Anarchists in Space

Ursula K. Le Guin

Paul Raven reviews Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novel The Dispossessed, a tale of the confrontation between an anarcho-syndicalist culture and a state-capitalist culture. (CHT François.) Though Le Guin’s personal sympathies were with the anarchists, she doesn’t stack the deck (unlike most political science fiction): the anarcho-syndicalist culture is actually pretty sucky. But the state-capitalist culture is even suckier. (I didn’t say it was a cheerful book. But it’s a very good book.)

Related whereunto, some random items:

  • There’s a book of essays titled The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I haven’t read it; but apparently Le Guin liked it and contributed an essay herself.
  • L. Neil Smith semi-dedicated his anarcho-capitalist novel The Probability Broach to Le Guin and The Dispossessed. (At least that’s true of the first edition; I don’t have the revised edition handy.) He also commends Hayek’s Capitalism and the Historians to Le Guin’s attention in order to nudge her toward a more favourable attitude to property. (I gotta say, that’s not the book I would have picked for that purpose.)
  • I’ve long suspected that Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division, with its confrontation between a flawed but functional anarcho-capitalist society and a flawed but functional anarcho-communist society, was partly inspired by Le Guin’s book.
  • One of Le Guin’s last works, The Telling, deals with Taoist-inspired communities struggling under an oppressive system variously described by reviewers as a “tightly controlled capitalist government” and a “soulless form of corporate communism.” I haven’t read it yet either.

Addendum: I remembered something else I’d intended to mention: in addition to Ken MacLeod’s The Cassini Division being partly inspired by The Dispossessed in its theme, I’ve wondered whether MacLeod’s earlier novel The Stone Canal might be partly inspired by The Dispossessed in its narrative structure, with one storyline being told through the odd-numbered chapters while a “flashback” background story, featuring the same viewpoint character – in both cases an anarchist scholar – runs through the even-numbered chapters (though of course other writers have done such things as well).

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18 Responses to Anarchists in Space

  1. Francois Tremblay February 7, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    “the anarcho-syndicalist culture is actually pretty sucky.”

    I gotta disagree on that one. I’d prefer to live on Anarres. It’s a sucky planet to live on, but that’s hardly their fault.

    • Roderick February 8, 2010 at 12:27 am #

      Well, I said that Urras was even suckier. But I don’t think the suckiness of Anarres is (or is intended by Le Guin to be) simply a matter of poor resources; after all, the oppressive aspects of Annarean culture are portrayed (in the even-numbered chapters) as bad enough to drive Shevek nearly to despair.

  2. Anon73 February 8, 2010 at 12:51 am #

    Thanks for the reading list; too much science fiction is statist and automatically assumes some kind of Central Authority/World Government rules mankind.

  3. Roderick February 8, 2010 at 1:22 am #

    In case anyone missed it, I added an addendum to the main post.

  4. Black Bloke February 8, 2010 at 9:33 am #

    I gotta say, that’s not the book I would have picked for that purpose.

    What book would you have picked?

    • Roderick February 8, 2010 at 12:33 pm #

      Back in 1980, when Broach came out, perhaps Kolko’s Triumph of Conservatism or Railroads and Regulation, and then follow it up with stuff from Left & Right and the early years of Libertarian Forum. If it were nowadays, Kevin Carson’s books would obviously be essential.

      The crucial point is this: the leftist sees a jackbooted thug wearing a “Laissez Faire” t-shirt and stomping on the face of a helpless peon. What do we tell the leftist? What argument is both most likely to persuade the leftist and most responsive to the reality of the situation?

      a) “I know it looks bad, but the thug isn’t stomping quite as hard as he seems to be, and anyway he rescued the peon from an even worse thug, so let’s not interfere.”


      b) “Yes, let’s stop that awful thug. And by the way, he stole that shirt from us.”

      • Black Bloke February 8, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

        I wonder if there’s a way to get those to her now?

        • Roderick February 8, 2010 at 3:05 pm #

          At first I thought you were joking, since I distinctly remember Ursula Le Guin dying. (Hence my reference to The Telling as one of her “last” — as opposed to “latest” — books, and my saying what her sympathies “were.”) But … apparently she is alive and well; indeed, she wrote this letter (unfortunately, propertarian in the worse sense!) just a few weeks ago.

          But it seems I’m not alone in remembering her death. A quick websearch found this. Go figure.

        • Black Bloke February 8, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

          You certainly weren’t alone in thinking that she was dead. I had to look up her status on wikipedia before I posted my question.

        • Anon73 February 8, 2010 at 4:32 pm #

          I knew she was alive and writing pro-copyright letters…

        • Roderick February 8, 2010 at 4:57 pm #

          Has she ever commented about the oddness of an anti-propertarian doing this? (Writing pro-copyright letters, I mean — not being alive.)

        • Anon73 February 8, 2010 at 9:23 pm #

          I looked through google hits for a few minutes (the irony of which did not escape me) but found nothing. In the letter she mentioned the anti-copyright ideas as “selling out” to a “corporation”, so I imagine that might be how she would address it.

          The response from the Author’s Guild was fairly amusing; they decided on settlement because they are afraid if they lose the case, then (gasp!) any website, not just Google, could scan samples of works at put them up for free (“fair use”).

        • Roderick February 8, 2010 at 9:57 pm #

          Yeah, but she’s gone aggressively after individuals who quoted her works, not just corporations: see here.

        • Anon73 February 9, 2010 at 12:59 am #

          Maybe nobody has the temerity to call her a “propertarian” to her face?

  5. freeman February 8, 2010 at 11:35 am #

    Thanks for mentioning The Telling! I was planning on reading some fiction this month, and I now know which work of fiction to choose.

  6. Dan Clore February 10, 2010 at 12:16 am #

    I have a column, “Essential Science Fiction and Fantasy for Libertarians”, here:

    for those interested.

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