It starts with the brilliant image of a wall around a space port. "Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on." (p 5) From one point of view the wall encloses the space port and the space ships that come and go and by extension space and the universe; leaving the rest of the planet 'free'; from the other perspective the wall encloses the planet: "a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine." (p 5) What a great first page!
Anarres has been colonised from its twin planet Urras. The colony is still small and works on purely cooperative principles; the people equal to one another in respect and dignity; each contributes what they can and takes what they need. Shevek, the top physicist from Anarres, is the first man ever to return to the capitalist, battling, home world of Urras.
Despite the utopian vision of Anarres, a sort of global kibbutz, these are still people with their needs. One of the early compelling moments is when the lads, Shevek and his mates, raised in dormitories together, play at prisons (echoes of the Stanford Prison Experiment) and imprison one of their number, taking on the role of guards: "They were not playing the role now, it was playing them" (p 35). There is real tension here, although Shevek feels ashamed afterwards. And in the famine, as people starve, they turn selfish and greedy and violent. And systems can be manipulated by those who seek power to prevent the people they dislike from succeeding. And public disapproval, even not backed by any rule, can make a person miserable.
With echoes of Mao's cultural revolution, soviet Russia, and the worst excesses of capitalism, this is a book about an individual struggling to achieve fulfilment against the backdrop of two very different societies, each of which, in their own way, conspire to prevent him.
- "To die is to lose the self and rejoin the rest. He had kept himself and lost the rest." (p 9)
- "All through those hurried days ... he had not felt that he was doing all the things he did, but that they were doing him." (p 10)
- "You admit no religion outside the churches, just as you admit no morality outside the laws." (p 16)
- "There were walls around all his thoughts, and he seemed utterly unaware of them though he was perpetually hiding behind them." (p 17)
- "prostitution ... copulation in the economic mode." (p 18)
- "'I never thought of that before ...'
- Comments from the other three on the self-evidence of this remark." (p 37)
- "There are people of inherent authority; some emperors actually have new clothes." (p 49)
- "The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on." (p 62)
- "You can't have a nervous system without at least a ganglion, and preferably a brain." (p 82)
- "Shevek walked in rain as the Ioti walked in sunshine, with enjoyment." (p 112)
- "Sterility. Sterility on all sides. As far as the eye can see the infertile desert lies in the pitiless glare of the merciless sun, a lifeless, trackless, feckless, fuckless waste strewn with the bones of luckless wayfarers ..." (p 150)
- "Life, said the stream of quick water down on the rocks in the cold dark." (p 152)
- "exuberance was perhaps the essential quality of life." (p 155)
- "In a pen by himself the herd sire, ram or bull or stallion, heavy-necked, stood potent as a thundercloud, charged with generation." (p 172)
- "As if deserving meant anything! As if one could earn beauty, or life!" (p 172)
- "He had often seen that anxiety before ... Was it because, no matter how much money they had, they always had to worry about making more, lest they die poor? Was it guilt, because no matter how little they had, there was always somebody who had less?" (pp 172 - 173)
- "People do not usually gaze at one another intently at very close range, unless they are mothers with infants, or doctors with patients, or lovers." (p 180)
- "We think that time 'passes', flows past us; but what if it is we who move forward, from past to future, always discovering the 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." (p 184)
- "When the enemy enthusiastically embraces you, and the fellow-countrymen bitterly reject you, it is not hard to wonder if you are, in fact, a traitor." (p 292)
- "We each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead Kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward." (p 295)
- "They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?" (p 317)
The greatest thing about this book is its incredibly detailed vision of a society of anarchists in which everyone has to struggle to make ends meet and no one is very rich, in which the individual has the ultimate right to live life as they wish and contribute nothing to society, and yet where most individuals volunteer to contribute far more to society than they could ever be made to. A vision of an altruistic anarchist society on an unforgiving world worked out in every particular. Incredible.
May 2017; 319 pages