[OPE-L] The Socialist World Map and Ursula Le Guin

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Sun Jun 24 2007 - 14:16:09 EDT

Hi Jerry,

I think that with her idea of the "ansible" (a gadget enabling superluminal
communication, faster than the speed of light) Ursula le Guin was perhaps
metaphorically anticipating the modern cellphone. Apparently the first
handheld cellphone not tied to a vehicle was produced by Motorola in 1973
(le Guin's novel appeared a year later). Superluminal communication isn't
really possible according to physics - it would imply among other things
sending messages from the future to the past - but of course with a
cellphone you can call back somebody you met before, to make a date in the

In the novel, the character Shevek's search for a "General Temporal Theory"
(reconciling sequentiality with simultaneity) could obviously be compared to
the modern controversies about the "transformation problem" in Marxian

You might like to consult:

Tony Burns, "Marxism and science fiction: A celebration of the work of
Ursula K. Le Guin", in: Capital & Class,  Winter 2004

"Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed were two
of the few American science fiction novels published in the German
Democratic Republic (GDR). Le Guin shares this distinction with Isaac
Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (2) Like all
literature that appeared in East Germany, Le Guin's titles passed through an
elaborate approval process before they appeared in the science fiction
publishing house: Verlag Das Neue Berlin (DNB). The Left Hand of Darkness
came out in 1978 under the title Winterplanet. The Dispossessed was
published in 1987, just two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989
as Planet der Habenichtse (literally, planet of those with nothing)."

David Graeber for his part writes:

It is hardly a coincidence that some of the greatest recruiters for
anarchism in countries like the United States have been feminist science
fiction writers like Starhawk or Ursula K. LeGuin. One way this is beginning
to happen is as anarchists begin to recuperate the experience of other
social movements with a more developed body of theory, ideas that come from
circles close to, indeed inspired by anarchism.

One of the contributions of anarchist thinking is its emphasis on
interpretive freedom, i.e. the idea that you do not have to interpret
everything as other people do or believe, which opens up a realm of personal
imagination and independent thought. From the same observation, many
different conclusions can be drawn. That is how I thought about it anyway,
when I read the novel in my youth. However, if you want to communicate
effectively at a high level, inexorably you do need to accept at least some
shared interpretations and non-arbitrary behaviours. To stick to your own
interpretation, or accept someone else's, that may be the question.

What impressed me most about the novel when I read it in 1976 was the
possibility that the processes, interactions and relationships involved in
giving and receiving, obtaining and taking, sharing and relinquishing -
central to economics, but also the means through which human love is
expressed - could be successfully organised in a completely different way.
Intriguingly, in pursuing his idea, the character Shevek meets with forces
which are internally corrupting the "utopia" of Anarres - forces of
conservatism, bureaucratism and centralism - yet it remains dissatisfyingly
unclear, what ultimately gives rise to those forces. In Anarres, there is no
government oppression or inequality, but individuality is stifled and
creativity devalued, while in Urras, where there is unjust distribution of
power and wealth,  great beauty and achievement also exists. But why this
particular polarity? Beyond the obvious allusion to the difference between
the USA and USSR (or Cuba), it is not something the novel really gives a
profound answer to, and in that sense it mystifies as much as it reveals.

Happy sailing,


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