Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What I Read: The Dispossessed

Almost every time I talk about science fiction on this blog, I bring up my brother's gorgeous Easton Press collection of leather-bound science fiction classics. Fortunately, he was cool about sharing, so I got to enjoy the collection as much as he did (maybe even more?) and my first experience with a lot of classics of the genre came out of it: Neuromancer, She, Dying Inside, The Doomsday Book, and Dune, to name a few. (Aside: the ideal form of Dune is in a leather-bound hardcover edition with metallic trim. Somehow that elevates it from space opera into grand epic.)

But sometimes those books fell a little flat. The Diamond Age was one of those. The Dispossessed was another. I must have been 13 or 14 when I tried reading it, maybe a bit older, and it just couldn't stick. I had this problem with LeGuin generally—A Wizard of Earthsea was on a semi-required reading list a few years before I tried to tackle The Dispossessed, but again I couldn't seem to get into it. Since then I just wrote LeGuin off as one of the great and admirable giants of science fiction who just wasn't for me. 

Fast forward to 2017, and I'm getting ready to visit one of my best friends; my visit will coincide with the August meeting of his feminist science fiction book club. This is the same feminist science fiction book club that brought The Fifth Season to his attention, and then subsequently mine when he gave me a copy as a gift back in October. 

Their scheduled book is Karen Memory, but he let me know that:

 "[w]e also might be discussing The Dispossessed, which was this month's book but most people couldn't make it to this month's discussion (and I really want to discuss The Dispossessed again, there's so much to talk about)" 
"man i tried reading the dispossessed in high school and couldn't get into it, but maybe i'm a better reader now" 
"The Dispossessed is sooooooooooooo good. Le Guin is hard to get into (especially in high school, yeesh, I can't imagine), but this is one of the best books we've read so far"

Good news, everyone! I am a better reader now, because I finished The Dispossessed in record time! How many years late to the game am I with this one?

First of all, I'm proud of myself for finishing a book I DNF'd years ago. My own book club tackled The Invisible Bridge for April? May? and despite picking at it for two months I just couldn't get into it, and finally I returned it to the library, DNF'd. It's not fault of the book's; the writing is actually fluid and snappy, and the rather large cast of characters are unique and well-sketched. I guess a novel about Hungarian Jews during World War II is a little too real, right now? Whatever the reason, it slowed down my reading and I went from being 5 books ahead of my GoodReads goal to being a book behind. Madonna in a Fur Coat was the shot in the arm I needed to get back to reading again, and The Dispossessed  was the self-esteem boost I needed after the first DNF I've had in a long, long while.

But while I can see why teenage me couldn't get into The Dispossessed, adult me really liked it. I liked the little grammatical nuances of Pravic (like the total absence of possessive pronouns), I liked the world-building, I liked how Urras was a whole planet full of nations at cross-purposes instead of a single monoculture. I liked how neither Urras nor Anarres were all-good or all-bad, but both oppressive and less than ideal in their own way, though maybe that's pessimism on Le Guin's part. (Or maybe it's just realism. #bleak)

But I think the most pertinent part of The Dispossessed is actually connected to some complaints leveraged at the March for Science: science shouldn't be political! science doesn't have an agenda except the truth! and so on. But Shevek's presence on Urras (and specifically, within the nation-state of Io) is entirely political, as is the knowledge Io hopes to gain from him. Knowledge doesn't exist in a vacuum, and scientists have an obligation to be clear-eyed about the impact of their science beyond the narrow scope of academia. If scientists are only willing to engage in politics to the extent that politics interferes with their ability to do science, rather than to ensure the responsible application and dissemination of the work they do, then we're boned.

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