The Apocalypse Book Club: July Selection – ‘The Dispossessed’

the dispossesed
(Harper Perennial)

The Apocalypse Blog Book Club picks a different dystopian-themed novel to read each month and has an online discussion, as well as an in-person meeting in Milwaukee. Different club members will write reports on our selections each month for Pop Mythology. You can find more on the club and join here:

by Katie Jesse

If you’re driving down Hwy 26 in central Wyoming you’ll hit a small town called Riverton. With a population of just over 10,000 people, it’s most known by locals for two things; first, it has the region’s only major airport. It hosts two airlines and flies to exactly one city, Denver, CO, several times a day. Second was a visit in 1995 by then First Lady Hillary Clinton and her daughter during her husband’s re-election campaign. Locals say they made exactly one stop, at Graham’s Gluten Free Foods, which markets itself as an all gluten-free health food store but which is really just a living room sized store front with a dozen or so varieties of non-wheat flour.

When my mother moved to Riverton in the fall of 2007, I knew exactly two things about Wyoming. First, I knew that in 1869, what was then called the Wyoming territory had been the first state to give women the right to vote. It was a hard life in that region and from what I’ve since been told, these cowboys didn’t have time to mess around with men’s and women’s work. Everyone did everything because that’s the only way you survived. The second thing I knew, was that despite its size, Riverton had one of the best book stores I had ever visited.

Meadowlark Books is situated along one of two main drags, and is just down the street from Graham’s. Established in 2005 they house mostly used books with a small collection of new. Locals can trade in and receive credit towards a future purchase and that’s how I ended up there, trading in my Mother’s unread books and stockpiling my own collection. Over the years I’ve made it a point to visit Meadowlark every time I’m in town and in the last few visits, I’ve gotten into the habit of picking an author and buying everything they have available. This is how I came to own 9 books by Ursula Le Guin (my carry-on that Christmas flight home must have weighed 30lbs or more.)

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin was originally published in 1974. Although not her first, nor most famous work of science fiction, it is generally heralded as “Quintessential reading for the failed, frustrated, dead-ended, but still dreaming revolutionary in all of us.”

Seven generations ago, a group of utopian anarchists left their Earth-like planet Urras to colonize the moon, Anarres. Now Shevek, a brilliant scientist, born on that moon but infinitely curious about the half of his species estranged from him, sets out on a journey to learn about another society, so similar, yet so different from his own.

The story of Shevek weaves from past to present to past again. He is a physicist working on a simultaneity principle, which his ‘Earth’ hosts believe holds the key to faster-than-light space travel. In addition to conflicting with the prevailing political philosophies, he is forced to suspend his research to perform hard agricultural labor during a drought. He is contacted by a faction of anarchists still living on Urras (Earth), and travels there to finish his research and act as an emissary of reconciliation between the two societies.

In many analysis of Urras, it is fairly established that the two major countries (A-lo and Thu) are analogous to the United States (A-lo) and Russia (Thu). A-lo is run by the wealthy elite, who govern to favor their own class. They loath the poor and have set up society as to ensure that one remains in the class they are born in; including destroying any semblance of a public educational or health care system. Some time in their recent past a revolutionary faction was building but instead of working to make change within the corrupt system, they were allowed to leave, thus creating the anarchist society of Anarras. As the wealth gap increases in American society, one can’t help but see the similarities between our own possible future and the one described on Le Guin’s Urras. At this very moment in history we have people actively working for a higher minimum wage, better working conditions, and access to better healthcare. At what point in our future will America’s ‘activists’ and ‘community organizers’ decide to break off and start society anew.

It’s also not lost on me that we’ve recently been discussing another work of Science Fiction, written by a female author, and it’s similarities to modern society. With the creation of its mini-series on Netflix, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (see our Book Club’s review) gives us a glimpse into a possible future that no one seems too keen on exploring. Both books were written decades ago, when issues of autonomy and the wealth gap weren’t part of the average American’s vernacular. Just as George Orwell’s 1984 foreshadows ‘Big Brother’ and The Handmaid’s Tale takes the conflict between Christian fundamentalists of the 1960’s to its logical extreme, we can look at The Dispossessed as a possible future where wealth is grown in the hands of only a few and the rest of us are left to divide the ashes. And unlike the terrorist attack that erases government in Atwood’s dystopia, Urras’s society seems to slowly take shape, after more than a century of infighting and loss of civility; thereby making connections to our own society seem more relevant and likely.

Le Guin does two interesting things to illustrate her mastery of storytelling. First, if you were to read the book in chronological order, you’d have to read the chapters as such, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13. Organizing the book this way forces the reader to constantly switch back and forth between Urras and Anarres; between the present and past. This organizational structure highlights the books other interesting trait, Le Guin’s ability to analyze the capitalistic patriarchy of Urras while simultaneously contrasting it with the strengths and weaknesses of Anarras’s utopia. This is best illustrated by the opening and closing scene’s of the book. Both take place at a low wall surrounding Anarres’s single space port. It is the only place on the anarchist planet where you’ll find “No Trespassing” signs. The people of Anarras believe that the wall protects them from the corrupting influence of the outside world. On the other hand, the wall could be a prison, cutting them off from potential collaboration and familial connections. Which side of the wall are we really on? Shivek’s life attempts to answer this question.

Katie Jesse is an artist, activist and home remodeler located in Milwaukee, WI. She has been an avid reader her whole life and is now a part of The Apocalypse Book Club in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, which is why she recently re-read The Dispossessed.

About The Apocalypse Blog Book Club

The Apocalypse Blog Book Club
The Apocalypse Blog Book Club picks a different dystopian-themed novel to read each month and has an online discussion, as well as an in-person meeting in Milwaukee. Different club members will write reports on our selections each month for Pop Mythology. You can find more on the club and JOIN HERE.