Ping-Ko Chiu


Software Engineer,
Location Technologies @ Apple
pingkochiu [at]

24 October 2021

An ambiguous utopia

by Ping-Ko Chiu

— Thinking about The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

The two worlds of The Dispossessed, Anarres and Urras, are depicted like our moon and earth. A few hundred years ago, a group of revolutionaries called the Odonians revolted against the capitalist society of Urras and set for the moon to create a new world. Since then, the two civilizations have developed independently. The Anaressi refer to Urras as the “moon” while the Urrasi refer to Anarres as the “moon”. In describing the wall that separates the two, Le Guin wrote “What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.” The perspectivism employed here and throughout the book illustrates barriers that separate the various realities.

The Odonian founders of Anarres recognized that a new language is need in order to destroy the pre-Odonian power structures. This is alike the Nietizschean and Post-Modernist’s view that our perception of reality is heavily dependent on language — A new reality requires a new language. So they invented Pravic, a language that embodies values of sharing and openness. In Pravic, the language of Anarres, singular possessive pronouns are seldom used — in reference to ones biological mother, “the mother” is preferred over “my mother”. “Marriage” is a legacy arrangement of the pre-Odonian past that suggests ownership of the other person. Instead, people simply “copulate” with as many sexual partners as they wish or engage in “partnerships” that only last as long as both parties desired. To be possessive of any object or person is to be a “propertarian”, or a “profiteer”. To assert ones ideas over others’, or to be selfish is to “egoize.”

In addition to language, the social organization of Anarres also enforces the Odonian ideals. Children are typically separated from their biological parents at youth to be taken care of by the state. At a young age, they are taught to share. Young Shevek was told by his teacher that he spoke too much — “Speech is sharing — a cooperative art.” and to extensively speak about oneself or ones ideas is to devoid others of their right to share. There is no centralized government or institution, at least on paper. Instead, independent syndicates can organize to achieve their goals. People understand that labor distribution is important for the society so they go to the division of labor to receive postings. A community that is “free” relies on each individual owning up to their responsibilities.

Yet, there are consequences to this social arrangement. Familial relationships are no longer cherished. The society looked down upon those who choose long term partnerships over short term arrangements. Sharing oneself with just a select few goes against the Odonian ideal of sharing with all. The freedom only goes as far as the social forces allow. Without approval from other members of the society, an idea or a movement can fail. Shevek’s mentor, Sabul, doesn’t own Shevek, nor does he have vested authority over Shevek, yet Shevek’s work and life were time and time again obstructed by Sabul’s invisible powers over him. Although the Odonian philosophy discourages this kind of power structure, it still plays an important part in this utopian society.

Le Guin gives us an anarchist society where the physical coinage of power may have been rid of — money, ownership, familial relations, and employment — but the social forces still wield significant power over the individual. Public opinion becomes that limiting factor to ones freedom. As Shevek said to Takver “…the social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience, instead of striking a balance with it. We don’t cooperate — we obey. We fear being an outcast, being called lazy, dysfunctional, egoizing. We fear our neighbors’ opinion more than we respect our own freedom of choice.”

tags: Book