Ursula Le Guin’s novel, The Dispossessed, is supposedly about a dissident physicist who travels from his “ambiguously utopian” (so says the cover) anarchist home-world of Anarres, where all is shared, there is no state, and the women are liberated, to the “propertarian” Urras, a luxurious, unequal (on both class and gender lines), world from which Anarres has been long isolated.
Actually, the book largely seems to be about Ursula Le Guin. Anarres is drawn, nearly wholly, from other Le Guin novels: the laconic sages, the moral purity and simple living, the richly imagined gender egalitarianism. Meanwhile, Urras, as the back cover admits, “is a world very similar to Earth.” The book moves back and forth, chapter by chapter, between Shevek (the brilliant protagonist) as a student and young physicist on Anarres, and his mid-life visit to Urras, when he attempts to cash in on his now considerable fame to achieve some rapprochement between the two social orders.
We are, in other words, plunged into the split consciousness of the successful, but radical, science-fiction writer. On the one hand, there is the world she has imagined—pure, austere, necessarily separate. On the other hand, there is the real world in which she writes, is read, and is feted. That world celebrates her (Shevek is constantly being invited to empty-headed official dinners and receptions, as I assume was Le Guin), but it doesn’t understand her (the Urrasti impatiently ask when Shevek’s abstract theories will yield technological fruit). The Dispossessed comes four years after Le Guin’s landmark novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, and it shows.
Nor is that the only parallel. Anarresti society was formed by a group who rebelled on Urras and ultimately fled. I suppose many utopias work like this, but certainly all utopian fictions do. They are generated from and constantly make reference to the imperfect social orders in which their authors live. Anarresti fear contamination, so they wall off the rocket landing site at which they exchange goods with Urras. Though this fear drives the whole plot, it is posited rather than explained.
But it makes perfect sense for the writer trying to get beyond her lived experience and imagine a new world. The trouble is that the present keeps creeping back in. In fact, the whole conceit of the novel—that the “utopia” exists simultaneously to the corruption which birthed it, rather than, as in the paradigmatic utopian novel Looking Backwards, existing subsequently to it—makes much better sense when you realize that Anarres is all in Le Guin’s (remarkable) mind. That mind, is not a place unto itself: it exists, for better or worse, in this world.
“Simultaneity,” in fact, is also the name of Shevek’s driving physics problem. The “ansible,” an instantaneous communication device, was the novel’s technological gift to the world of science-fiction. I, like many readers, first met the ansible in the novels of Orson Scott Card, who alludes to having lifted the name. Card mistrusts his imagination (his imagined dreams are nightmares involving werewolf children and poisonous snakes), so the ansible is in Ender’s Game an original sin, something which converts Ender’s fictional savagery into real genocide. Le Guin is at least more ambivalent, at most positively enthused about her dreams (she is actually deeply feminist and anti-capitalist). In that context, the ansible seems to represent Le Guin and Shevek’s long-for communication between their imagined worlds (or physics theories) and reality.
Simultaneity also perhaps encodes the dream of unifying parts of Le Guin’s life. The strained utopia of Anarres owes a lot, both for good and for ill, to universities. Le Guin did graduate work at Columbia, and her father was a famous anthropologist. Academic anthropology shaped her fiction as English language and literature did Tolkien’s. The joys of research, the shocking pettiness of the supposedly high-minded, the strange juxtapositions of prolonged isolation and rich community, frenetic work and no external incentives: Scratch an “ambiguous utopia,” and you find the hallmarks of graduate school.
Reality, once again, seeps through and contaminates. As Shevek thinks, confronted after months of luxurious living, with the brute fact of Urrasian poverty, “The Dignit of the room he and Efor [his poor servant] were in was as real as the squalor of which Efor was native. To him a thinking man’s job was not to deny one reality… but to include and to connect.” Like luxury under conditions of inequality, the utopian dream is always itself a part of the imperfect reality.