Author Topic: Book pairing: The Dispossessed / Always Coming Home - Ursula Le Guin  (Read 802 times)

Pingers

  • I can produce 3,500 water voles a year if required
Often when I am reading a book I find myself thinking about another that is in some way related to it, which in turn helps me think differently about the book I’m reading.

I recently read The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin and not surprisingly it made me think a lot about another book of hers, Always Coming Home. Both are works of fiction that are about anarchism, but very different. Always Coming Home, I should confess, is my favourite book; it’s my happy place. Le Guin describes a society that while not without its problems and struggles, is as rich, harmonious and rooted in its natural environment as you could want. It’s only after some time that the unwary reader realises that she has been describing an utterly plausible, rational and achievable anarchist society. It is radical in the subtlety of its radicalism.

The Dispossessed, written about 12 years earlier, is quite different, wearing its anarchism on its sleeve from early on. I found this difficult to begin with, since one of  Always Coming Home’s strengths is the way that readers can find themselves drawn in, longing for a life like the one Le Guin describes, without political language being used to describe it, or even realising that politics is a central concern. The Dispossessed, usually considered part of the sci-fi genre, is much blunter, at times somewhat worthy, but nevertheless ambitious and surprising.

It’s very much concerned with how natural environment shapes human behaviour. It counterposes two societies; a capitalist society on the planet Urras which is not dissimilar to the one we live in, and a renegade anarchist society on Urras’s rather barren moon Anarres, settled by exiles from Urras around 200 years earlier.

What I like about it is that Le Guin definitely does not take the easy road. Life on Anarres is hard because it is an arid, not very fertile place to live, so resources have to be used and managed carefully and there is a lot of hard work to do. This in turn creates tension within the egalitarian and utilitarian Anarresti, which they have to resolve. From reviews, I had been led to believe that this was a Utopian work, but I found it not to be so. It takes what could be a Utopia and interrogates it, asks what could go wrong, and what the solutions to those problems and fractures might be. She takes the political system she believed in passionately and puts it through a stress test, and what I found notable is how the book engages you in this process. It subtly invites you to think about how difficulties could be navigated and dealt with, drawing you in to become almost a part of the social organism.

This is what I love about Le Guin, the way she can turn reading into an involved process, where the reader is not mere spectator, but an engaged actor who is encouraged to really think. Thinking comes in spades with her work, it is woven through with passages that provoke reflection, and many people have taken a lot from her books and applied it to how they see and live life, myself included. If anyone else has read either book I would, of course, be delighted to discuss them.


Re: Book pairing: The Dispossessed / Always Coming Home - Ursula Le Guin
« Reply #1 on: October 24, 2018, 11:52:49 PM »
The Dispossessed is the only book of which I can literally say "It saved my life". I honestly believe it has been a major contributor in being able to work through my suicidal feelings. As such, I feel rather emotional thinking about it and have a hard time articulating why it is so brilliant, but I can say that I loved your post.

As a consequence of the above I've had Always Coming Home on my shelf for a few years now but have resisted reading it until I know I am ready and it feels needful.

Pingers

  • I can produce 3,500 water voles a year if required
Re: Book pairing: The Dispossessed / Always Coming Home - Ursula Le Guin
« Reply #2 on: October 25, 2018, 05:17:18 PM »
That is some claim for a book, but maybe not surprising. I decided I needed to read the Dispossessed after she died and I was reading the comments on the Guardian website. So many people said that it had had a profound effect on them, and having experienced something similar with Always Coming Home I thought I'd best get around to it. Le Guin clearly spent a lot of her life thinking about what makes a good human, so it's no surprise that her books are full of humanity.

Always Coming Home is more Utopian and gentler. In contrast to The Dispossessed, the setting is a fertile valley in northern California (thought to be the Napa Valley) and the society is older. Food is in good supply, unlike Anarres with its two year famine, so instead you get a lot of detail about the living arrangements, art, poetry, dance, spirituality and ritual. It would be a bit dry were it not for a narrative thread that weaves its way in three parts throughout, but this pulls it all together really well. You can read the narrative on its own if you want, or you can read it interspersed with the anthropology of the Kesh people, it's up to you.

In Always Coming Home, Le Guin further explores her ideas on how to live a fulfilling life. In The Dispossessed she writes "If you evade suffering you also evade the chance of joy. Pleasure you may get, or pleasures, but you will not be fulfilled. You will not know what it is to come home... Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety-seeking of the spectator, the thrill-hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cyle, a locked room, a cell". She further develops this in Always Coming Home where recurrent motifs are the gyre and the heyiya-if: open circles, describing a pattern of life where one never comes back to exactly the same point, never closes the circle, but always keeps the option of further exploration and experience, always journeying and always coming home, but never quite the same home. There is an idea in there that really warrants more exploration.

Re: Book pairing: The Dispossessed / Always Coming Home - Ursula Le Guin
« Reply #3 on: October 27, 2018, 03:11:14 AM »
 
She takes the political system she believed in passionately and puts it through a stress test, and what I found notable is how the book engages you in this process. It subtly invites you to think about how difficulties could be navigated and dealt with, drawing you in to become almost a part of the social organism.


Just about 100 pages in to this following your recommendation, and really liking it. I'll try and say more later, but your comment above is the part that really chimes with my feelings so far. I wonder if she actually started by writing it as a straight utopia and realised that it would be both more dramatically interesting and politically thoughtful to write it as a utopia-under-stress book.

Re: Book pairing: The Dispossessed / Always Coming Home - Ursula Le Guin
« Reply #4 on: October 27, 2018, 07:48:45 PM »
I love Ursula Le Guin, to the extent I am reading her books slowly because I don't want to run out of them. Always Coming Home is the big one I have yet to read. After that I think I only have Malafrena and some of the short stories. Of the adult fiction and young adult fiction anyway, I am not including the poetry or the Catwings books (I think some of her YA fiction is very worthwhile reading as an adult, the Earthsea books obviously but also the Annals of the Western Shore series.)

Love the Dispossessed, I am thinking it is due a re-read.

This might be of interest- there was an album made at the time to accompany Always Coming Home, which came on a cassette with some early editions of the book.

It was re-released not that long ago. The sample track here actually sounds quite interesting. When I do decide I want to read the book I may well invest in the album as well.

https://daily.bandcamp.com/2018/03/22/music-and-poetry-of-the-kesh-ursula-le-guin-interview/

Re: Book pairing: The Dispossessed / Always Coming Home - Ursula Le Guin
« Reply #5 on: October 27, 2018, 09:17:27 PM »
I read Lathe of Heaven earlier this year and it was brilliant. Imaginative, thought-provoking and philisophical Sci-Fi that also happens to be really well written, which isn't always the case with Sci-Fi.

I started The Dispossessed a few months ago because it seemed like one of her other big-hitters but I drifted away from it. I was pretty stressed out and distracted by some RL things and it couldn't hold my attention so everything just whooshed over my head. This thread has motivated me to give it another try though, now that I can give it the attention it probably deserves.

Re: Book pairing: The Dispossessed / Always Coming Home - Ursula Le Guin
« Reply #6 on: October 31, 2018, 02:23:31 AM »
I read The Dispossessed in 1976 when I was 14 because I was an anarchist kid and was going through a phase of reading science fiction. My distant memory of it was that I was surprised how austere and astringent life on the anarchist planet was, and it was was certainly interesting how it was not portrayed as anything like an ideal society, and involved rather a strong work ethic, which wasn't what I was expecting.

IIRC the anarchist planet was very severe about anything it considered 'egotism', which I thought was rather stretched to include things I would have considered individual expression, something I found a bit off-putting.  Being a 14 year old, the main character's sexual confusions and misunderstandings with the posh people on the capitalist planet stuck in my mind most. From memory the rich people on the capitalist planet were somewhat libertinistic, which the anarchist bloke found rather confusing and unpleasant.

Scrappy memories from 42 years ago, I don't think I quite knew what to make of the book at that age.

Pingers

  • I can produce 3,500 water voles a year if required
Re: Book pairing: The Dispossessed / Always Coming Home - Ursula Le Guin
« Reply #7 on: November 01, 2018, 11:23:36 PM »
I love Ursula Le Guin, to the extent I am reading her books slowly because I don't want to run out of them. Always Coming Home is the big one I have yet to read. After that I think I only have Malafrena and some of the short stories. Of the adult fiction and young adult fiction anyway, I am not including the poetry or the Catwings books (I think some of her YA fiction is very worthwhile reading as an adult, the Earthsea books obviously but also the Annals of the Western Shore series.)

Love the Dispossessed, I am thinking it is due a re-read.

This might be of interest- there was an album made at the time to accompany Always Coming Home, which came on a cassette with some early editions of the book.

It was re-released not that long ago. The sample track here actually sounds quite interesting. When I do decide I want to read the book I may well invest in the album as well.

https://daily.bandcamp.com/2018/03/22/music-and-poetry-of-the-kesh-ursula-le-guin-interview/

ooh, thank you for this. It's the first time I have heard any of the music and poetry and I like it. I have almost no room left for more vinyl, but that package is too good to resist, it's coming my way when I've been paid. Thanks for posting, and imagine having Always Coming Home to look forward to for the first time!

Re: Book pairing: The Dispossessed / Always Coming Home - Ursula Le Guin
« Reply #8 on: November 07, 2018, 04:12:54 PM »
I did re-read The Dispossessed off the back of this thread.

I love the worlds that Le Guin creates. I almost always dream about her books while I am reading them and it happened again this time.

She interrogates the anarchism of Anaress much harder than I remembered also. And I remembered that the book was not really utopian. But I had forgotten for instance that certainly the threat of violence and sometimes the reality of violence is a part of their society- it is mentioned at one point that people who don't fit in are frequently roughed up to encourage them to move on. Or the person who it seems is sent mad by the rejection he receives from society.

As always with books I really like I am at a loss to know what to say about it apart from that it is really good. In a way it is a subtle book about human relationships.
« Last Edit: November 07, 2018, 07:00:50 PM by Pranet »