What Remains for Us on Anarres: The Wall, The Vista and Le Guin's Vision of a Proto-Parecon
|Book: The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia|
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“To make a thief, make an owner; to create a crime, create laws.” - —Odo
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” the science fiction author details a world—much like that of a fine new coat—that is wholesome and lovely along its exterior folds, made from a nice factory in Elsewhere; but hidden behind its outer cloth, the coat is lined with jagged stitches and a nylon fabric hewn with heft by acts of unseen despair. It has a history unknown to us. The workers who made it were kept in cages, their movements timed to clocks, left thirsty and without water to avoid peeing and disrupting production rates; even breathing and talking were rationed by their air-conditioned management. The coat, or what they made from it, is beautiful though. It may resemble a utopia. It may feel like a utopia. But the coat sits on one’s skin like an afterthought, a disease. It doesn’t bother to care or listen, while you stretch under its tightness and texture, while you exhale softly, hoarsely, then weakly in the sudden reality of an unwashed desert heat. And beyond the mirage, just as well, so goes the city of Le Guin’s narrative interest. Like the coat made in a factory from a place far beyond reach, her imagined city, Omelas, never comes close to creating the unknown joy of a prelapsarian photo-op. Indeed, it never quite rises up as sprightly as one might think. Omelas never really works like a synchronized Eden with automated sprinkler sets, choreographed fireworks and random acts of Disney lawn care. The city rests unwillingly to remind us of the permanence of walls—of the walls that remain inside our heads. There may be, as the author pronounces wanly in her short story, images of contentment and certitude in the township. And she describes these images with a faint mélange of apathy and warm belief: “With a clamor of bells that set the swallows soaring, the Festival of Summer came to the city Omelas, bright-towered by the sea. The ringing of the boats in harbor sparkled with flags. In the streets between houses with red roofs and painted walls, between old moss-grown gardens and under avenues of trees, past great parks and public buildings, processions moved.” But these images remain fragmentary and brief, quickly toppled over by more of the same images of kindness and gentility, comfort and cool calm. Without pause, Le Guin continues on with her catalogue by detailing the various images of “old people in long stiff robes,” and “quiet, merry women carrying their babies and chatting while they walked,” all while school children played in a “water-meadow,” or sat resting “naked in the bright air.” Mixing among all of these jubilee fantasias were the street sounds of the swallows singing sweetly as human music carried forth, “a shimmering of gong and tambourine, and the people went dancing, the procession was a dance.”
The images of a wild, untamed but somehow trained joy fits neatly into Le Guin’s narrative gesso. And seemingly, the unknown narrator (who could just as well be Le Guin herself) begins to tire of these descriptions of Omelas—of a world consigned to no more conflicts or problems; the latter paragraphs of the story suggest the notion that the narrator has already had enough by this point: “Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time. Perhaps it would be best if you imagined it as your own fancy bids, assuming it will rise to the occasion, for certainly I cannot suit you all.” By having the narrator fail miserably to adequately describe an enamored list of the city’s technological achievements, Le Guin transgresses the genre demands of science fiction. She—or at least her imagined narrator—fails willfully to detail the pornography of tech jargon so often found in the genre itself. And if utopian fiction tends to read more like a treatise of precision—of didacticism and hand-wringing—than fictive discourse, her writing moves toward the soft focus, the glancing gaze of abstraction. Gone are Plato’s Republic and the self-serious Socratic dialogue of Philosopher-Kings. So in kind, even when attempting these descriptions of a utopia, the narrator relents once again: “But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don't hesitate.” While not conceding to any permanent descriptions of the sort, the narrator lists random possibilities for sex as well as drugs in the city of Omelas—but in doing so admits that the city is not desirous of excess, shame or foresworn guilt. For a reader willing to imagine, though, there is beer for the mild at heart and “drooz” for the freaky, desperate and willing. But what then what is to be found of war, violence, cowardliness or even bravery in this timeless utopia—in this fine new coat? The speaker of the story details their furtive and untimely disappearance:
“What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial. A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world's summer: This is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life.”
Unmistakably, what starts off as a rather repeated affair, rifling through images and fantasies of an agrarian utopia, becomes all the more sinister now that “all smiles have become archaic.” What, then, is the use in describing happiness if there is no emotion left to work as its contrast? Not only is this a new world order beset by all of the minutiae of images not here or there, but it’s a world that doesn’t seem to understand any life outside of its own descriptions, processes and confined rituals. Within the timeless portraits and wholesale depictions of a world born outside our space-time-continuum, there rests a Machine in the Garden. And what is so seemingly untroubled, of a world “without monarchy or slavery,” of a world “without the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb” is in fact nothing less than a quiet tragedy. Among the vertiginous growth of trees and the giving hands of townsfolk, there is the Garden with a Machine stuck in its mouth.
Baffled and perhaps exhausted by imagining a city that resists its own existence, the narrator announces the Garden’s secret Machine—the source of the blood filling its throat:
“Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing. In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come.”
Whereas Ursula K. Le Guin’s descriptions of Omelas were wanly interested in details or drama—all too willing to wrest up her narrative to the readers’ input—the images of the town’s uncomely secret silences into hard focus. The abstraction disappears. The language becomes assertive, clear, concrete. In the passage, the warm milky details of the city’s elaborate peacefulness suddenly sulks, damaged by the revelation of this underground thing. The creature is the all-human all-eternal prophecy of abject Otherness. The mops, so seemingly domestic and trivial to us, take on the semiotics of self-disgust. The child fears its own excrement; it has internalized the city’s colonialism, the neglect and rancid complicity of its artful denials. The people’s common acts of expression and song in the parade above are produced from the raw fuel of the child’s blank face—its sad drone of stillness—its autism of terror. Their joy is the child’s pain.
In an earlier section of the short story, the narrator details the fact that “pedants and sophisticates” disregard happiness as stupid, while arguing that, “only pain is intellectual, evil interesting.” Yet the appearance of this small, neglected child left in a small room, seems to ironically persist in reminding us that pain is the narrative that we propel ourselves from. In this dark, unkind and dreary description of a tortured child breathing below Omelas, Le Guin seems to be discussing a kind of though experiment. She offers—much like philosophers of recent memory—a kind of “trolley question” whereby an incalculable moral conundrum must be weighed out carefully and painfully as evidence of our collective fallibility. Any response to the trolley question still forces the listener to create a different level of suffering—to choose for the one or for the many. Something must give. The center cannot hold. The child of Omelas, then, is alone, and suffers alone, receiving fragmentary visitations by people. While mostly made up of children who are of the proper age to understand the secret and the sacrifice, the visitors occasionally peek through the door “with frightened, disgusted eyes,” while worse others may “come in to kick the child and make it stand up.” Stuck in the room, the child sometimes remembers a past outside of this dark space—the voice of a mother, the feeling of sunlight. It responds only fleetingly by saying, “I will be good. Please let me out. I will be good!” And slowly, it stops speaking actual words and mumbles phrases that are confused and confusing. “It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.” Amazingly, the people of Omelas all know that the child exists in these desperate and dire conditions, yet they do nothing. And in a game of extremist Utilitarianism—where the joy of many relies on the suffering of a few—the citizens of this utopia let the child suffer because of a more ultimate consequence: their city’s beautiful weather, the good harvest, the health of their children, the sweetness of their familial love depends on the child receiving the damage of aloneness without end. And if the child was suddenly set free their utopia would thusly end. In a kind of Jeremy Bentham philosophy taken to its sharpest, most savage angle, Le Guin asks the reader to justify the joy of the many for the suffering of just one. What proceeds for us, however, as a story without context and only imagery, is a real-life commentary on our own rationalization of utopian conditions found in the first world. In order to satisfy “limitless” growth and the opening of markets, the first world’s consumer passions must be mashed into satiation by a factory world of low wages, dire working conditions and union intimidation. Our joy—our Nike sneakers and Hasbro Barbie dolls—can only exist on the backs of the impoverished third world that must be content to spit out teeth on the factory floors for us. This is our new fine coat, our desperate world of jagged stitches. And in this imagined city, can the abject suffering of one for the many be a sufficient rationalization for Omelas’ continued freedom from want? This is a question not just for a class on ethics or natural law, but one for us—the readers—that reside in our own world of walls. Is the joy of Omelas our joy?
Yet beyond all of this, some refuse a history of slavery and torture. On coming of age, every child of Omelas must witness this secret and acknowledge the city’s grand bargain. Most, if not all of its residents, decide to accept the child’s fate and continue on in their own bubbled-bliss. Some, though, witness the child and decide—with great unending mystery—to walk away from Omelas. These same children (and sometimes older folks) decide that one life cannot be sacrificed for the happiness of the many, who inhabit the city from its peaceful surface above. They don’t protest; they don’t start fires of revolt. As the narrator blankly ends: “They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
Written in 1972, just a few years shy of the publication of her brilliant and visionary novel The Dispossessed, Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” was tossed up as an idea in the most haphazard of manners. Forgetting a thought experiment by Dostoyevsky and working from a thematic variation from the philosopher William James, Le Guin captured her city’s title and meaning from reading Salem, Oregon in reverse text from her car’s rearview mirror. “[Readers and fans] often ask me, ‘Where do you get your ideas from Ms. Le Guin?’ From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?” As she would later expound in an essay, “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From,” writing is more than just working from an idea, but a matter beyond words to that of “mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything.” For her, stories often surface from feelings and imaginations tucked toothlessly below the psyche. As for her story of Omelas, it would later be honored with a Hugo award—a rare achievement for a young author at the time of its writing. Of her intentions, she wanted to write a short story that was about the readers’ co-involvement; by writing abstractly and between gaps of understanding, Le Guin hoped to push her readers into collaborating with a half-described world. In her version of the Jamesian scapegoat syndrome—or just as well by adding in her version of a trolley question—the author communicates the notion of a utopia as an ambivalent construct. Omelas isn’t wholly dystopian, but neither is it wholly utopian in the same denotative sense. In writing the story, she wanted to move away from the static, unchanging nature of utopian narratives often found in this particular subgenre of science fiction. If most, if not all, utopian writings suffered from didacticism and pedantry, Le Guin would shovel her way into the driveway of ambiguity so that snow mixed with dirt and sleeping debris. For her, Omelas was not only—sadly, tragically—a world of impossible purities, but it was a world worth wandering away from.
In 1974, published just two years after “Omelas,” Le Guin’s The Dispossessed further complicates the notion of utopia by describing one that is both admirable and visionary as well as fallible and desirous, of a world certainly better than the one we currently live in, but nonetheless a world in woe of dire repair. It is, first and foremost, a story about Anarres—an ugly-beautiful planet washed in water and rocks. Detailing a utopian society that is remarkably free of power inequity and corruption, of selfishness and cruelty, Le Guin’s imagined community is described by many critics as an “anarcho-syndicalist,” “social anarchist” or “anarcho-communist” in nature. And in the words of the late social theorist André Gorz, the utopian novel lifts up in our desperate hour as “the most striking description I know of the seductions—and snares—of self-managed communist or, in other words, anarchist society.” Rejecting the values of a state run by corporations (the US) or a censorial central government (the Soviet Union), Anarres imagines a place where power is always decentralized, localized and spread between its citizens; where laws and police are not needed and where prisons are left for small margins in history books. All citizens are equal. All of the living on Anarres are walking acts of classlessness. There are no wars or corporate clothing ads. There are no parking tickets. Violence is an anomaly. Love is as obvious as breath and vibrations of air. Above all else, Anarres’ most lasting hallmark is that much of the novel’s descriptions of this anarchist society predates Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s first elaborations on Participatory Economics. Many of the key values of Parecon can be gleaned and later supported from reading passages of the novel: solidarity, equity, diversity, efficiency and workers’ self-management. Some may wonder if these values are pipedreams; but the novel isn’t composed of vague assertions. Neither is it a solipsistic treaty on utopian politics. The Dispossessed is a story about competing worlds within worlds; of humans in conflict, in love, wandering, lost, in need, falling only to be found. What starts off as science fiction becomes something more than the sum of its disparate parts. The Dispossessed rips open with a savage and emotional core, flowing, full of inspired details of what could be, what will be, what is yet undone. It imagines the best for us—what lives inside us and dares to dream its own name. The Dispossessed is a story about what is possible, but what is also lost; of what we can avoid and what we must accept in our suffering as human beings. It is a story about resurrection, reform and revolution. It is about all and none of these things. It is a permanent revolution. The book is not Francis Fukuyama’s End of History. It is a bright and shining belief born from human bodies breaking bread. A scream across the sky.
Described as “an ambiguous utopia” by the Le Guin’s own subtitle and in later interviews concerning the publication, the novel describes a classless society that has gone into forced exile from their home planet to its neighboring moon called Anarres. The outcome itself was a result of a long, growing rebellion on the planet of Urras that spread from nation to nation, spread like restless fires from the mouths of the newborns. The “leader-philosopher” of the anarchist rebellion (if such a term can be used) is a woman by the name of Laia Asieo Odo. The revolution, Odo’s movement, evolved into an anarchist struggle that started on the home planet of Urras, and which successfully threatened the power structures of the Statists, bureaucrats and capitalists. Built on mutual aid, equality, love and human solidarity, this anarcho-syndicalist movement struggles to unchain people from the slavery of possessions and thereby wrest control from their propertarian overseers. But in doing so, given the future-possible of untold bloodshed between the capitalists and the anarchists, the Odonians decided to come to a compromise with their class oppressors by evacuating their members from the planet of Urras to its most nearby relative: the moon of Anarres—a world of little habitat and biodiversity and containing only the most basic requirements for life. If their vision of a better world were to succeed, it would have to succeed on a moon of scarcity.
Years after Odo’s untimely death (she would not see the struggle’s ultimate success or later exile), even after the revolution completes its journey to Anarres, Urras remains a tremulous cultural cocktail of competing ideologies and nation-states bent on isolating itself from the revolution on Anarres. While trade is limited to mineral mining and spacecraft transport, communication between the planets is non-existent. The decentralized collectives of Anarresti society refuse to return to Urras. Likewise, the Odonians fold into a containment strategy of non-engagement, teach their children to be intolerant and pity their neighboring relatives who tragically are objects of statist control. Both societies ignore each other, mock their existence as an existential threat, and in doing so mythologize the perceived evil of the other side. Anarresti society is mostly successful in its aims for permanent classlessness and the end of private property. There are problems on Anarres, but they go mostly unnoticed. It remains a planet of solidarity and harmony, but it hides secrets from itself. On the home planet Urras, however, new swirling waves of unrest circle and foment between its respective nations: first, there is the country of A-Io, which is painted in largely opaque washes of satire after the United States. A-Io is consistently seen as a corporatist, competitive society that feeds off competition and class warfare. It is a place of mass consumption and plastic packaging, where objects retain an occult fascination over the class-climbing citizens of its tragically hollow republic. A-Io is relentlessly sexist, patriarchal, domineering, but also surprisingly—unlike our real-life version of the US—environmentally focused on maintaining its ecosystem. Whereas Anarres is a place of scarcity and limited biodiversity, A-Io is lush, richly organic and a seemingly utopian pleasure dome seen from its lofty mountain views. Competition in this nation-state is seen as a natural and healthy enterprise for human advancement—a natural outcome of sex-linked selection and genetic superiority. The supposed acceptance of this nation of hierarchies and its subjugated class structures is complicated by the appearance of an underground group of anti-capitalists that idolize the successful struggle of Anarresti society, and hope to carry on a struggle for classlessness in their propertarian state. A-Io’s arch-nemesis is found with the nation of Thu, which closely resembles the features of the Soviet Union with its statist government and central planning, its history of censorship and overt propaganda. Much like A-Io, the Thuvian government pretends to represent the common good of the public, but secretly disavows the freedoms of the proletariat for a system of nepotism and cronyism and censorship. Between all of this, between these two warring nations, is the country of Benbili. The country is embroiled in a proxy war between the pretend-a-socialist, revolutionary forces of Thu and the dictatorial corporatist elements of A-Io. Unremarkably, Benbili’s military conflict shares all the features of the Vietnam War, which at the time of this book’s writing was winding down to its tragic conclusions by 1974. While Benbili and Thu remain largely absent from deeper discussions in the narrative, A-Io is the major country of examination that works as a sustained contrast to the descriptions of its polar opposite in the novel, the utopian society of Anarres—a barren planet bereft of most organic life, but ironically hospitable to the revolutionary aims of an anarchist utopia. For Anarres, its joy resides not in its landscape, but in its belief of shared pain.
The chapters of The Dispossessed are designed much like that of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury—in a fluttering sequence on non-narrative passages that jump from time to time, place to place, image to image. The narrative itself, as it accounts to the reader, concerns the plight of a legendary physicist from the planet of Anarres, whose name is Shevek. Healthy but middle-aged, Shevek seeks to understand Urras—this other larger world his much smaller world rotates around. Knowing the element of surprise is all that he has, Shevek abruptly, without asking, decides to journey to this taboo birthplace. In doing so, he hopes to break down walls between the societies and close down their shared hostilities and insolent silences for an exchange, a dialogue, a peace offering, a chance at reconciliation. In order to show this bifurcation between the two worlds of Tau Ceti—Anarres and Urras—the chapters are divided by odd numbers and even ones. Minus the first and last chapters of the novel (which function as bridges between both worlds), the chapters’ odd numbers describe the story of Urras, while the even ones describe the events that take place on Anarres. The unusual ordering is both modern and postmodern in usage. Clearly, Le Guin is trying to tell us something about the parable of time and its sequential nature; of time’s circularity and time’s linearity; how they both exist one and whole. And fittingly, the central protagonist of the novel is a genius of intergalactic proportions; Shevek is the greatest physicist of his generation, but also a threat to his egalitarian society that insists that all are equal—all are the same in intelligence and self-worth on Anarres. The physicist, whose gifts of aptitude and vision concerning the laws of space-time become infamous to the scientists and politicians of Urras, is both a prize and a danger to all who accept the status quo. Seeking contact with his distant relatives of a shared past on Urras, Shevek makes the personal decision—to the source of unending tension by members of his own society—to leave Anarres for his mother planet. In doing so, Shevek hopes to make contact with the people of Urras and complete his scientific theory of time. Once there, he wants visit with empty hands like a true Odonian, to visit the nation of Odo’s origin and later struggles, the nation of A-Io. The opening image of the novel rests on the image of a barrier. It suggests a central theme to the novel’s ideas about the community and the self, about beginnings and endings, about barriers and vistas:
“There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that 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. On the field there were a couple of large gantry cranes, a rocket pad, three warehouses, a truck garage, and a dormitory. The dormitory looked durable, grimy, and mournful; it had no gardens, no children; plainly nobody lived there or was even meant to stay there long. It was in fact a quarantine. 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 world they came from, and the rest of the universe. It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.”
Remarkably, Le Guin journeys through her description of Anarres by applying a pin-prick to its utopian pleasure principle. Can a utopia exist if there remains a wall between what is inside and outside? Does the wall serve to protect or prevent further conflict? Does the wall manage to do so even if it’s small, inconsequential and largely symbolic? What can communicate under all of that concrete? Certainly, the barrier is easily crawled over by children or adults, but it remains permanent nonetheless. This notion suggests that for all of the wall’s smallness, it hints at other walls beyond this physical space. Are walls necessary and unavoidable aspect of the continued tug-of-war between the self and the community? The author doesn’t answer these questions in the first pages of The Dispossessed; but by the end of the book, we come to realize that this wall suggests an incomplete utopia. A more perfect union cannot truly exist when the worlds outside Anarres continue to languish. As long as the wall remains, so will the revolution’s need to remain permanent. To stop moving is to die like a shark at the bottom of a coral reef. All revolutions—whether by reform or resurrection—must remain organic, breathing, ever breathing, ready to be born and born again in the years after Odo’s revolt. But what has happened on Anarres is precisely the opposite: the ceaseless changes have become slowly inured to new ideas from individuals. Instead of working to redefine, alter, extend Odo’s original writings on the revolution, the wall of custom and obedience has taken place. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat has become the Dictatorship of the Sociable. Once a member of Anarres begins to show individual ideas that resist the commonly accepted rituals of Anarres, the individual is punished, exiled, avoided and ignored. At one significant point in the book, Shevek is visited by Bedap—a long-lost friend from his childhood school days at the Regional Institute. After not seeing or talking to Bedap for three years, they quickly engage in a debate about the relative health of their egalitarian society. And then they turn to the fate of a tragic friend, Tirin, who is now institutionalized in the Asylum of Segvina Island, as an example of their society’s fears. Tirin, after all, was an artist, a playwright pushing Anarres into an act of examining its own absurd contradictions.
As Bedap recalls, “Tirin wrote a play and put it on, the year after you left. It was funny—crazy—you know his kind of thing. It could seem anti-Odonian, if you were stupid. A lot of people are stupid. There was a fuss. He got reprimanded. Public reprimand. I never saw one before. Everybody comes to your syndicate meeting and tells you off. It used to be how they cut a bossy gang foreman or manager down to size. Now they only use it to tell an individual to stop thinking for himself. It was bad. Tirin couldn’t take it.”
Bedap tells him that his society made Tirin go mad and end up at a mental health ward. When Shevek responds by saying that, “You don’t get sent to the Asylum at all. You request posting to it,” Bedap responds in kind to defend Tirin: “Don’t feed me that crap. He never asked to be sent there! They drove him crazy and then sent him there.” Bedap, always persistent and questioning, remarkably understands the creeping cult of societal control on the individual. Shevek’s shared feelings and concerns also rattle him. As Bedap says quite stridently at one point, “Even on Urras, where food fall out of the trees, even there Odo said that human solidarity is our one hope. But we’ve betrayed that hope. We’ve let cooperation become obedience. On Urras they have government by the minority. Here we have government by the majority. But it is government! The social conscience isn’t a living thing anymore, but a machine, a power machine, controlled by bureaucrats!” But there is more than the story of Tirin involved with this. By way of dialogue between the long lost friends, their fine new coat starts to show its first strains of fingered abuse. The central town of the society, Abbenay (where Shevek works and lives), is showing signs of encroaching centralization and creeping authoritarianism among its collectives. Quietly but increasingly, systems of secrecy and control lead to personal whims by bureaucrats, who can assign individuals to work postings for months or even years, leaving them far from their families. Shevek’s own teacher, Sabul, keeps his physics work secret from other scientists and collective members at the Central Institute of the Sciences. Sabul controls documents from Urras that are written in a language only he can understand. Even Shevek, slowly gains access to small but frightening privileges when he receives dessert each night after work. Even though for most of residents of Anarres, desert is rationed commodity and served only once a week, Shevek sheepishly accepts the new found class privilege of being a member of the Science Institute. However, privilege works against him from other directions: when Shevek fashions revolutionary ideas concerning physics, his teacher, Sabul, edits Shevek’s ideas without asking permission and later credits himself as a co-writer of the work. When Shevek goes too far with his ideas, he is ostracized and ignored by the Institute and Sabul. It is this final insult and Shevek’s increasing inability to communicate his ideas on a unified General Temporal Theory that forces our hero to form his own publishing collective with Bedap and other like-minded reformers.
While certainly critical of problems found on Anarres, Shevek ultimately celebrates the moral courage of his anarchist society and its inhabitants. And if inferences might be drawn from a larger compass, if Ursula K. Le Guin was asked to side with the corporatist A-Iotians or Odo’s children, she would be in profound solidarity with Anarres. Le Guin would walk away from Omelas just as Odo did in her own struggles against A-Io—an unequal democracy of servitude and control, hierarchy and slave-worker savagery. Odo’s children have found their real joy, not in objects or ownership, but in the shared freedoms found in togetherness that becomes oneness. And so along with the settlement of Anarres, a new language is created that eliminates words, which reinforce hierarchy, discrimination and the language of possession and control. Much like Parecon, there are no banks, no police, and no currency that cheapen social bonds. Gone is the mental pollution of advertising that drains and reduces human life. Here, on Anarres, work lasts from five to seven hours and one has two to four days off each week; here, there is mutual aid. The communities of Anarres, much like Albert and Hahnel’s concept of balanced job complexes, share in the suffering and the joy of labor, in the drudgery and the graceful expression of human bodies in movement. Here on this arid planet, the division of labor is finally destroyed. Disempowering labor is shared between individuals and empowering work is prevented from gaining disproportional power and prestige. Rotational job postings allow for all citizens to evenly work in arduous and difficult circumstances, in places far removed from their hometowns. There is no elite cadre of bureaucrats that dominate decision-making (although the threat remains), and decisions are made based on their proportional effect to the individual and the community at large. Empathy exchange begins; solidarity breathes on and on among the flowers of Anarres. A triumphant and terrifically moving section of the novel details how the citizens of Anarres unite during a severe global drought, working in solidarity, sharing in hunger and in hope, never hoarding or controlling the value of one life over others. During the drought, sacrifices are made for the shared freedom from suffering, hunger and death. Shevek, like many of his brothers and sisters, leaves his family to help with the emergency harvesting of grains. He does not see his newborn child or his partner Takver for many seasons. And years after the drought, Shevek realizes that his society for all of its beauty and solidarity is suffering from the sickness of obedience. Like a true child of Odo, who must fulfill his function as part of the Social Organism, the physicist attempts to keep his people organic, living, changing and permanently in motion toward greater revolutions. Shevek leaves his home to “unbuild walls.” He visits Urras and is feted and co-opted by A-Iotian desires. He then evades the State by joining with an underground movement to alter the fate of Urras. When meeting the resistance, the poor, the desperate, he tells them—he tells us of Anarres—of a world much like Parecon.
“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”
So there, sister, brother, Ammar, lost ones and secret ones—even you the forsaken: What remains in Anarres remains inside of us.