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Ursula Le Guin’s Radical Utopias Still Resonate Today

Ursula K. Le Guin was born on this day in 1929. She used science fiction to explore the failures of capitalist society — and the alternative worlds we could build in its place.

Ursula Le Guin photographed at home in Portland, Oregon, on December 15, 2005. (Dan Tuffs / Getty Images)

“You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution.” This is the core of the message that the anarchist Shevek proclaims to a mass demonstration of syndicalist and socialist workers gathered in Capitol Square in the city of Nio Esseia on the planet of Urras in Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic 1974 utopian novel The Disposessed.

In my opinion, rather than attempting to unpick the blend of anarchism, Taoism, and feminism that permeates Le Guin’s worldview, it’s best to start with this passage of direct address to the reader if we want to think about Le Guin’s ongoing relevance to socialists. The emphasis here is not just on personal moral responsibility, although this is a constant feature of Le Guin’s philosophy, but on the imperative need to integrate individual and collective values by refusing easy binaries and hierarchies of thought.

Far from a celebration of Shevek’s anarchist homeworld of Anarres, The Dispossessed is what the critic Tom Moylan called a “critical utopia,” which explores both the possibilities and the limitations of such a society. One of the ways in which the novel is able to expand its frame of reference beyond an internal investigation of one possible model of anarchist society is through the parallel plot of Shevek’s trip to Urras.

When Shevek asks the socialists of Nio Esseia what Anarres, which they see as their “moon,” means to them, they respond that every time they look up at the night sky, they are reminded that a society with no government, no police, and no economic exploitation exists and cannot be dismissed as merely a utopian fantasy. In other words, both Shevek and Le Guin’s readers come to realize that politics does not just revolve around adopting the correct practices but is also dependent on symbolic meaning to others.

Le Guin had a long career, and all her work repays reading, but the books that cemented her reputation were written between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s, during a period of Cold War anxiety and acute social and cultural crisis within Western societies. Within these contexts, novels such as The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) gained immediate recognition for the clarity of the vision by which they diagnosed the ills of the age and offered up visions of alternative values and societies that seemed achievable through hard work and earnest self-examination. They were quickly established as classics of the genre, but that is not necessarily an advantage from today’s perspective.

In his introduction to a recent reissue of The Left Hand of Darkness, China Miéville notes “The unluckiest books are those ignored or forgotten. But spare a thought too for those fated to become classics. A classic is too often a volume that everyone thinks they know.” Is there any greater disincentive to read a book than the knowledge that it is seen as a worthy and important, groundbreaking work for the time? For Miéville, the novel’s defamiliarization of gender makes it unquestionably a precursor of the gender queerness and sexual fluidity of our twenty-first-century present, but that still leaves open the thought that one might be better off reading more recent books.

In any case, as he acknowledges, The Left Hand of Darkness was not always seen in such a radical light. Le Guin’s use of universal male pronouns to denote a society without a permanent sexual divide and therefore without a gender division led to Joanna Russ, among others, criticizing the novel for only containing men in practice. For many years, the idea persisted that Le Guin’s novels were earnest and well-meaning, but not at the radical cutting edge of the field.

One way to challenge this residual perception of Le Guin as the writer of worthy-but-dull classics is to consider a less celebrated novel of hers from the same period, The Lathe of Heaven (1971). Rather than the nuanced, measured approach for which she is generally known, this book is structured in the unfettered madcap style of Philip K. Dick as a wild ride through a sequence of collapsing realities.

The resonantly named protagonist of The Lathe, George Orr, has unwanted dreams that change reality. His psychiatrist, William Haber, doesn’t attempt to cure him, instead setting out to use this power by proxy to transform the world for the benefit of humankind. Of course, every attempted change for the good is always accompanied by some unexpected monstrous consequence.

For example, when, in seeking to solve overpopulation, Haber instructs Orr to dream about a world full of room to move around in, the latter dreams of a pandemic and wakes up to find that he has “reduced” the world population by six billion lives. As Haber comes to realize, Orr can only dream “cheap utopian concepts, or cynical anti-utopian concepts perhaps.”

On one level, this is a joke at the expense of Orr’s namesake, George Orwell: In one of the book’s many alternate histories, the US Constitution is rewritten in 1984 to form a police state. However, there is also something valuable in Orr’s resistance to Haber’s will to power. When the latter demands world peace, Orr dreams that aliens have landed on the moon, thus uniting the people of Earth in opposition. Then, when commanded to dream that the aliens leave the moon, Orr dreams that they invade Earth.

The telepathic aliens teach Orr that “everything dreams,” even rocks, and therefore that the only way to live in harmony with what would otherwise be chaos is consciously to attune oneself with the whole. The novel ends with a resolution worthy of Dick, in which Orr, no longer plagued by effective dreams, is now happy working for an alien designing kitchenware. It is difficult not to see this ending as a play on the idea of “alienated labor”: It would be a kind of “negation of the negation” if labor was conducted for mutual benefit with aliens with whom the worker was telepathically in tune.

The Lathe of Heaven illustrates the importance of thinking about books aesthetically as well as judging them ideologically. As the critic Fredric Jameson has pointed out, the novel might be read as expressing liberal anxiety in the face of revolutionary transformation, but, aesthetically, it is concerned with its own process of production.

This is to say that Orr’s unsuccessful attempts to dream utopia mirror Le Guin’s attempts to write utopia, a process that is thereby acknowledged as impossible. However, in the very manner by which the novel explores the contradictions of trying to produce a utopia, the narrative gets written — and a version of utopia is somehow nonetheless produced.

While neither The Dispossessed nor The Left Hand of Darkness are intended simply as playful satires, comparing them to The Lathe of Heaven opens up some possibilities for thinking about them as more than just classics of their time. For example, we might see the seemingly incongruous use of universal male pronouns in The Left Hand of Darkness as a deliberate exposure of the impossibility of narrating gender outside the binary to which our language has often limited us.

In a similar way, The Dispossessed specifically foregrounds the temporal impossibility of thinking the future from within the mindset of the present. In another key moment of second-person address that speaks directly to the reader, Shevek tells the Terran ambassador to Urras, “You don’t understand what time is.”

What we experience as the present is not real or stable: It is the product of constant change. Only the reality of the past and the future, held within human memory and intention, makes the present real. Not only does Le Guin’s fiction symbolize the possibility of change for socialist readers, then; it also gives some idea of the sheer degree of the mental work required for us to comprehend the radical difference that would be entailed by that change.