I first read Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed a year or so ago, and it has not left me since. Once or twice a day, some fragment resurfaces, however briefly, to the eye of memory. What has made the novel linger, I think, is the fact that her characters are agents, neither puppets nor spectators. The novel concerns Shevek, a brilliant scientist who has developed a revolutionary theory of time travel. Shevek belongs to an egalitarian, but materially poor, anarcho-communist society, surviving frugally on the unforgiving desert planet Anarres. Lacking the resources to realise his General Temporal Theory, Shevek journeys to Urras, the dominant sister planet from which Anarres’ society seceded and has since maintained only the slenderest threads of communication. Shevek must return to the place where he has never lived but where his people were born. One planet is free, but leaves Shevek’s hands empty; the other fills his hands while voiding that freedom.
To travel to Urras, Shevek must first cross a wall. ‘It did not look important,’ we are told, ‘[b]ut the idea was real. It was important.’ The wall is ‘ambiguous, two-faced’ (Le Guin 2002, p.5). Are we inside or outside the wall? That depends upon what side of it we’re on. From one side, ‘it enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres, outside, free.’ From the other, ‘the wall enclosed Anarres: […] a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine’ (p.5). That’s the thing about walls: you think you’ve safely secured yourself, given shelter, but then you find you’re an outcast, unable to step back in, or else boxed in with no way out.
Another thing about walls: there are lots of them. Realising the violence of territorial division, Le Guin’s ‘idea’ of a wall invites endless political parallels. Published in 1974, her novel makes one think of the Cold War, colonial independence, Israel-Palestine. But analogy does not exhaust The Dispossessed’s political value. Indeed, partly because it escapes easy political analogy, Le Guin’s writing is curiously resistant to popular reinterpretation. Her work offers no equivalent to the cinematic or television adaptations Philip K Dick, William Gibson and Margaret Atwood receive. Sci-Fi that fits in with film industry expectations relies not simply on powerful scenes, but on abject bodies and scenes of melancholia. It treats in spectators or dupes, not agents, and forces so far beyond our control they seem sublime. As Mark Fisher trenchantly argues (2013, pp.6-16), popular culture’s apparent obsession with technology presents a paradoxically nostalgic vision of the future which naturalises, rather than critiques, technological capitalism. Blade Runner re-treads film noir, Steampunk re-treads Blade Runner, and so on. The future acquires the uncanny quality of something that has already happened. Our feeling of helplessness at this impasse bathes us in melancholia, visually symbolised by the grainy blue light of a tech-driven world on the wane.
By contrast, Le Guin’s materialism critiques the world in which it was written: the world we live. Always returning on itself, Le Guin’s style envisions a better world beyond the conditions that produced this one. Shevek ‘would always be one for whom the return was as important as the voyage out. To go was not enough for him, only half enough; he must come back.’ But return recognises a loss: ‘You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been’ (Le Guin 2002, p.48). The search for a home, simultaneously achieved and annihilated in the moment of arrival (what is left to desire when you have what you desire? It can no longer be desirable. You have it, so you no longer desire it; it is not what you desire) unwinds a skein rich with the ghosts of desired but unrealised possibilities.
These ghosts, the loss afforded by arrival, haunt literary modernism, the universe which haunts Le Guin. The Dispossessed often reads like ‘Proust in Space.’ This is not as flippant as it sounds: Le Guin’s way of writing about time and about possession (dispossession) shows an unmistakeably Proustian disposition, which shares its attitude and atmosphere with À la recherche du temps perdu. Take Proust’s anxiety about his lover Albertine, an anxiety sedated only when she sleeps and by “losing consciousness” acquires
a life more different from my own, more alien, and yet one that belonged more to me. Her personality did not escape at every moment as when we were talking, by the outlets of her unacknowledged thoughts and of her gaze. […] In keeping her before my eyes, in my hands, I had that impression of possessing her altogether, which I never had when she was awake. (Proust 2006, p.503)
Possession is an anxiety-born negation of the real. Marcel possesses Albertine unconscious and inhuman, ‘alien.’ To possess is to have what you desire, and to no longer desire it; it is to arrive home, when you have never been home.
It is this myth of presence that memory – the only real kind of time travel – undoes. And it is precisely this modernist inheritance that makes Le Guin so unpalatable to the dystopic and postmodern visual language of cinematic Sci-Fi. Between the worlds of deprivation and abundance, it is the self-possessed world of abundance that dehumanises. If we are to settle elsewhere, and make of it a utopia, we need to break the conditioning of a world-view that only looks to the future, and sees the present only in terms of resources and opportunities. We must go back, refusing the desire to fill voids and lacks with our wants and needs. Elon Musk will not help us settle Mars: we will never find a home there, because we can only go there by going back, and accepting that to arrive is, also, to depart. Le Guin is prepared to put everything on the table; everything, that is, except a world without history or end – the zombie stasis of capitalism and the melancholy it breeds, to which we are now the unhappy spectators.
We can only build something that lasts – a home – if our hands are empty, since to hold what we seek is to have it taken from us.
Fisher, Mark (2013) Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost
Futures. Winchester and Washington, Zer0 Books.
Le Guin, Ursula (2002) The Dispossessed. London, Gollancz.
Proust, Marcel (2006) The Captive. In Remembrance of Things Past, vol. 2. Trans. CK Scott Moncrieff. Hetfordshire, Wordsworth. pp.449-785.
Tim Lawrence is a Study Development Tutor at York St John University. He holds a PhD from the University of York, and has published variously on Modernism and the European Avant-Garde. He is the author of Samuel Beckett’s Critical Aesthetics (Palgrave, 2018).
Editor’s note: The featured illustration has been created by Andreas Skyman. Please see the website https://eintrittverboten.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/tau-ceti-cartography/#footnotes for his notes on the illustration and its production.