Dispossession Over the Salton Sea

July 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

Read long ago: The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

In polar opposition to any effective mystery, the climax and ending of most science fiction novels is the least interesting and effective part of the book, pulling out of the world-building and play of ideas that characterize the best of the genre to wrap up the plot in a blaze of somewhat incoherent action and implausible heroics.  In some ways, The Dispossessed is not an exception to this.  One could see its ending as a deus ex machina trick.  But if it is, I found it a marvelously effective and ingenious twist on the device.

So, obviously, SPOILER ALERT, if such a thing applies to a 40-year-old classic of the genre.

That the Terrans — that is, we Earthlings — are the mechanism by which Shevek is rescued from the capitalist police-state of A-Io and delivered to his home, the anarchist utopia of Anarres, is a neat twist indeed.  It’s also a twist that complicates our reading of all that’s come before it: allegorical or ideological readings of the Urras-Anarres relationship don’t work so well when the situation of Earth itself muddies the waters.

And what a situation Earth is in.  Here’s Keng, the Terran ambassador to A-Io:

My world, my Earth, is a ruin.  A planet spoiled by the human species.  We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died.  We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt.  We destroyed ourselves.  But we destroyed the world first.  There are no forests left on my Earth.  The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot.  It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is.  This is a living world, a harmony.  Mine is a discord.  You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert….

I flew to San Diego last month, finishing the book on the flight.  As we neared San Diego I looked out the window and was confronted by a mysterious sight, a huge body of water surrounded by an artificial oasis of agriculture amid the desert and the scorched mountains.

I did not know what I was seeing, but much of the flight over the deserts of Arizona and California had reminded me of Anarres, the arid planet to which the Odonian anarchists exiled themselves, and on which they had learned to survive without any state, any money, any rigid family structure.  This view spooked me; it looked so oddly out of place, oddly desolate, and the shore of this body of water gave an impression that it was saline, not freshwater.

This, I learned by asking a local, was the Salton Sea.  Created by a flood of the Colorado River in 1905, it is in a state of rapidly increasing salinity.  This, combined with fertilizer runoff and other manmade problems, has led to a body of water being taken over by algae and bacteria: a nearly dead sea, a system in environmental collapse.

It was eerie, seeing this right after reading about the desert planet Anarres, the beautiful Urras, teeming with natural abundance but in the process of tearing itself apart through sectarian strife, and the obliterated Earth, its decimated population of 500 million people clinging to survival through the harshest of methods (euthanasia, rationing, centralized control over every piece of land).  It seemed a microcosm or an omen.

Keng argues that Earthlings have “outlived” hope, only capable of looking at “this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside.”  Anarres, to her, is “a world I cannot even imagine.”  The horizon of her imagination is Urras, even with all of its bloodshed, injustice, and waste, simply because it is a living planet, not a shell of its former self.

Shevek’s response hinges on his research into time’s operation, his deep insight into how it works.  “You think Anarres is a future that cannot be reached, as your past cannot be changed,” he explains.  From this point of view Urras is the present, the living moment.  “And you think that it is something which can be possessed!” But Shevek argues that constant change is the true state of time, a simple truth which it is very difficult to accept. Anarres, this “enduring reality” in which people live together, value each other, work together amid hardship and strife and are imperfect but imperfect without oppression, is always possible.  It is a matter of letting go of the idea that it is a future to be reached.  It is a matter of embracing the possibility of not possessing, and of being dispossessed.

The idea that we — as Americans especially, but also as Earthlings — need to live more simply, and more intelligently, and more sympathetically, remains both quite obvious and immensely unpopular.  As the Salton Sea shows us, we haven’t gotten any closer to where we need to be since The Dispossessed was written; its description of A-Io, if anything, appears much closer to the ugly truth of everyday life in America than it would have in the 1970s, when the descriptions of violent governmental oppression were surely read as hyperbolic commentary on Vietnam War protests, to be dismissed as insertion of a timely social issue into the work rather than critique of American governance in general.  Now it just sounds like the description of another crackdown on a college campus, of the brutal dismantling of another peaceful protest in an ostensibly public space.  A-Io’s monsters of consumption are more and more recognizable.  And yet hope must remain, even for us, the Terran monsters.

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