“clear and whole,” or Nothing Like That: Shevek’s Theory

Last week, Delainy asked us to consider Le Guin’s “indirect reportage:” a stylistic mode within the novel that obfuscates or omits details as scenes develop (121). He brings his reader to the moment in which Shevek at last arrives at his “great theory,” claiming that Le Guin’s overly abstruse, possibly “mystical,” presentation of the scientific discovery “feels… wrong” (121-2).

Where is the science in Shevek’s theory? Le Guin’s partially-hidden physics seems like a departure from the mechanistic construction of Wells’ time machine and Asimov’s robots: though not exactly offering D.I.Y. instructions, there was an articulated accessibility between inventor/assembler and their audience/reader. Shevek’s science, however, is explicitly and necessarily obscured: though he (ostensibly) arrives at a theory of simultaneity, he does so only by accepting its “unprovability” (280). A paradox emerges in his physics when he determines that “he had been groping and grabbing after certainty, as if it were something he could possess” (280). Though he “had been demanding a guarantee” of the certitude of his theory, he now comes to determine that such a guarantee would counterintuitively limit it, “would become a prison” (280). It is through this lack of certainty—a lack of the full, proven, entire understanding of the universe—that Shevek arrives at his totalizing temporal theory of that very universe.

The cyclical logic of this, as Delainy points out, is intentional and, for him, frustrating. Yet, there seems to me something more at work here than a simple omission or oversight of detail. Near of the end of the novel, the so-called “alien” Terran ambassador repeats to Shevek (this time, of his theory of freedom): “I don’t understand—I don’t understand” (350). It is a moment that underscores both the incomprehensibility of the science in the novel, and the fractured, inter/intra-planet solidarity that renders individuals indiscernible to each other. The Dispossessed expresses interest in the obfuscation of certain, solid understanding (of physics, of reality, of others), and it does so not only by stylistically engaging in this “indirect reportage,” but interrogating how these omissions operate beyond science and into every level of society.

One thought on ““clear and whole,” or Nothing Like That: Shevek’s Theory”

  1. It seems as though the question of language and translation might play in here. I’m thinking of Shevek’s education via Urrasti texts and the imbalance of scholarly accessibility/knowledge/publishing on Annares (in his “mother tongue”). Adding in the Terrans, Hainish, etc., the possibility and mechanisms for fully articulating a theory that could be discerned/read/understood across linguistic (and other) “walls” seem tenuous, if not impossible.

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