I don’t always read science fiction (or even particularly enjoy the genre), but I will say that I enjoy The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is incidentally my first experience with Le Guin. I thought the novel would be incredibly daunting, yet it’s proven to be an incredibly interesting and fun read, and was relatively easy to get drawn into.
I think it’s because there is so much going on in 2020, and so many different marginalized groups that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and by police getting national attention (finally), that the last book I recommended and this book are relevant. And especially since we’ve seen billionaires like Jeff Bezos become richer while those who are barely holding on are sinking lower due to unemployment and possibly catching COVID-19. Because of these situations, this book, which looks at how capitalism and ownership can create a metaphysical prison, was a lesson that came at the right time.
In the same way, the fictional planet Urras is quite misogynistic. In fact, the protagonist Shevek (who hails from the planet Anarres, or the moon) remarks: “It was not very different from an Odonian community [such as the community that Shevek came from], except that it was very old, was exclusively male . . . and was not organized federatively but hierarchically, from the top down” (Le Guin, 81). When Shevek asks if all the scientists are men, the rich men that are housing and feeding him respond, “Scientists. Oh, yes, certainly, they’re all men . . . What women call thinking is done with the uterus! Of course, there’s always a few exceptions, God-awful brainy women with vaginal atrophy” (73-74). (Another rec–to come later–will focus on Kate Manne’s book Entitled, an excellent look at how misogyny and patriarchy work hand-in-hand to suppress women.) The reaction the men on Anarres have to women in STEM is an ingrained stereotype that is near impossible for Urras to overcome, and a difficult process for the world as we know it to rectify.
But perhaps the most relevant piece of the novel happens when a protest takes place on Urras, with Shevek giving a key-note speech. Shevek was chosen because he lives on Anarres, which is a planet much like our moon, that is socialistic. When he arrives on Urras, he is shocked to find his experiences and meetings are only with Urras celebrities, governors, and other high-class members of society. He continually wonders where the low-class communities are, where the marginalized groups are. Once he travels into the city on his own, he is able to find them and realizes they are staging a protest within the week. He decides to attend. And, of course, the protest is invaded by police officers who shoot citizens at random. A man next to Shevek is shot and Shevek manages to escape with him to a basement within the city, where they hide out for three days. One day, Shevek asks the man (who is suffering from a shattered hand and blood loss) what police officers would do to them if they gave themselves up; the man smiles and says, “Shoot us” (306).
These incidents are chilling in that they reminded me of the Black Lives Matter protests against the wrongful deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many, many (too many) other Black men, women, and children. Even peaceful protests are forcefully suppressed by police officers. As we see in Le Guin’s novel, the revolutionaries on Urras are attacked because they are “the idea of anarchism, made flesh. Walking amongst us” (295, emphasis added). Within our world, BLM protesters are attacked by police officers (and other racists) because they are not averting their eyes and silently accepting power – and its subsequent violence – dynamics. A war on Urras between the Benbili revolutionaries and Ioti troops highlights this disparity: “The Benbili revolutionaries were mostly not even armed. The Ioti troops would come with guns, armored cars, airplanes, bombs. Shevek read the description of their equipment in the paper and felt sick at his stomach” (202).
I highly recommend this novel. Not only is it an entertaining science fiction read, but it is also a read that bears significance on our day and age. As Shevek learns, “The subject of the Benbili revolution had sharpened certain problems for Shevek also: particularly the problem of his own silence” (203, emphasis added).