Friday, November 27, 2015

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin is a highly acclaimed classic science fiction novel. The story alternates between the twin planets of Anarres and Urras. It is a detailed and thoughtful examination of culture, both of the alien cultures that the author has fashioned and, indirectly, of our own human cultures.

Anarres is an anarchistic society. Its inhabitants call themselves Odonians after the founder of their movement. The main character is Shevek, an Odonian physicist who is working on a type of Grand Unification Theory that seems to be symbolic of some of the book’s themes. The narrative concerns Shevek’s groundbreaking visit to Urras. Shevek is the first citizen of Anarres to visit Urras in centuries.

In comparing anarchist Anarres to traditional human societies, Le Guin has fashioned a complex and nuanced novel that digs deeply into human society, economics, poverty, violence, gender and more.

The society of Anarres is anarchist, but unlike the libertarian visions so popular these days, it is extremely community orientated. Social pressure keeps most people from harming others and prompts them to contribute to society in the form of work, creativity, etc. As envisioned by its founder,

“There was to be no controlling center, no capital, no establishment for the self-perpetuating machinery of bureaucracy and the dominance drive of individuals seeking to become captains, bosses, chiefs of state”

Anarres is very flawed. Nevertheless, based on both the novel’s narrative and on the commentary by Le Guin herself, it is clearly meant to represent a culture superior to traditional human ones.

Urras is composed of multiple nations, and it is roughly parallel to the situation that prevailed on Earth in the 1970s, with two power blocs, a capitalist and a communist, in opposition. There are also third-world nations, rich nations, revolutions, etc.
Le Guin effectively uses the nations of Urras as a counterpoint to the anarchist society of Anarres.

The chapters of the book alternate between a narrative of Shevek’s life on Anarres and his historic stay on Urras. Over the course of the story, we are given a close look at the inner workings of the societies on both planets.

Based upon history and economics, I do not believe the Odonian society would actually work. Le Guin does convincingly portray how social pressure to work and to not harm others can be at times very influential. However, I think that in a society without an effective government or monetary rewards for work, more and more people will act in anti-social ways, or at least choose not to contribute to society through work. Eventually, things would fall apart.  With that, Le Guin portrays a nuanced, well thought out system that is, at the very least, plausible.

Shevek’s characterization is also fairly strong. He is somewhat of a loner and an outsider in a society that values community above all else. At times, he rebels against his culture’s rules; at other times, it is illustrated that these rules are a part of who he is. He is shown to be a multifaceted person. He is thus described,

“The social conscience, the opinion of others, was the most powerful moral force motivating the behavior of most Anarresti, but it was a little less powerful in him than in most of them. “

This book is really suburb. Those interested in the examination of society will likely get a lot out of it. One does not have to agree with the principles of the anarchist society that Le Guin has fashioned in order to appreciate this insightful critique of humanity.

In one or more future posts, I will be delving a little deeper into the ideas and social criticism contained in this novel.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

My Science Fiction Heritage

I grew up reading science fiction. Though I read various styles within the genre and within related genres, I prided myself on reading what I snobbishly called “the serious stuff.” I preferred stories that were not about space battles. I generally gravitated toward authors that dispensed with action and instead concentrated more upon ideas and character. Some of my favorite writers were Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Phillip K. Dick and ‪Ursula K. Le Guin, to name a few.

I recently ran into an old friend whom I have known since childhood. We both started reading science fiction in our teens. He still mostly reads it. I can envision a slightly different life reading path where I mostly did the same.

Up until my early twenties I read mostly science fiction and history. The science fiction had a great impact upon me (As did the history, but that is a different blog post). These works opened up my mind to big ideas, and whetted my interest in dynamic plots and compelling characters.

These books presented many diverse viewpoints. With that, I was most influenced by authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clark, who seemed to espouse a secular, rationalistic, anti-militaristic, pro-science and pro-space exploration message. These authors, as well as those with differing viewpoints, have influenced my thinking to this day.

During my college years, I began to yearn for books of other types. However, it was the themes of life and death, questioning humanity’s place in the universe, critique of society, etc., that I first encountered in science fiction books that whetted my appetite for other types of works.

I think that one can read solely science fiction and still read mostly meaningful and worthwhile books that are full of ideas. Some of the great works of literature even fall within my definition of science fiction. These books, written by authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, George Orwell, H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin, among others, can easily fit within the great literary cannon. There are also a lot of really good science fiction that may not reach the level of great literature, but that are full of compelling ideas and that are more than worthy reads.

However, as I discovered, despite the value of science fiction, there is so much more out there. In order to fully appreciate the richness of human literary art and thought, it began to dawn upon me that I needed to expand my horizons. Thus, I chose to explore both classic and contemporary literature of other sorts.

My life decision to expand my reading interests years ago leaves me scant time for reading science fiction now. In recent years, I have occasionally reread some noteworthy science fiction books from my youth, and I have read a few classics that I missed earlier in life.

As I have been thinking about the genre lately, I will likely devote some additional reading time to science fiction, including, perhaps, some contemporary authors. I have not read anything by these newer writers. There are a lot of worthwhile science fiction books out there and ignoring the genre makes no sense to me.

Yet, reading time will continue to be scarce and my reading of these books will, in the long run, be less frequent than I like. With that, I am determined to devote a little more time going forward to the genre. Science Fiction played an important role in my intellectual and emotional development, and it will always be a genre very close to my heart.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

This post contains major spoilers.

I read the Lloyd Alexander translation of this novel.

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre is an existentialist classic. First published in 1938, this is the tale, told in journal entries, of Antoine Roquentin. In it, the protagonist faces an existentialist crisis. This is a deeply philosophical, metaphysical and, at times, challenging account of this crisis. As he wanders around a French seaport town, Roquentin is beset with despair and a kind of sickness of the soul that he likens to nausea.

A picture slowly emerges of a man who is facing a malaise brought on by what he perceives as meaninglessness to existence. Much of this work involves his inward ruminations and pain, as well as his interactions with other characters. These include “The Self-Taught Man," who is an intellectual humanist, and Anny, who is Roquentin’s ex-girlfriend, who are present for the protagonist to exchange ideas and emotions with.

A basic understanding of existentialist philosophy as well as Sartre’s version of it is indispensible in deciphering this book. Any summary of the themes presented in this novel is an oversimplification. However, it begins to dawn on Roquentin that the real world, as well as people’s beliefs and lives, contain absolutely no meaning. Furthermore, the protagonist concludes that the past is also meaningless, and it is only the present that counts. Thus, all of humanity seems to be constructing false personas as well as invalid narratives of their lives based upon the past. The above comprehensions weigh on Roquentin, increasing his depression and anguish.

At one point he observes about humanity.

“We were a heap of living creatures, irritated, embarrassed at ourselves, we hadn’t the slightest reason to be there, none of us, each one, confused, vaguely alarmed, felt in the way in relation to the others.”

And later,

“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness and dies by chance.”

Roquentin is often disorientated and continually experiences strange physical and mental perturbations. Often, his musings veer into the metaphysical. His thoughts take him into long and complex ruminations upon the nature of existence. Some of the passages make fairly clear sense. Others are very complex and obtuse, and I found that they were difficult to discern. I did turn to outside sources of commentary relating to both this book and to Sartre’s philosophy in general. These were extremely helpful.

This novel’s ending is surprising, not because of its conclusions, but because of its abrupt change in tone. This book is, up until its last few pages, unrelentingly grim. At the end, it takes an abrupt optimistic turn. Throughout the story there are hints, that in creativity and art, Roquentin might find meaning. In the concluding pages, while he is listening to his favorite jazz record, Some of These Days, in a cafĂ©, he has an epiphany.

In this moment he observes,

"I feel something brush against me lightly and I dare not move because I am afraid it will go away. Something I didn’t know any more: a sort of joy."

Roquentin quickly decides that he is going to write a novel that will be deeply impactful. At that point, this book seems to end on an optimistic note.

Finding meaning through creativity and art is a somewhat common idea that I find to be intellectually and emotionally satisfying.  The turnaround, however, was just a bit too abrupt. In my opinion, the novel would have been philosophically and aesthetically stronger had Sartre had more comprehensively developed this idea and devoted more pages to it.  Such a dramatic change in attitude may lead one to suspect some irony. However, based upon some of my readings concerning Sartre’s philosophy, he was apparently serious about this ending.

As someone who has pondered the meaning, and possible meaninglessness, of life, I have always thought that art and creativity is one of the valid factors that can give life meaning. However, as Sartre seems to be proposing this as the primary reason for existence, I think that he is missing a lot of other things.

Many will find this book challenging, as it contains difficult prose that includes a lot of passages that are surreal and some that are in the stream of consciousness style. Furthermore the philosophical ponderings are often dense and difficult to follow. Much of the book is also very dark. With all that, this is a thought provoking and adventurous excursion into the meaning of life. Hence, I found it to be both enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. It is full of ideas that are interesting and that have had an important impact on modern thought. This work is a must read for anyone who is interested or likes to read stories involving existentialist philosophy.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy

The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy delves into the British side in the American Revolution. O'Shaughnessy is a historian and a member of the Royal Historical Society. The book examines ten men who were instrumentally important to the British war and political effort. The work is broken into parts, and each part examines a different man.

The most notable person covered is King George III, whose short biography highlighting the American Revolutionary War years is outstanding. Other subjects include Lord North, George Germain and William Howe, to name just a few.

I believe that this is an important book for anyone, but particularly for Americans who are interested in the American Revolutionary Period. I note its importance to readers on my side of the Atlantic because, after a lifetime of reading about this subject, I can attest to the fact that finding works from the British point of view is difficult.

The books by American historians that mainly focus upon the American perspective have not demonized the British or their leaders. However, these works are often critical of British leadership in ways that seem to exhibit a bias. English military and political leadership is sometimes portrayed as semi-competent and as mediocre leaders.  Their errors and foibles are emphasized while their strengths and virtues are downplayed. Reading this book has helped to highlight this bias for me.

O'Shaughnessy makes another interesting contention. That is, even British historians, at least until recently, have also exhibited an unfair bias against British leadership. The author writes,

"The British commanders and politicians were discredited not least because their enemies triumphed and their opponents wrote the histories. This was equally true in Britain, where the view that America was lost by incompetent leadership began during the war and became the popular orthodoxy in the immediate aftermath. When in 1792 one of the earliest British consuls to the United States met President George Washington, he reported home that Washington was “a great man . . . but I cannot help thinking, that the misconduct of our commanders has given him the principle part of that greatness.” Until well into the twentieth century, British historians portrayed George III and Lord North as enemies of progress who secretly conspired to introduce an unconstitutional despotic form of government in both Britain and America."

In contrast to many other accounts that I have read, this book portrays many of these men as being both competent and honorable. They are also to a great extent, portrayed as intelligent people who understood both balanced government and liberty. Several of them believed that defending the British system of balanced government, which was a system that did protect many individual freedoms, was the best way to promote liberty.

O'Shaughnessy writes,

"The men who lost America were not opponents of liberty and representative government. Far from conspiring to establish tyranny in America, they regarded themselves as defending liberty and the rule of law that they believed could be safeguarded only by upholding the supreme authority of Parliament"

He goes on to say,

"The British politicians and commanders were not ignorant bigots. They were conversant with the Enlightenment emphasis on rational thought in an era that prided itself on being an “Age of Enlightenment.” "

I must add, however, that the men described in this book were all complex and had different beliefs, philosophies and experiences. Thus, it is difficult to generalize too much about them.

This work also provides valuable insights into the inner workings of the British government of the time. It delves into both the intricacies of the British Cabinet as well as Parliament. Furthermore, as the American Revolution turned into a global conflict with the entrance of France, Spain and the Netherlands into the war, the author highlights political, military and social activity that occurred in such diverse locations as the Caribbean, Central America, The Mediterranean, India and more. This is also a subject where information is scarce on this side of the Atlantic.

This is an extremely enlightening and enjoyable history. For many people who have read mostly American accounts of the conflict, it will be especially insightful. It has whetted my appetite to read more about this side of the Revolution from non-American perspectives. This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the American Revolution or in this period of history.