If we have to live on Urras can I at least get an otter?

“In general, American SF has assumed a permanent hierarchy of superiors and inferiors,” writes Le Guin (“American SF” 210). I continue to be interested in the programmatic elisions of science fiction, the things it keeps inaccessible by design. This week, especially, I’ve been thinking about SF utopias (though, at this time I have not done more than skim the Jameson or the Delaney, and both I think will probably influence me here). A philosopher friend asked recently if we could come up with examples of utopias on TV/in movies—not utopias later revealed to be dystopias— for a class she is teaching. Some people argued that the Star Trek Federation is utopian (although there was plenty of dissent around that), as well as The Great British Bake Off and NYC in Sex and the City, but mostly it seems like we’re always hoping the utopia is revealed to be a big lie.
What is special about the utopianism of Le Guin’s Anarres, to me, is the way it enacts corrections in front of us, in a way that makes the world much more permeable. “One of the most significant potentialities of SF as a form,” writes Jameson, “is precisely this capacity to provide something like an experimental variation on our own empirical universe” (270). But there’s implicit hierarchical thinking built in to these experimental variations (that place is better than this). A book is always already a kind of utopia, a walled in closed system, one which excludes the reader. UKL’s world is permeable not just in the way it takes as its object a non-hierarchical world-system in a state of continual adjustment, but also in the way UKL disposes us notice elisions and exclusions in our art and literature (I’m thinking particularly about Shevek’s conversations with Salas, and Bedap’s description of Tirin’s experience around pp 171 in my edition, and the many places UKL talks about universities both on Annares and Urras). This invitation to challenge the text as we read it, as well as the many places where Annares works imperfectly, frustrates the ranking impulse, and the exclusionary thinking that comes with utopian dreaming.

4 thoughts on “If we have to live on Urras can I at least get an otter?”

  1. I’m struck by your idea that “a book is always already a kind of utopia, a walled in closed system, one which excludes the reader.” I think this is right, especially if we consider the effortful process of “getting into” a text (and the ways the text facilitates or obstructs easy entry — we might look to the opening chapter here). “Permeability” is then the quality that allows for readerly engagement, though retaining a distance/alienation between reader and the textual world/knowledge. How might the “utopian walls” of SF texts relate to the construction/maintenance of fandom?

  2. “Well, we think that time ‘passes,’ flows around us, but what if it is we who move forward, from past into future, always discovering something new? It would be a little like reading a book, you see. The book is all there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order. So the universe would be a very great book, and we would be very small readers” (221).

  3. I wonder if the provisional nature of Anarres’s utopianism is due to the culture of Anarres itself or UKL’s narration of it. It seems Anarres is making an argument about the temporality of utopia, that utopia is not a location or a telos, but a self-reflexive process of critique. As you mention, hierarchical thinking is implicit in utopian experiments, and this might be why utopia can never *exist*–it requires ontological instability. I say this in reference to a comment Bedap makes about how “stability gives scope to the authoritarian impulse” (167). If this argument about utopia is true, then what kinds of comfort could a utopia offer its inhabitants?

    1. The Dispossessed is published around the corner of 68, a year of assassinations, the global extermination of various concrete utopian causes. The book emerges after the popularization of LSD, which offered a generation a shortcut to ego-death, and is contemporary with the hallmark texts of poststructuralism, with their concern for potentiality and metaphysical violence. I think it’s helpful to think about the affective effects – the comfort- offered by a utopia that evades ontology, that is in fact defined by a refusal of what is because it is precisely what is-not, and how we might think of this in relation to political defeat.

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