PNNscholar1 - Posted on 18 August 2010



By Thornton Kimes


We recently published what others call a “white paper” on the necessity of giving up reliance on other people, chiefly the Po’Lice, to solve problems we can and should deal with ourselves.  That is nested inside a bigger necessity:  how do we change the world from one where people are exploited, or exploiters, into one where that doesn’t happen?

Literary fiction writers like to think they are the cream at the top of the hierarchic bottle of milk, um, written material people enjoy or endure, but the truth is romance and science fiction/fantasy conquered the world—and, of the two, I think romance is winning! 

One of the better recent (20 years old or less) novels, WRAPT IN CRYSTAL, by Sharon Shinn, blurs genres—it’s a science fiction murder mystery romance.  But that book isn’t what I want to discuss, mostly because while it does go into the absurdities of organized religion, it doesn’t challenge everything we are told is true about how people are meant to live and deal with one another.

Science fiction writers often ask, and answer, the toughest questions:  what makes a good society, can you do good with evil acts (sometimes spectacularly evil…)?  L.E. Modesitt, Jr., another writer I’m not reviewing here (sort of)_does that spectacularly well with THE PARAFAITH WAR and its sequel THE ETHOS EFFECT. 

I’ll get my science fiction/fantasy addict “street” nerd cred firmly in cheek and under control, I hope—but Kim Stanley Robinson is another writer to read.  Especially his “Three Californias” and global warming trilogies.  The first set of books (The Wild Shore{1984}, The Gold Coast{1988} and Pacific Edge{1988}) are utopian and dystopian, and don’t tell a connected story.  The global warming trilogy--the Science in the Capital series; Forty Signs of Rain (2004), ), Fifty Degrees Below (2005) and Sixty Days and Counting (2007)--like the book I want to focus on below, does a great job of showing what it’s like to be a scientist and do science work, for better or worse, with the system we’ve developed, and abused over the years, wih politics firmly embedded in the doing and the process of trying to do it.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s THE DISPOSSESSED, published in 1974, is 36 years old and has aged very very well.  It is still incredibly relevant to our times, as it was immediately after the Vietnam War came to its ugly end.  It throws a mean right hook. 

Set thousands of years in the future, 170 years after a million or so anarchists left their homeworld to settle its barely habitable moon, the novel tells the story of the society they built and of one man, a physicist named Shevek, who wants to visit the fractious, Capitalist nations of the homeworld of Urras.  He wants to talk to them, to stir them up, and maybe share a breakthrough in physics with them…forgetting that it’s pretty hard to share anything with Capitalists who would rather profit from you than do anything else.

THE DISPOSSESSED gets deep into how the anarchist society of Anarres works.  It isn’t perfect, some sort of acceptable, as non-coercive as possible controlling council, or network of them, makes everything work as smoothly as anything created by humans can.  There is a serpent in the garden, and everyone knows it, but the only way large numbers of people can live together and cooperate is by compromise. 

That word gets used and abused a lot in OUR world.  Actually, the word “consensus” gets used and abused a lot.  Activists, especially anarchists, mean something completely different when they use the word as opposed to Capitalists who say that some business or political person is a “consensus builder”.  Who’s consensus is being built?

How do you create a new society in the shell of the old one?  The theorist behind the “Odonian” anarchists of Anarres didn’t live to see her new society built.  We don’t get to know what the first generation did, or how they did it, except that they were vigilant about not back-sliding into being what they didn’t want to be. 

The best writers leave us wanting more and living in (our heads) the world of their creation for a while.  Shevek went to Urras with nothing but the clothes on his back, which is how he returned to Urras, with his hands empty.  His choice to actually live the continuous revolution of Odonianism, and to try to communicate it to the “Urrasti”, was not popular and generated protest. 

What he went back to we will never know, but what is in the pages of THE DISPOSSESSED gives readers something good to chew on between their ears. 

There are people building the new world in the shell of the old right now:  the Catholic Worker movement, Long Haul Infoshop and other similar anarchist orgs, COMMUNITIES magazine and the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, POOR, and others I don’t know. 

POORmagazine’s Homefulness Project is getting closer to being more reality than idea.  Tiny has spent about a quarter of her life on it.  Mistakes will be made, “living off the grid” in this world isn’t easy—but nothing worth doing is.






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