In The Disposessed, the utopian revolution on Anarres was meant to be “a permanent one, an ongoing process” (p. 176) but by the time of Shevek’s life, the society has become static. Bureaucracies are given power in times of emergency, but when the emergency is over that power is not revoked. The desire for societal approval saps individuals’ willingness to challenge any aspect of their lives. As Chris Ferns puts it, “the future is something which they believe has been attained and, in their efforts to ensure that it does not revert to the past from whose contradictions it emerged, they are in the process of transforming it into something more sterile, lacking in the transforming vision and energy that was once capable of imagining the genuinely new” (p. 258).
Thus, from Ferns’ point of view, Shevek’s trip is successful because it “restore[s] the possibility—on both worlds—of genuine change” (p. 259). Because the revolution on Anarres was so isolated from the society on Urras that it was meant to revolt against, both planets are stuck in stasis, each convinced of its own superiority. Only Shevek, by breaking the barrier between the societies, can re-start revolution on both planets. Ferns seems to consider Shevek himself to be central to this process, and he connects Shevek’s individual “freedom from fear of the genuinely new” (p. 259) to his individual approach to time and physics.
This focus on Shevek is interesting to me in light of Tom Moylan’s criticisms that “the activists in the novel who might most reflect the various movements of the late 1960s—anti-war activists, ecologists, school reformers, anarchists, working-class and poor, Third World revolutionaries—are displaced to the margins” (p. 113) in favor of “a type of commitment that revolves around a single redeemer, a vanguard intellectual, and a dominant male” (p. 109). Moylan seems to suggest that in life, revolutions cannot be brought about by a single person, and that LeGuin is again undermining her own ideology by showing us a revolution that is not a dynamic, continuous social movement, but rather a single individual carrying out a single action.
I think that there is more to the revolutions on Anarres and Urras than just Shevek’s actions. Bedap’s group of friends existed long before Shevek’s involvement with them, and in fact seem to have carried out much of the work of the Syndicate of Initiative without Shevek’s input. The revolution on Urras, as well, significantly pre-dates Shevek’s involvement and acts independently of him, organizing an immense general strike. However, I agree with Moylan that these other revolutionaries were not given attention proportional to their impact. Although we know they must have been there, to set the stage for Shevek’s actions, the book does not linger on their activities, so that what we see of revolution remains focused on Shevek.
What do you guys think? Who is really most important to the revolutions in The Disposessed? Does anybody take issue with characterizing either of them as revolutions? What does a revolution look like?