U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ursula Le Guin, the Odonian Revolution, and the American Bicentennial

This week, my colleague Bob Lifset and I taught Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed in our Honors colloquium on America in the Seventies. I’ve taught the novel in other contexts in the past, but this is the first time I’ve really thought about it as a Seventies text. Le Guin’s novel was published in 1974 to considerable critical acclaim, unusually so for a science fiction novel at the time. It went on to become on of the few novels to win both the Nebula (1974) and Hugo (1975) awards, the most prestigious prizes in science fiction. Since then it has been extraordinarily influential within its genre. It has also been the object of much critical analysis, especially for a science fiction novel. But relatively little of the work on The Dispossessed seems to concern the context of its publication.

Le Guin’s novel concerns two planets that revolve each other, Urras and Anarres. Each considers the other its moon. Urras, a lush and Earthlike world is divided into a variety of countries and dominated by two powers in a kind of Cold War with each other, the capitalist A-Io and the state-socialist Thu. The much drier and resource poorer Anarres houses a society whose ancestors came from Urras to settle the other planet and put into practice a communitarian anarchist ideology called Odonionism. After settlement, all human travel between the worlds was ended, though freighters come regularly from Urras to trade minerals mined on Anarres for various goods. The novel begins as Shevek, a celebrated Anarresti physicist, becomes the first citizen of his planet to travel back to Urras. In chapters that alternate between two timelines, Le Guin tells the story of Shevek’s trip to Urras as well as the chronologically earlier tale of how Shevek came take his trip. The Dispossessed is essentially a work of utopian literature, though the anarchistic utopia of Anarres is deeply imperfect. An early cover blurb referred to the novel as “an ambiguous utopia,” a phrase which, in more recent editions, has become a subtitle.

The politics of the novel are complicated. Indeed a long collection of essays on The Dispossessed by political theorists of various stripes was published a few years ago. Though the political issues raised by the novel are by no means dated, their particular manifestation reflects the world of the 1970s in many ways. For example, energy scarcity and environmental destruction both play key roles in the novel. But in rereading the book for my colloquium, I was struck by another ’70s connection: an echo of the upcoming American Revolutionary Bicentennial in the world of the novel.

The world of Anarres was settled a hundred and seventy years before Shevek takes his journey to Anarres. Many of the political discussions that take place on Anarres in the novel concern the legacy of the revolution that created them and its meaning for the present of the novel:

“You see,” [Shevek] said, “what we’re after is to remind ourselves that we didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we’re no better than a machine. If an individual can’t work in solidarity with his fellows, it’s his duty to work alone. His duty and his right. We have been denying people that right. We’ve been saying, more and more often, you must work with the others, you must accept the rule of the majority. But any rule is tyranny. The duty of the individual is to accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible . Only if he does so will the society live, and change, and adapt, and survive. We are not subjects of a State founded upon law, but members of a society founded upon revolution. Revolution is our obligation: our hope of evolution. ‘The Revolution is in the individual spirit, or it is nowhere. It is for all, or it is nothing. If it is seen as having any end, it will never truly begin.’ We can’t stop here. We must go on. We must take the risks.” (358-9, HarperCollins e-book edition)

I suspect that these conversations would have had a subtly different valence to American readers at the time that the book was published in 1974, only two years before the Bicentennial of the American Revolution. Public discussions of the Bicentennial went back to the late 1960s, but picked up in the years leading up to 1976. And even when those discussions concerned how the nation should mark the anniversary, what was really at stake was the meaning of the Revolution and its legacy for America in the 1970s.

It cannot have been accidental that Le Guin set the revolutionary past of her novel’s anarchistic society at a very similar temporal distance from the action of the novel that the American Revolution stood from the present in which she wrote. Perhaps it would have been too on-the-nose to make Anarres’s founding exactly two hundred years before the action of the book. Le Guin notes that the founding of Anarres was one hundred and seventy years ago on three occasions (342, 346, 356). In a section set during Shevek’s childhood, Le Guin notes that the founding took place one hundred and fifty years earlier (42, 43), a number that is repeated a couple times later in the novel in more approximate references to the time of the founding (228, 295).

But just as frequently, Le Guin refers to events “two hundred years ago,” either as an approximate measure of the time since the founding or as the time since the (apparently failed) Odonian revolution on Urras that preceded it (12, 18, 233, 298, 299, 300, 373).

Ursula Le Guin’s decision in 1974 to set the revolutionary beginnings of Anarresti society two hundred years in the past cannot have been an accident. Though the capitalist society of A-Io in most ways resembles America in the 1970s more than Anarres does (and though a future Earth itself appears late in the novel), in her decision to have her ambiguously utopian anarchist society grapple with a two-hundred-year-old revolutionary legacy, she directly evoked memory work that her readership would have been engaged in at the time she published her novel.