say about rivalry in the academic and scientific worlds, relations between the sexes, and the problems a dissident might face in any society. The exploration of these and other familiar themes helps to win the reader’s sympathy and admiration for the new society the novel describes: the anarchist world of Anarres.

We see this world as we follow the life of Shevek, one of its great physicists.4 In this fashion Le Guin describes “Anarresti” systems of education, work, and personal life; and, partly because Shevek is a dissenter who wants to correct what he sees as failings in the practice of anarchism on Anarres, we see how the society deals with potential problems. The overall effect of Le Guin’s approach of subsuming political theory into a storyline is pleasing:

The principles that Le Guin presents are expressed in little, telling touches that form an integral part of the plot, and in ordinary conversations that are not merely a pretext for spouting political theory.5

As we are shown Anarres, we are also shown her “sister world” of Urras (each is the other’s moon), again following the experiences of Shevek, but at a later time in his life. The worlds are described in parallel: chapter one describes Shevek’s voyage from Anarres to Urras, chapter two his early life on Anarres, and thereafter chapters alternate between the two. From the start, Le Guin strikes an “ambiguous” tone: Shevek narrowly avoids violence at the hands of an angry mob as he leaves Anarres, and his first impressions of Urras are of a paradise, far richer in both its natural and built environments than his home. Urras represents our own twentieth century Earth, with some socialist countries, some military dictatorships, and in A-Io, the country Shevek sees, what could almost be any capitalist Western country. In some ways, Urras even strikes the reader as a utopia: its natural environment is better managed than our own, for example.

As the novel progresses, however, and we and Shevek learn more about Urras, its ugly features become apparent. We realise (before he does) that Shevek’s hosts have kept him away from the slums and the poor; we see the chauvinism of patriarchal A-Io society; we start to share Shevek’s disparaging opinions about the excesses of the Urrasti rich. Meanwhile, the attractions of Anarres, as described by Shevek to the Urrasti, and in the book’s parallel storyline, increase, as we see that it is a world morally rather than materially rich. Anarres is clearly the utopia of the novel’s subtitle.6

Anarres is physically a harsh place: “dry, cold and windy”, with thin air and no indigenous life other than fish and flowerless plants.7 Originally a mining colony, it was settled by Urrasti anarchists in a deal with governments anxious to remove a threat to their power. With contact between Anarres and Urras then all but cut off for nearly two hundred years, the settlers built a society based on the theories of Odo, their historical equivalent of a Marx, and the equivalent in her theories to nineteenth century Russian anarchist Pëtr Kropotkin. Le Guin has cited Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902, revised 1914) as a key inspiration, stating that

Odonianism is anarchism ... as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman.8

Anarres has no government, laws, class divisions, or system of money or property. Perfect equality exists between its people, men and women alike. They have less concern for privacy than we do, sleeping in dormitories (the only usual exceptions being when a couple requires a single room for “copulation”, or when a couple have voluntarily entered into a “life partnership”). First and foremost, the Anarresti are free. It takes some careful explanation from a teacher for children to comprehend what “prison” entails:

He expounded the subject, with the reluctance of a decent adult forced to explain an obscenity to children. Yes, he said, a prison was a place where a State put people who disobeyed its Laws. But why didn’t they just leave the place? They couldn’t leave, the doors were locked. Locked? Like the doors on a moving truck so you don’t fall out, stupid! But what did they do inside one room all the time? Nothing. There was nothing to do.9

Some alien concepts the Anarresti have no words to describe. They speak “Pravic”, an artificial language adopted from the time of settlement, which is structured to fit (and reinforce) their anarchistic way of thinking. It has no words for “money” or “buy”;10 it describes Urrasti life as “propertarian” and uses the term “profiteer” as one of abuse; children are told to “stop egoizing!” When the infant Shevek says “Mine sun!” his father responds “Come on, you know you can’t have things”.11 Possessive pronouns are rarely used:

Little children might say, ‘My mother’, but very soon they learned to say ‘the mother’. ... To say ‘This one is mine and that’s yours’ in Pravic one said, ‘I use this one and you use that’.12

And, tellingly, the same word is used for “work” and “play”.13 How the Anarresti work is of central interest to one examining Anarresti society. As in anything else, the Anarresti are free to work however they choose, including not at all (a few do just that). Obviously if nobody worked, the society would collapse; Anarres, unlike Urras, is not a place “where food falls out of the trees”,14 and if its farms were not carefully tended its people would starve. Only by “mutual aid” can they maintain not only the food supply but the trains, trucks, electricity, printing, plays and music of an industrialized society of twenty million.

Most people work on Anarres because they want to. It is tempting to question whether most would “want” to work, but is that any more realistic than questioning whether most “want” to live, when the former is necessary for the latter? By removing the personal need to work that exists in our society (we need to earn money through our work in order to subsist, although modern welfare systems do qualify this somewhat), the Anarresti have created a system whereby individuals are encouraged to think in terms of the survival of society. Assuming that people will do this involves, to some extent, what Le Guin calls “the act of faith that all leftists make”.15 But our own situation gives reason to believe such an assumption: surely we work for pleasure as well as profit; and surely the sense of despair felt by the long-term unemployed arises out of more than a wish for a higher income? Throughout The Dispossessed Le Guin provokes us to consider our real attitudes to work, and to ask ourselves how we would spend a life of freedom. Her reversals of our accepted premises can be provoking indeed:

All the people he saw [in Urras, were,] contrary to his expectations, industrious. ... Just like Anarresti, they were simply busy getting things done. It puzzled him. He had assumed that if you removed a human being’s natural impulse to work—his initiative, his spontaneous creative energy—and replaced it with external motivation and coercion, he would become a lazy and careless worker.16

Anarresti are able to think of the survival of society above themselves because the corollary of their work-system is that their individual physical needs are largely satisfied. The fruits of their labour are available to all. There is no money and no property: when an Anarresti wants to eat, he goes to a dining hall; when he wants clothes, or paper, he would go into a goods depository, “take what he wanted, nod to the registrar, and walk out”.17 Le Guin does not suggest a land of endless bounty: paper, for example, is scarce, as trees are scarce, so books are closely printed. The Anarresti are obviously only able to take that which is available.

There is usually enough to go around, however, because Anarresti are frugal. They consider excess to be “excremental”, and ask of any job whether it is “functional” for society. Thus, people who do nothing are likely to meet with disapproval if they stay too long in one place; their neighbours may respond by withdrawing their aid (for example, by taking the non-worker’s name off the dining hall register). Those people are still free: free to grow their own food perhaps (that is, work!), or free to move somewhere else, hitch-hiking to the next town, as some nomadic individuals do. Neither are people who work in esoteric fields likely to meet with universal approval: at one stage, Shevek is physically attacked by a man who considers all academics to be free-loaders.18 But even a playwright or a composer, if he has an audience, can validly claim he does functional work.

Anarres being a harsh place, its settlers found it impossible to set up a society of many self-sufficient communities, especially as they aimed to maintain high standards of technology. Thus they departed from a key plank of Odo’s (and Kropotkin’s) proposals—decentralization—and established a “centre” (not a “capital”, as Anarres is not a state), the city of Abbenay. From Abbenay, and the organisational difficulties which led to its establishment, come most of the ambiguities of Le Guin’s utopia.

The network of administration and management is called PDC, Production and Distribution Coordination. They are a coordinating system for all syndicates, federatives, and individuals who do productive work. They do not govern persons; they administrate production.19

PDC computers in Abbenay match jobs that need filling with people who are looking for work. A person can ask if there is work in his or her field of expertise; or he can go into the general labour pool. The PDC may “post” him to an unpleasant job, such as a six-month shift in the mercury mines; he is free to refuse to go, but most will accept their postings in the spirit of mutual aid.

Most Anarresti work five to seven hours a day, with two to four days off out of every ten.20 By custom, every tenth day people perform a job different to their normal one, usually one of the “dirty jobs”:

‘Why do they even accept the one-day-in-ten jobs?’

‘Because they are done together. ... And other reasons. You know, life on Anarres isn’t rich, as it is here. In the little communities there isn’t very much entertainment, and there is a lot of work to be done. ... And then there is the challenge. ... People take the dangerous, hard jobs because they take pride in doing them.’21

As this suggests, public opinion and custom do affect the way Anarresti behave; and by Shevek’s time, these forces are in danger of undermining the “continuous revolution” that is anarchism. In a key passage, Anarres’s problems are outlined by Shevek’s cynical friend Bedap:

‘Public opinion! ... The unadmitted, inadmissable government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind. ...

‘Tomar’s Definitions: “Government: the legal use of power to maintain and extend power.”—Replace “legal” with “customary”, and you’ve got ... the PDC ... by now, basically an archistic bureaucracy.

‘It’s anywhere on Anarres ... anywhere that function demands expertise and a stable institution. But that stability gives scope to the authoritarian impulse ... we forgot that the will to dominance is as central in human beings as the impulse to mutual aid is, and has to be trained in each individual.’22

Shevek fiercely denies the truth of this judgement at first; he only reluctantly comes to accept it. But he is, in fact, the novel’s major example of someone caught up in these problems. Shevek is a physicist, and not just any physicist, but a genius, with ideas far too advanced for his Anarresti colleagues to accept. To work in the physics posts offered by the PDC, he must have the approval of those experts, who act as the PDC’s “advisers”.23 Shevek is confronted with an adviser who desires fame and renown, a man jealous of this young genius whose work threatens to make his own redundant. Thus Shevek faces an uphill battle in getting his work published, and ultimately even in gaining access to the resources of the Central Institute of Sciences.24

Through Shevek’s problems, Le Guin demonstrates the key ambiguity of this utopia. Anarres is an admirable human society in many ways, a place where “nobody goes hungry while another eats”,25 a society which sustains a high level of technology without the inequities that exist on Urras (or Earth); but in public opinion, it has inadvertently developed a powerful weapon against a particular kind of creativity—probably the most valuable kind. The scientist or artist “ahead of his time”, ahead of public opinion and taste, meets with difficulties as imposing as those faced by, for example, Van Gogh in an age of strict realism in Western art.26

This is a serious problem, one which potentially prevents Anarres from being all that it could be. But does it outweigh the problems of an inequitable “propertarian” society? The answer, Le Guin persuades us, must be no (especially, one might observe, when “propertarian” societies have no shortage of examples of ignored talent). And The Dispossessed, despite these ambiguities, remains an optimistic novel. We see Shevek face the problems of his society head-on (for example, he sets up a syndicate to publish his own work); we see his society begin to shake itself out of its safe habits and to try to live up to its old ideals.

An objection levelled at many utopias is that they do not change:

Utopian romances take place in a world remarkably free of the ravages of ... entropic degradation. ... A primary law of romance setting is “it will be ever thus.”27

In The Dispossessed, we are aware of a set of unchanging ideals, but Anarresti society does fall short of those ideals, and its hopeful but fallible people must continually strive towards them. Anarres, we know, must change. The struggle will never end, as our own society’s struggles will never end. This gives the novel its realism, and a sense that it describes not a “paradise” but an admirable human society—which is surely all that anyone in the late twentieth century could hope a utopia would be.

More’s Utopia was written before the novel form became established, and so cannot provide us with the same pleasures of an unfolding plot and strong characterization as The Dispossessed. But its two books of dialogue and description are filled with enough challenging ideas to intrigue readers nearly five hundred years after it was written.

Book One records a conversation between the author, More, his friend Peter Gilles, and a European traveller newly returned from Utopia, Raphael Nonsenso.28 It deals largely with Nonsenso’s low opinion of an England where the poor are encouraged to turn to crime by landlords who turn them off their farm-land without a penny (in order to replace intensively-farmed areas with grazing land for sheep). Thus we see what kind of society Utopia is to be measured against (just as Anarres is to be measured against Urras in The Dispossessed), and we are introduced to one of the key problems which has vexed the author—how to eliminate crime and its unhappy results:

Petty larceny isn’t bad enough to deserve the death penalty, and no penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it’s their only way of getting food.29

Book Two is a monologue by Nonsenso describing the land and society of Utopia, an island in the New World with a population of between three and five million.30 Utopia, like Anarres, has no system of money. Like an Anarresti, when a Utopian needs anything, he simply goes into a shop and asks for it, and takes it with no need for payment.31 A Utopian also has a frugal sense of wants and needs: clothing is plain and basic, as on Anarres, and luxury goods are frowned upon. And a Utopian works so that his society may provide for his individual needs. All Utopians, men and women, do some farming, and all have a special trade of their own.

A Utopian works, however, because he is made to by the authorities. Utopia is very clearly a State. There are various levels of officials, all of them elected; in our terms, Utopia is a representative democracy. Utopian towns each contain six thousand households of about a dozen people each; every thirty households elect one “Styward” (District Controller); and the town’s Stywards elect a Mayor, who “has to be one of four candidates nominated by the whole electorate”.32

The job of the Stywards is mainly to make sure “that everyone gets on with his job”, and although they are exempt from ordinary work, they work voluntarily “to set a good example”. Because all able-bodied men and women work, however, everyone has only to work six hours a day (there is no mention, though, of regular days off).33 This Nonsenso compares with an England where practically no women work,34 no landowners work, and many people (such as goldsmiths) perform “unnecessary” work, thereby forcing a small proportion of the population to work that much harder.

Time off in mornings and evenings is spent in self-improvement, such as attending public lectures for further education (as some do on Anarres), or even in public-spiritedly working extra hours. Utopians are “not to waste their time in idleness or self-indulgence, but to make good use of it in some congenial activity”. Only one hour a day is set aside for recreation: music, talk, or playing “two games rather like chess”, one a didactic “vices and virtues” game.35 The main evening meal—served in a communal dining hall—is also a time to enjoy talk, music, and burnt incense (but is probably less enjoyable for the women of the household on duty for that day, who have to do all the cooking).36

Unlike an Anarresti or ourselves, though, a Utopian cannot visit the beach for a week off. Travel is severely restricted: permission from the authorities is needed, and a passport (with a time limit) is issued if it is granted. If caught without a passport outside his own district, a Utopian is severely punished; and if he stays more than a day in one place, he will be expected to work.37

Utopians may enjoy an occasional glass of wine, but they have no public houses, and certainly no brothels. They face dire consequences for any form of sex outside marriage: premarital sex earns severe punishment and permanent disqualification from marrying; adultery normally ends in slavery for the guilty parties, or on a second offence, death; and “attempted seduction is punished no less severely than actual seduction”.38 They would have little time for the Anarresti, who have no binding marriage contracts; divorces in Utopia are very difficult to come by.

In their overall view of life, Nonsenso believes the Utopians are “rather too much inclined to take a hedonistic view, for according to them human happiness consists largely or wholly in pleasure”!39 We in the twentieth century are less likely to be convinced that the Utopian lifestyle makes it “the best country in the world”.40

The ambiguousness of Utopia,41 however, lies not so much in this fact as in the implications and effects of what might be called, to borrow an Odonian phrase, its “archism”. A study of Anarres’s anarchist utopia followed by a reading of Utopia makes it clear that most of Utopia’s major flaws (as we see them today) are the result of this feature.

Utopians are not free as completely as Anarresti are free. There are people in authority in Utopia: democratically elected, yes, but in authority nevertheless. Utopians do rule that “anyone who deliberately tries to get himself elected to a public office is permanently disqualified from holding one”,42 but once in office, a Mayor (for example) is there for life, with all the inequity which that entails (privileges of rank do exist in Utopia). Officials have the power to direct and if necessary punish other Utopians. There are very few laws, we are told,43 but laws do exist and the punishment for breaking them is severe:

The normal penalty for any major crime is slavery. They say it’s just as unpleasant for the criminals as capital punishment, and more useful to society.44

The label “criminals” applies to a smaller group than in sixteenth century England or our own time, but that group, as we have seen, includes adulterers and people who travel without permission (a second offence means slavery). And although the elimination of money may end “fraud, theft [and] burglary”, as Nonsenso claims, would it really also end “murder, treason, and black magic”?45 (Rape, I imagine, would also be a problem in Utopia.)46

From the Utopians’ system of punishment comes the aspect of their society which denies it its claim to being “utopian” in twentieth century eyes: the existence of slaves. Slaves do the dirty jobs in Utopia: slaughtering livestock (which Utopians think “destroys one’s natural feelings of humanity”)47 and cleaning up in dining hall kitchens, for example. These slaves are “either Utopian convicts or, much more often, condemned criminals from other countries, who are acquired in large numbers”, and are “kept hard at work in chain-gangs”.48

That Utopians will take condemned criminals from any country for their slaves, no matter how unjust that country’s laws, reveals a disconcerting lack of concern for people unfortunate enough not to be Utopians; for surely, most of those convicts (as Nonsenso has stressed in Book One) will have been imprisoned for economic crimes—things which Utopians would hardly consider crimes at all. Even a convicted murderer may be the innocent victim of a legal system far less fair and impartial than we assume Utopia’s to be. Yet these people could all end up in a Utopian chain-gang.

As Nonsenso says, Utopians are “blind to the existence of that notorious Universal, MAN”.49 At times they are moved by “a spirit of humanity”,50 but that spirit is not a wholly pacifist spirit. Although “fighting is a thing they absolutely loathe” they are quite prepared to go to war for one of several reasons: “to liberate the victims of dictatorship”; to support “friendly powers” in just wars; or in self-defence.51 The death of one of their citizens abroad leads to immediate war against the country concerned until those responsible are handed over.52 They also fight wars of colonisation; when the population on Utopia grows too large, they settle an area that “hasn’t been cultivated by the local inhabitants”; if the locals resist, the Utopians declare war.53

If at all possible, the Utopians fight none of these battles themselves (although “both sexes are given military training at regular intervals”).54 Rather, they hire mercenaries (mainly the Venalians, a “primitive and savage” race) to fight for them. The Utopians are “just as anxious to find wicked men to exploit as good men to employ”. They don’t care how many Venalians they send to their deaths; in fact, they think nothing of genocide:

They say, if only they could wipe the filthy scum off the face of the earth completely, they’d be doing the human race a very good turn.55

The thought of the “perfect society” going to war is a galling one, but rather than being a result of whether it is a “state” or a “non-state”, it is a problem that any utopian country in an international environment of non-utopias must address. Any undefended country might appear fair game to a warlike neighbour, a potential nation of slave labour if nothing else. Le Guin recognised such problems when creating her utopia:

The obvious trouble with anarchism is neighbors. The only time it’s really been tried in a modern political state is Spain, and they had neighbors like Russia and Germany, as well as other Spaniards. It looks as if you can’t do it. Your neighbors will come and mash you flat with guns and bombs.56

Anarres has Defence workers who maintain a number of armed orbiting satellites, but Anarres’s main defence is that it has minerals which Urras needs which it can use to “buy” its safety (by acting as a de facto mining colony of Urras). Le Guin’s solution is a specific rather than a general one (and there is no guarantee that Anarres will not face a battle with Urras in the future, after the minerals run out). One might conclude that unless a utopia is the whole world (or in the case of The Dispossessed, two whole worlds), its people must be prepared to fight (although not, perhaps, for all of the reasons the Utopians will fight); an unhappy side-effect, one might say, of the fact that everyone would want a piece of utopia.

In this context it is interesting to consider how these two utopias deal with potential immigrants, of which one presumes there would be no shortage. Utopia welcomes foreign tourists, as its people “love hearing what goes on in other parts of the world”.57 Nonsenso certainly seems to have enjoyed his time there. But immigrants, we learn, are not quite as fortunate: “working-class foreigners” who wish to escape their poverty can move to Utopia, but under conditions of “voluntarily slavery”. They are better-treated than criminal slaves, but are worked harder than ordinary Utopians. However, they are free to leave Utopia at any time (which “doesn’t often happen”).58

The Anarresti are positively xenophobic. Under the terms of settlement, no Urrasti is allowed outside the confines of the Port of Anarres (where ships land to pick up minerals). Anarresti consider Urras a “hell” peopled by profiteers, although they do feel sympathy for the plight of the “unpropertied classes”. This sympathy does not extend, however, to allowing a group of Urrasti anarchist refugees onto Anarres.59 When Shevek proposes the “traitorous” act of travelling to Urras, some think he should not be allowed to return (“A person coming from Urras is an Urrasti”).60 When at the end of the novel Shevek does return to Anarres, bringing a newcomer with him, we are left not knowing the outcome. But a hopeful note is struck:

‘A lot of enemies, and a lot of friends will be there. The good news is the friends. ... It seems there are more of them than when I left.’61

The responses of both the Utopians and the Anarresti have parallels in our own time. Australia, for example, although it accepted a huge influx of European immigrants after the Second World War, placed restrictions upon areas of settlement and types of employment which seem draconian by today’s standards. And today, the countries of the West are becoming increasingly disinclined to accept economic refugees in any large numbers. The West’s “utopias” (as refugees may see them) are closing their doors as firmly as these fictional utopias.

More’s Utopia, as a desirable place to live, an “ideal” society, is by modern standards more ambiguous, perhaps, than Le Guin’s Anarres.62 By sixteenth century standards, however, Utopia may well have appeared an improvement over familiar European societies. For More’s contemporaries, the ambiguity in Utopia was less in the land it described than in the book itself. By voicing his clearest criticisms and most radical views through a character named “Nonsenso”, More signalled that he did not necessarily share those opinions. More created a “court jester”, and thus criticized with impunity, while letting his readers know that he was completely in charge of the play:

I don’t see the point of saying things ... that you know [kings will] never accept. ... But there is a more civilized form of philosophy which knows the dramatic context, so to speak, tries to fit in with it, and plays an appropriate part in the current performance.63

Neither does More, the character, always agree with Nonsenso, voice of More, the author:

I don’t believe you’d ever have a reasonable standard of living under a communist system. There’d always tend to be shortages, because nobody would work hard enough. In the absence of a profit motive, everyone would become lazy, and rely on everyone else to do the work for him.64

How much of this is More’s real opinion, and how much of it is a self-protective smoke-screen? Turner, his translator, says he has “yet to see any conclusive evidence that More did not mean what he said [through Nonsenso] about communism in Utopia”.65 More probably intended, rather, to show his awareness of possible arguments against his “perfect” system, with some of which he may have agreed: after all, why should we believe him any less when he says “the laws and customs of that country seemed to me in many cases perfectly ridiculous” than when he concludes that “there are many features of the Utopian Republic which I should like—though hardly expect—to see adopted in Europe”?66

Turner has described the difficulties some have had in believing that More was at all serious in promoting Utopia as a utopia. Can a devout Catholic have advocated euthanasia? Can an opponent of “heretics” have advocated religious toleration? Can a rich man have been a “crypto-communist”?67 A similar puzzle occurs to Shevek as he travels to Urras:

‘Marriage’ ... and ‘prostitution’, which seemed merely to be a wider term ... Odo had condemned them both; and yet Odo had been ‘married’.68

Odo did not live in the utopia she proposed; she lived on Urras, and had to live as best she could within the confines of its political and social systems. Similarly, More lived not in Utopia but in sixteenth century England, where one trod a fine line of acceptable behaviour or risked literally losing one’s head.69

Taken together, these two books suggest that ambiguity has long been an essential ingredient in successful works about utopias, and is a necessary ingredient today. More’s Utopia was not so much a description of an ambiguous land as it was an ambiguous book (although the land has many ambiguities for the modern reader). In 1516, the book’s ambiguousness was a necessary safeguard for its author. By the late nineteenth century, this need for caution had decreased if not disappeared. Many utopias were written at that time; but in losing their ambiguous tone these Victorian utopias became “romances” rather than believable descriptions of “real” places. Le Guin’s novel has corrected that fault, and her model, an “ambiguous utopia”, has the potential to revitalise the genre, and hand back to authors with an interest in political and social theory a tool for presenting an optimistic picture of the possibilities open to humankind. In this way, we might regain a forgotten testing-ground for theory to complement the more familiar ones of theoretical debate, empirical observation, and historical example. One can only hope that as many people will discover and draw inspiration from The Dispossessed as have been inspired by Utopia.

Appendix: Why is The Dispossessed Little Known?

The answer to this question is that The Dispossessed is very well known in certain circles, but, unfortunately, not in political and social theory circles. The reasons are not dramatic, as the author of a study of utopian fiction, Robert Elliott, pointed out in one of the few reviews of the novel to appear in a general academic publication (the Yale Review).70 Most people will not have heard of it because it is science fiction.

For many, that fact alone is enough to discount The Dispossessed as an important work. It matters not that the novel won both of the field’s major literary awards, and has been acclaimed as a classic of the genre; in their eyes the genre itself has no value. Science fiction is a literary ghetto.

Fans of science fiction have unfortunately helped contribute to this “ghettoization”,71 not least by claiming that many classic science fiction novels are great literature. Many of the conventions of the science fiction genre limit its effectiveness as fiction, and the number of science fiction novels which stand as first-rate twentieth century literature is less than fans would have us believe. Nevertheless, such novels do exist, and The Dispossessed is one of them. Unfortunately for science fiction, publishers have a tendency to re-market such works under the label “fiction”, leaving the genre deprived of its best works: J.G. Ballard’s science fiction, for example, is being republished as “fiction” following the success of his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun. Science fiction novels by authors better known for their fiction are usually labelled “fiction” from the start (George Orwell’s 1984, for example, is science fiction by any standards but the most petty).

Robert Elliott, although recognising the difficulties the genre faces in being taken seriously, falls into these same traps:

The ghetto experience of science fiction has prompted it to imperialistic ventures: science fiction now lays claim to all forms of speculative fiction, emphatically including the utopian. I think this is a mistake, tactically as well as strategically.72

But science fiction isn’t just spaceships, bug-eyed monsters, and predicting the future. Science fiction is mainly concerned with human beings; somewhat paradoxically, it places “an emphasis on realism”.73 Its strength is that it removes the obligation upon writers to set their fictions in actual reality, and allows them to base them in a possible reality (as opposed to fantasy, which might be called fiction set in an impossible reality). It so happens that much of twentieth century science fiction has been concerned with technological possibility; but any number of possibilities in other fields (such as the social sciences) can and have been explored in science fiction. These explorations, which cannot help but take a tone of optimism, pessimism, or somewhere in between, will tend to take on a utopian or dystopian character. What does one call a tale of a future where all work is done by robots, if not a utopia (or, depending on one’s point of view, a dystopia)?

The utopian and science fiction genres do overlap; and, although one would not call More’s Utopia science fiction, practically all utopias written from the late nineteenth century onwards are science fiction, for the simple reason that the only utopias likely to seriously attract us today will be technological, industrial or post-industrial societies:

It may be that our epoch has brought with it an ‘upgrading’ of the utopian—only it is not called this anymore. It is called ‘science fiction’ in technology ...74

Unfortunately Elliott’s judgement that to market a book as science fiction is to severely limit its potential audience is, if anything, truer today than in the mid-1970s. A bid for mainstream respectability made by science fiction’s best authors in the 1960s and 1970s has largely failed, and some of those better authors have since left the genre behind. One can only hope that this is a reversible trend, and that the near-future will see a resurgence in seriously-intentioned science fiction writing.75

As for The Dispossessed, my ambiguous hope is that Le Guin writes a mainstream best-seller, thereby prompting her publishers to market this and her other science fiction novels in deceptively ordinary covers under the label “fiction”, so that they might be discovered by the large audience they deserve.

January 1992, posted November 2012


1. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (GraftonBooks, London, 1975). Note that this is the British paperback edition, which does not bear the subtitle of earlier American editions. All page references are to this edition. (N.B.: I discuss the reasons why this book is not already familiar to political theorists in the Appendix.)

2. Thomas More, Utopia, translated by Paul Turner (London, 1965). This is the Penguin edition.

3. These are by no means the result of any copying or updating of More’s work on Le Guin’s part:

Le Guin has implied ... that reading communists and anarchists was of more use to her in constructing The Dispossessed than studying other Utopias.

[Barbara J. Bucknall, Ursula K. Le Guin, Recognitions (New York, 1981), p. 120.]

4. I will keep my discussion of the novel’s actual plot to a minimum, mainly because I hope that interested readers of this essay will want to seek the book out and discover its pleasures for themselves.

5. Ibid., p. 122.

6. This is, however, not as clear to all readers as one might hope. One commentator on the novel sadly reports having

assigned the novel several times to an introductory class ... only to find that students tend to favor interpretations which see the narrative either as promoting the advanced corporate state of A-Io at the expense of the hard-scrabble world of Anarres, or as presenting the idea that “one person’s utopian dream is another person’s dystopian nightmare”.

[John P. Brennan and Michael C. Downs, ‘Anarchism and Utopian Tradition in The Dispossessed’, in Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, Writers of the 21st Century (Edinburgh, 1979), pp. 116-52 (p. 123).

7. Le Guin, Dispossessed, p. 84.

8. Quoted in Philip E. Smith II, ‘Unbuilding Walls: Human Nature and the Nature of Evolutionary and Political Theory in The Dispossessed’, in Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Olander and Greenberg, pp. 77-96 (p. 77). An exploration of Le Guin’s specific sources for Dispossessed is beyond the scope of this essay; for such a discussion I refer the reader to this essay by Smith (which looks at Kropotkin’s influence), to Brennan’s and Downs’s essay (cited previously; it looks at wider influences), and beyond to Elizabeth Cummins Cogell, ‘Taoist Configurations: The Dispossessed’, in Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, edited by Joe De Bolt, National University Publications Literary Criticism Series (Port Washington, N.Y., and London, 1979), pp. 153-79.

Le Guin’s novel has largely been welcomed by those anarchists who have read it. George Woodcock (author of Anarchism, a standard history of the movement) comments that Le Guin “has studied anarchism and its history so closely that it is hard to exclude the possibility of at least a period of active involvement”. As one commentator remarks, this is “high praise coming from one of the greatest authorities on anarchism in our time”. [James W. Bittner, ‘A Survey of Le Guin Criticism’, in Le Guin: Voyager, edited by De Bolt, pp.31-49 (p. 46), from which the Woodcock quotation is also drawn.]

9. Le Guin, Dispossessed, pp. 35-36.

10. Ibid., p. 56.

11. Ibid., p. 30.

12. Ibid., p. 55.

13. Ibid., p. 83.

14. Ibid., p. 143.

15. Quoted in Smith, p. 78.

16. Le Guin, Dispossessed, p. 74.

17. Ibid., p. 176.

18. Ibid., 49.

19. Ibid., p. 69.

20. Ibid., p. 159.

21. Ibid., p. 129.

22. Ibid., pp. 142-44.

23. The need for “advisers” would clearly be central to any large and sophisticated society such as Anarres. A skilled machinist, for example, needs an engineer to tell him the best designs to use. Consider, also, the industry of scientific publishing. A printer cannot print everything that scientific writers produce, and yet is probably not in a position to judge what is or is not worth printing. Thus the role of an expert editor—an “adviser”—becomes crucial.

24. This is one of the main reasons why Shevek travels to Urras—that is, to find a more congenial scientific community in which to work.

25. Ibid., p. 237.

26. Creativity continues to exist, of course, but it must find an audience. One of Shevek’s friends, Salas, faces similar problems: he is a composer of music—but “the Music syndics don’t like my compositions. And nobody much else does, yet. I can’t be a syndicate all by myself, can I?” He has never had a music posting; he works in regular unskilled jobs. [Ibid., p. 149.]

A worse fate meets another friend, Tirin, who writes and performs a mildly satirical play; it is “publicly reprimanded” for being “anti-Odonian”, a devastating criticism which drives him mad. He ends up “voluntarily” entering an asylum. [Ibid., pp. 145-46.]

27. Brennan and Downs, ‘Anarchism’, p. 123.

28. Although Raphael’s surname in the original Latin in which the book was written (“Hythlodaeus”, derived from Greek roots) is more commonly translated as “Hythloday”, I am using the English equivalent used by translator Paul Turner. As he says, “More expected the educated reader to understand these names”. [Paul Turner, introduction to Utopia, pp. 7-23 (p. 8).] A similar practice is followed with all other place names (except “Utopia”, too well known to change; it means “Noplace”).

29. More, Utopia, p. 44 (spoken by Nonsenso).

30. There are 54 towns in Utopia [Ibid., p. 70] with 6000 households in each, each household containing between ten and sixteen members [Ibid., p. 79].

31. Ibid., p. 80.

32. Ibid., p. 74.

33. Ibid., pp. 76-77. These working hours would probably have looked attractive to many in the sixteenth century. But the average working week in late twentieth century Western countries, less than forty hours in total, is less than in Utopia.

34. Ibid., p. 77. In saying this Nonsenso drastically undervalues the housework and drudgery which has always been the lot of many women; but the proposal to get women into the “regular” work-force was, as is easily observed, a far-sighted one.

35. Ibid., p. 76.

36. Ibid., pp. 82-83.

37. Ibid., p. 84.

38. Ibid., pp. 103-05.

39. Ibid., p. 91.

40. Ibid., p. 128. Many in the sixteenth century may quite easily have seen this lifestyle as an improvement on their own. But would many of the educated contemporary readers of the book have seen it so? Although this seems less certain, the fact remains that the word “utopia”—with its connotations of perfection—derives from this book, and presumably those contemporary readers.

41. Note that here I mean the country, not the book (I shall deal with the book’s ambiguousness later).

42. Ibid., p. 106.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid., pp. 104-05.

45. Ibid., p. 130.

46. Someone wishing to avoid being “caught out” as an adulterer by an angry jilted spouse, which would lead to slavery or death, might figure that raping a stranger under cover of darkness carries less risk. Furthermore, when premarital sex earns a marriage ban for life, there may be a sizeable pool of potential adulterers and/or rapists.

It is interesting to note how Anarresti deal with murderers and rapists. As sex is much freer there than in Urras, rape is very rare, and many of the (economic) motives for murder have been removed. As we (and Le Guin) are quite sure, however, rapists and murderers will always exist. If someone is discovered to have done either, there is nothing to stop any other Anarresti from retaliating in any way he or she sees fit. A murderer who wishes to avoid ostracism (or perhaps death at the hands of an angry mob) can, however, escape by voluntarily entering an asylum. [Le Guin, Dispossessed, p. 146.]

47. More, Utopia, p. 81.

48. Ibid., p. 101. Utopians will also take combatant prisoners-of-war, although not non-combatant ones; we are told that, when an enemy town is defeated, “they merely kill those responsible for its failure to surrender, and enslave the rest of the garrison” [p. 116].

49. Ibid., p. 90.

50. Ibid., p. 109.

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid., p. 110. We would be inclined to feel sympathy towards a country that was desperately searching for the murderer of a Utopian visitor in order to stave off the Utopian battleships storming its ports.

53. Ibid., pp. 79-80. By following their colonisation policy the Utopians would have fought as fiercely against, for example, the nomadic hunter-gathering Australian Aboriginals as did the colonists of Britain.

54. Ibid., p. 109.

55. Ibid., p. 113. One question that may be asked here is, if the Utopians have no money, how do they hire mercenaries? The answer is that they have built up vast stocks of gold, silver, and international credit for that very purpose, by exporting their large surpluses of corn, honey, wool, flax, timber, and so on [p. 85]. As they do not value gold and silver in the slightest, they feel no hesitation in paying mercenaries whatever wage is necessary to ensure they remain loyal to Utopia.

56. Quoted in Bucknall, Le Guin, p. 103.

57. More, Utopia, p. 101.

58. Ibid., p. 102.

59. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, pp. 291-94.

60. Ibid., p. 295.

61. Ibid., p. 316.

62. Despite this, More’s striking foresight should not be overlooked. Utopia proposed secret ballots four-hundred years before the English were to enjoy them; a level of sexual equality which, while not total, was probably no worse than existed in the West as late as the 1960s; a level of suffrage matched in Britain only after 1928; and a greater tolerance for the practice of euthanasia than exists in the 1990s.

An interesting point of comparison between the two books’ “ambiguousness” (although slightly outside the scope of a consideration of the societies they describe) is their approach in presenting the natural environment, and those forces beyond the control of humankind. More is not so simplistic as to present Utopia as a natural paradise: “their land isn’t always very fertile, and their climate’s not too good” [More, Utopia, p. 99]. But for the modern reader the Utopians’ unnatural success in overcoming all obstacles gives the book a slightly unrealistic tone: in their entire history they have never failed to defeat an invader [Ibid., p. 131], and “by scientific methods, they’ve done wonders with a country that’s naturally barren” [Ibid. ]. Still, More does let us know that he is, in the main, a realist: “things will never be perfect, until human beings are perfect ... which I don’t expect them to be for quite a number of years!” [Ibid., p. 64; spoken by More in Book One’s conversation].

Le Guin, by comparison, creates many difficulties for her utopians. At one point, Anarres suffers a drought lasting some years, and its people have to ration food severely; some die of starvation. Tensions arise, with the potential (never realized) to lead the whole society into violence and distrust, as Shevek and others are all too aware:

It was easy to share when there was enough, even barely enough, to go round. But when there was not enough? Then force entered in; might making right ... [Le Guin, Dispossessed, p. 214.]

Paradoxically, the harshness of Anarres might increase the reader’s conviction that its anarchistic society could work here: for surely, in a bountiful place like Urras (or Earth), this “moment of truth” need never occur? Nonsenso makes such conclusions when reflecting on a famine in England: “I bet if you’d inspected every rich man’s barn ... you’d have found enough corn to save all the lives that were lost” [More, Utopia, p. 130].

63. Ibid., p. 63 (the character of More says this in the Book One dialogue).

64. Ibid., p. 67 (More’s character again).

65. Turner, appendix to Utopia, pp. 149-151 (p. 151).

66. More, Utopia, p. 132.

67. Turner, introduction, p. 11.

68. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, p. 23.

69. This was More’s ultimate fate, although not because of anything he had written in Utopia.

70. Robert C. Elliott, ‘A New Utopian Novel’, The Yale Review, 65 (1976), 256-61 (p. 256).

71. As have, in the past, its editors:

Terry Carr [SF editor] used to have a line about how if the Holy Bible was printed as an Ace Double [SF book series] it would be cut down to two 20,000-word halves with the Old Testament retitled as Master of Chaos and the New Testament as The Thing with Three Souls.

[Karen Anderson, quoted in Lawrence Suvin, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (London, 1991), p. 66.]

72. Elliott ,‘Utopian Novel’, p. 261.

73. Turner, introduction to Utopia, p. 9.

74. Ernst Bloch, quoted in ‘Something’s Missing: A discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing (1964)’, in Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, translated by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1988), pp. 1-17 (p. 2).

75. In 2012 it is fair to say that we have seen a great deal of seriously-intentioned SF in the past twenty years, along with an increase in SF influence on literary fiction, but the genres remain distinct.


Aldiss, Brian W., with David Wingrove, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (London, 1986).

Bloch, Ernst, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, translated by Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1988).

Bucknall, Barbara J., Ursula K. Le Guin, Recognitions (New York, 1981).

De Bolt, Joe, ed., Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, National University Publications Literary Criticism Series (Port Washington, N.Y., and London, 1979).

Elliott, Robert C., ‘A New Utopian Novel’, The Yale Review, 65 (1976), 256-61.

Kenyon, Timothy, Utopian Communism and Political Thought in Early Modern England (London, 1986).

Le Guin, Ursula K., The Dispossessed (London, 1975).

More, Thomas, Utopia, translated by Paul Turner (London, 1965).

Olander, Joseph D., and Martin Harry Greenberg, eds., Ursula K. Le Guin, Writers of the 21st Century (Edinburgh, 1979).

Suvin, Lawrence, Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (London, 1991).