Anarchist, Ahoy!

Three books about the price of revolution.

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life: science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and historical outlook, among them. Space Travel is a metaphor; so is an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor…. The truth is a matter of the imagination

Ursula Le Guin’s introduction to Left Hand of Darkness.

Stone Marked Grave, from Nat-Geo.

Science fiction is the craft of the probable. It uses contemporary society as raw material, and imagines what it can become, how it will end up. Take this trend, and that, and put them together so, it says, and what will you have? It doesn’t offer anything as prosaic as predictions about the shape of things to be, and is often spectacularly dismissive of actual science- what science fiction is interested is in how humanity and technology will interact. To take one common trope, a good writer is fascinated not by the the science behind the invisible-ray gun, but by the choices it imposes upon society- what will it mean for privacy or for law enforcement if people can wander about without being noticed? Who are the people most likely to use the technology; who are the ‘right’ people to handle such sensitive devices (generally very distinct species)? Will anyone given such power not abuse it? What could society do to prevent such abuse? In a century where we race between breakthroughs, science fiction allows us to take a step back and examine the paradigm that progress is linear, benevolent, always desirable. Speculative fiction is the most fecund genre of the 21st century because it examines the ultimately human concerns behind innovation.

This is an essay about the deployment of similar metaphors in two roughly contemporaneous science fiction classics: Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle and Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish cycle. I have not discussed all the novels in the two series, as that would amount to analysing a dozen novels. Herbert’s work is chronological- events in Dune lead to events in Dune Messiah and so on. This essay discusses only the first book, which tells the story of Paul Muad’dib’s journey from a noble’s son to Fremen fugitive to all-conquering emperor.  The later books experiment more, and arguably better evoke Herbert’s vision. Duneverse is constructed ponderously, and as one goes deeper into the series he begins to explore subtler quandaries than Dune allows itself.  The later books have more women doing interesting stuff, for one, to the point where the cast in the final two is almost exclusively women (“heroes”, regrettably, remain men, save for a few exceptions). Unfortunately, Herbert’s women don’t improve for all their abundance: the Honoured Matres of the last two books are the stuff of feminist nightmare. My primary interest lies in Herbert’s world before its conflicted saviours arrive; in the forces that got humanity from here to there, as it were. The world that shaped Paul Atreides and his dubious choices was the society into which he was born and raised, and the only book that gives us a clear picture of that world is the first one.

The Hainish cycle, on the other hand, is in no way linear. The novels are all set in the same “Ekumen” universe, where various planetary societies have established contact with each other, but there the congruence ends. Each is a stand-alone novel, focused on independent themes, and only loosely related to the others. My choice here is thus convenience. I have chosen books I can profitably compare to Dune, coincidentally also the most famous of the lot : The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness (hereinafter Left Hand). Annares (the setting for half of The Dispossessed) and Arrakis (the planet also called Dune) are extremely isolate planetary societies, though such imperviousness is less surprising in the former case than in the latter. Gethen, Left Hand’s planet, exists in splendid ignorance of alternate intelligence. All three planets are remarkably similar in their hostility to human life. Annares is an arid mining-planet. Arrakis is all desert. Gethen is mostly glacier.



Drive the Sandworm, from


My liturgy would employ

Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Larkin, Water

Arrakis- Dune- is the spice planet; a desert world where the most precious substance in the universe, the drug melange, is to be found. Melange (and desert) are both children of Shai-Hulud, the giant sandworms of Arrakis (bigger than the average train). Sandworms swallow everything in their path, are exceedingly sensitive to all vibrations, and make life unbelievably annoying. The Fremen, who have domesticated the worm by adapting to it (not, it must be noted, evolutionarily, but by daring initiative and excellent sense) have a decent time of it, but to everyone else the deep desert of Arrakis (most of Arrakis) is a hostile wasteland.  One of Dune’s eternal mysteries is how the Empire apparently forgot, in all those millennia it mined Arrakis, the most basic dictum of colonisation: to control, you must civilise and you must count. The Atreides arrive on Arrakis ten thousand years into space travel, yet it remains frontier country, unmapped and untamed. There isn’t even an accurate census or geological report. It is truly odd, with such administrative indifference, that the planet remained docile enough to allow for centuries of uninterrupted exploitation, given that the savagery of its climate is only matched by that of its native Fremen. The habitually martial Fremen seem (to me) to be little more than cookie-cutter Pathans hopped up on steroids. Herbert must’ve been heavily influenced by the British Indian Army officers’ records of their encounters with India’s ‘warrior tribes’ (or their counterparts from the Maghreb and Arabia) while scouting for suitable role models for his sturdy brown folk. They might be smart enough to ride sandworms, but the Fremen have barely evolved beyond tribesmen, despite thousands of years of the universe come knockin’.

Gender roles, for instance, are extremely rigid, with women being allotted one of three roles: wife, slave or kin. Polygamy is rampant, as are feuds; men spend their time provoking fights in order to grow their harem and prestige, carving their way up the social ladder. Women, naturally, transfer upon victory. One is solemnly assured women “are never taken against their will in Fremen society”, but this is only because they are presumed not to possess any. All the repression gives way to ritual orgies every so often, but the setup is, on the whole, depressingly medieval. Some of this is attributable to psychology: the Fremen are history’s victims, fleeing from planet to planet till they find a refuge on Dune.  They are not the most open or adventurous of societies, preferring to hide and scatter rather than unite and respond. Racial memory apart, is it really possible that a planetary society can be forced into statis the way Fremen society appears to have been? Can that be true of people living on a planet as pivotal to civilisation as Arrakis?


Saddle-bag gaurdian, "Algerian Pictures"

It is certainly true that people don’t have to benefit from the riches under their feet, and usually pay the highest price for it: one need look no further than the 20th century on planet Earth for confirmation. Raw material extraction profits the few-who-rule and grinds the rest of humanity to dust, and  it is not all that shocking to find the system replicated in the distant future on another planet. Until the wise and benevolent Atreides arrive, I presume Herbert is arguing, only the vile Harkonnens and the indolent Corrinos ruled Dune, and obviously they wouldn’t bother with the decor and sight-seeing. The Atreides had only planet, and cared for it; the others had so many they lost sight of the only important one.

Herbert’s universe, unlike Le Guin’s, is a profoundly human universe: one species spreads itself obsessively, never encountering an alien intelligence. There are hints of another ‘jihad’ in the pre-imperial past, but that was against the self imposed monster of artificial intelligence. (A word to the wary: Herbert’s “Jihad” is fictional orientalism such as to make Bernard Lewis proud, invoking stereotypes of howling hordes and flammable fanatics.  He takes his inspiration from Huntington rather than Hourani, and is woefully ignorant about the word’s Arabic homophone) The brutal experience pushed humanity on the road to self reliance, and for ten millennia human ability has steadily been developed. There are now human computers, ninja women, and cloned slaves to make up for the benefits of most sentient furniture.

Duneverse is remarkably relatable, for all the far-future trappings:  an empire, an obsession with eugenics and racial purity, patriarchy, an arcane class system (the feudal “faufreluches”), fencing. The core thesis seems to be that humanity is so inert it can’t grow past 19th century blueprints. The only creativity evident in governance across the aeons is skill at repressing populations scattered around a hundred thousand stars. Herbert’s reticence with revolution is, to some extent, a necessary plot device:  the Atreides needed to have a decrepit, complacent tyranny to destroy in order to be heroes rather than mere opportunists.  But that makes it no less weird that Herbert acknowledges such paltry portions of socio-political change.  Picture the vast changes pressed upon human society over a mere 3,000 years, or just in the comparatively few decades post the onset of technology: how is Dune-verse so technologically ahead and so politically naive? It is like nothing has changed, except for technology and DNA, furthering the illusion that science can happen without politics pursuing (and occasionally leading).

Consider duneverse diplomacy. Surely human networks would have moved beyond “balance of powers” as a way to govern galaxy-spanning affairs in 10,000 years? The powers are more elaborate than granted by most present theory: CHOAM (Capitalism Inc.), The Spacing Guild (orange mutants), Bene Tleilax (slimy gnomes), Bene Gesserit (weirding women), the Emperor (boys are heirs, girls bear ‘em) and the Houses (the ruling class of “Families”, whose fiefs are usually solar systems); yet it retains the sense of acute claustrophobia modern international law evokes. Herbert handed out one token to each player in his political game, and left matters there. I guess I expect the universe to tend to complexity while Herbert does not. It baffles me how there are no powerful women who are not, effectively, promiscuous nuns; or geneticists who are not necrophiliac midgets; or more than one financial megalith.  Every enterprise in the Dune-verse is its own damn cult: it accounts for no people with cross purposes and meandering brains. Some monopolies I can explain with context: the Spacing Guild (it’s only fair to give addicts who live in fishtanks something for their troubles); others with rueful resignation: the Bene Gesserit (just be glad he snuck women onto the table); the Emperor is clearly conveniently around for Paul to usurp, but the aristocracy and attendant class system always stump me.

A classic aristocracy, with its elegant knights and deadly minstrels, the kind Herbert puts in charge of the entire galaxy, died long before he did. Assuming brevity demanded a  simplistic model government, why not make the ruling body a corrupt Galactic Parliament, rather than the House of Lords in space? If an institution has proved incompetent on one planet, it is hardly likely to win successively across hundreds of them, however desperate mankind gets. One gets the feeling that Herbert came up with the whole boiling just so he had a fool proof route to his theory of plotted out evolution. Herbert’s politics is a gift to his genetics: in a hurly-burly galaxy full of wildly careening sexual antics and gene-pools, the Bene Gesserit would never be able to collect enough data for their genetic banks.  An aristocracy, on the other hand, is certainly good at inbreeding, if little else. The nobles did the ‘sifting’ of genes so important in the Bene Gesserit weltenschauung: predicated as that cult’s existence is on the boundary between ‘human’ (a refined person, or a trained seal- it depends on one’s perspective) and ‘animal’ (everyone else, and, presumably, animals), the good horse-wives created a breeding index for mankind. The nobles ‘preserved the bloodlines’, while the Bene Gesserit harvested them and the Bene Tleilax experimented.


Left Hand of Darkness.

Light is the left hand of darkness

and darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one,  life and death, lying

together like lovers in kemmer.

Like hands joined together

like the end and the way.

Left Hand of Darkness



Le Guin is as enthusiastic about opening up sex for a thorough airing as Herbert is reluctant. Sexual alternatives are a crucial element in Le Guin’s releasing of reality to throw up compelling alternatives. The Annaresti in The Dispossessed have enviable amounts of sex and are comfortable, prolific bed-hoppers. Shevek, the protagonist, and his partner Takwer are monogamous from the instant they meet, but it doesn’t appear to be the rule. Besides, they seem to worked out their inner nymphomaniacs rather than tamed them.There is sexual tension aplenty, and quite a lot of what Takwer calls “body profiteering”- using sex to get ahead- but little rape and no repression.  The Urrasti, on the other hand, emulate a Victorian nabob’s approach with his native wives: keep them to decorate your home, and keep their clothes off.

Left Hand is equivalent where Annares is merely equal: Gethenians are ambisexual and androgynous, though they have their own set of sexual stresses. Every individual has a kemmer-cycle, similar to a menstrual cycle, the only time s/he is naturally sexually active (there are drugs to induce kemmer, as well as to repress it).  During kemmer the Gethenians resemble teenagers in heat; at all other times, they are sterile, even frigid.The helplessness of kemmer, the Farms (there, as here, an euphemism for gulags) where people are drugged permanently impotent, Handaratta rituals’ simultaneous denial and exploitation of the sexual instinct: these are all ways to domesticate a wild sexuality and wrestle it down into civilisation. We are offered a placid and asexual account of Gethenian society, but clearly there is tumult under the surface.

It is impossible to wholly sublimate something as embedded and as dangerous as sex.  Karhide, one of two cultures we are exposed to, has a relatively permissive approach to sex, balanced by a strong tradition of kin-Hearths (similar to homesteads). In atomised Orogeyn, sex is a less ambiguous weapon, frequently used to exploit or deceive. Gethen is not a planetary society, and the novel is narrated by an alien, hardly the authority on sexual customs.


Nonetheless, the little we are told strongly implies that the power and mystery of sex has little to do with genitals.  Gethen has no word for war and territorial ambition is yet to yield to battle, which the flippant might construe as proof that irredentism is fortified penis envy.In fairness, I reluctantly concede that it is unclear how much the absence of warfare is the absence of anything to fight over: it might just be the perpetual winter imposing passivity. There is plenty of individual aggression, extortion and opportunism to go around, and as we meet the Gethenians they have established enough control over their environment to begin the long gallop to nationalism and war. One is left unsure of the direction Gethen will take once it becomes aware of itself as one planet among many- how will the nascent struggles for dominance evolve once the stakes are made that much higher? The instinct for power, too, has little to do with genitals.


And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind
It’s just a shadow you’re seein’ that he’s chasing

Dylan, Mr Tambourine Man.

Rosa Luxemburg

Annares is a society founded on the philosophy of Odo, a cross between Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky. The remarkable woman founded a global movement back on Urras, and latter day Odonians were exiled to/awarded Annares in exchange for peace and stability in Urrasti nations. Life is dire on Annares; it is a desolate, difficult planet to live on, with little by way of foliage or fauna. The only native life on Annares is in the seas, while humanity ekes out an existence aided by luck, chance and science: they farm the limited plains, fish the teeming, terrifying seas, and attempt to invent a terrestrial eco-system.

There is drought, famine, and freedom.

A 170 year old experiment when the book starts, no new colonists have been allowed to enter Annares after the initial voyagers. There remains necessary, but minimal, contact with Urras: minerals exchanged for intricate engineering and new plant varieties. Annares feeds, clothes and houses itself, it pretends to defend itself, and the contact with Urras is more a pipeline/bribe into Urras than serious inter-dependence. Annares is the poor, defiant sibling of Urras; hating and fearing its twin untempered by any concerted attempt to understand its cultures outside of Odo’s critique, and, increasingly, even within it. (The stultification of syndicalist thought is well parodied in Le Guin’s “social-organic” paradigm.)

Annares is technically an anarchist society, with no state and no currency; but a bureaucracy is entrenching itself in Annares, and it benefits from the blind scorn of Urras that is thus being promoted. For their part, the Urrasti share in the ignorance, but replace the resentment with either derision or longing, depending on their success with life. For disaffected Urrasti, the moon-planet is a distant beacon of freedom and uprising, as alluring as it is aloof.

A hundred years after the settlement, aliens arrive in the solar system, to establish contact with the “Cetians” (as the peoples of the twin planets are known). The Annaresti remain deeply insecure and lock themselves down further. Urras, in any case, is the more beguiling of the pair. Annares is duly dismissed as an irrelevant and rustic planet in the shadow of paradise: twinkling, beautiful Urras. The only thing Annares has to offer is the elusive power of an idea: revolution, both politically and scientifically. Shevek, an Annaresti physicist, the central figure in the book, ensures each is accepted alongside the other, initiating channels into the broader universe for idealistic Annares. Shevek is a model Odonian, even the arch-Odonian; for most of his life physics mediates his relationship to Urras. He has a profound relationship with his metropolis: Shevek’s seminal works are written in Iotic, an Urrasti language, as they draw considerably upon Iotic thought (and, unsurprisingly, Einstein). Unlike most Annaresti, Shevek cultivates a carefully tended knowledge of Urras, and his work benefits for his open mindedness. But it is never an intimate relationship, in the sense of ease or corruption: neither Urrasti thought nor its deceptively placid prosperity seduce Shevek away from his faith in Odo.


The Storming of Tuileries Palace
The Storming of Tuileries Palace


Shevek never wavers from his Annaresti revolution, despite considerable incentive to do so and close familiarity with its drawbacks and loopholes. Annares grows ever more bureaucratic, Shevek grows ever more anarchist. The years he spends in exile on Urras, Shevek’s magnificent experiment in jolting Annaresti society out of its xenophobic seclusion, barely dent his anarchist armour.

They are fruitful years for the physicist, leading to the invention of the ansible, a device which allows people to communicate across dead space. It’s a moot point whether Shevek could have arrived at his physics without having trained deeply in Odonian philosophy; Cetian physics is as much philosophy as maths. In a discipline as influenced by knowledge-perception as Cetian temporal physics, values are bound to be inextricably tied to judgements and conclusions. Arguably, Odo is why Shevek’s able to make a leap where no Urrasti could: she tipped his genius in the right direction by giving him the philosophy to match the math.

Shevek’s years on Urras extract full price for his success, and are the best testimony to the man beyond the physicist. He lives on the constant edge of despair, feeling increasingly locked within plush walls, with no hope of going home; compelled to perform mental stunts for the benefit of murky masters. As a person with no metonym for “profit”, it must have been unnerving to watch his brainwaves being manipulated in its pursuit. Fearing the influence an unfettered, in-the-flesh anarchist might exert upon the restive underclass, Urrasti companions carefully calibrate Shevek’s experience of the planet. He spends many years struggling futilely at his tether, stymied continually by the insidious ways gender and class roles perpetuate themselves despite well-intentioned invitations of equality. Shevek considers himself everyone’s comrade, but it is a courtesy few on Urras are willing to repay him, even when they might stand to benefit from it. Only when he finally escapes into an Urrasti capital to clumsily ferment rebellion do we meet the “real” Urras, stranded at the same paradox of penury and plenty that we on Earth are confronted by daily. It’s by finding his route back to revolution that Shevek finds a route back to Annares, gifting the Ekumen network an ansible along the way.

Between Dune and the Dispossessed.


The Sahara, nat-geo's "Algeria Pictures"

On Problems

Our choicest plans
have fallen through,
our airiest castles
tumbled over,

because of lines
we  neatly drew
and later neatly
stumbled over.

Piet Hien


Almost anything carried to it’s logical end becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.

Left Hand of Darkness.

A big difference between the two cycles I have mentioned only in passing as yet is technology: in Annares-universe, instantaneous galactic communication is being invented, but space travel remains slow and cumbersome. Sentient races are just beginning to converse and the Ekumen network, which has expanded to 84 worlds in Left Hand, is beginning to emerge.  A thousand years after The Dispossessed,  in Left Hand times, the Ekumen network is one of trade and ideas, a cosmic internet, without any serious transfer of populations (quick digression: both novels were written in the ‘70s). People are usually confined to the planet they are born, even as they enjoy symphonies composed on planets far, far away. To draw a more contemporary analogy, this is Firefly-verse.  In Dune’s universe, by contrast, melange ensures space travel is conducted in hyperspace terms; it is well near instantaneous, and planet-hopping essentially involves boarding a (very expensive) flight.

Time, and relativistic physics, are motifs which echo in both novelists’ work, if in different combinations and degrees. The bits I found most fascinating in The Dispossessed were the forays into exotic temporal physics. Le Guin has done a clever bit of extrapolating on the science as well on the society. The basic principle appears to be a rapprochement between relativity and quantum physics, that holy grail of theoretical physics; uniting time and space into the concept of an ‘interval’, and Le Guin does a consummate job of what Shevek calls the ‘analogic’ mode of explaining science. The science on Gethen is primarily early 20th century engineering, though the Ekumen universe it enters by the end of the novel is, of course, the gleaming edge of science

Dune, meanwhile, is more mystical about its science, where it condescends to any. Paul, Alia (Paul’s sister) and Leto (his son) actually see the future and shape it with their actions, and they do so when their genes interact with melange concentrate. Space travel is enabled by a related process- Spacing Guild navigators use their narrow melange-induced prescience to “fold space” and transport matter (they also turn bright orange skeletons as a consequence of their spice-addiction; Paul goes blind, Alia becomes a sociopath, and Leto transforms into a sandworm. Herbert is not sympathetic to his addicts, though his universe wouldn’t run without them).

The Atreides take this melange-gene cocktail to its logical conclusion. By birth, they “shorten the way” and can look upon time as if from the outside, or rather from intimately within: Herbert describes the experience sort of like being the focal point of a prism through which time is refracted. For the Atreides, time is in their genes. They access their ancestors and (more rarely) their descendants thanks to “muscle-memory”, and the whole clan often pitches in with the arduous task of opting between destinies. Shevek is the anti-Paul. He is low born & largely self taught; and he excavates the nature of time without destroying its fluid, tangible logic. He has no “family” to speak of- his ancestors were probably Urrasti janitors and he has grown up communally, sharing dorms with dozens of his peers, like all Annaresti. His is a genius neither born nor bred, explained only by the sheer unpredictable brilliance of a sentient mind. Shevek’s  life, as Paul’s, is influenced by his circumstances; unlike Paul’s, it is not determined by them.

Le Guin discusses prescience and foretelling in more detail in Left Hand, where the two religions of Yomeshta and Handdarata are founded around the skill. The Handdarata, Karhide’s monks, believe only those who recognise the superiority of questions to answers can truly see past the fabric of temporality, and to “see” wholly is to be driven mad. One adept argues they practice their art  to “prove the ultimate futility of knowing the answer to the wrong question”; the right ones being, in their estimation, unanswerable, though open to discussion and discovery. Genly Ai, Left Hand’s human protagonist, calls Handdarata mastery the art of taming the hunch, and it seems a good description of the skill. Yomeshta, of which one is told less, seems to consider foretold revelation an unmitigated good. Yomeshta is tied up with an oppressive state apparatus in Orogeyn, which might partially explain its penchant for prefabricated solutions.

Another persistent concern with both novelists is the fragility of beginnings and their impact upon outcomes. Le Guin is more concerned with the related question of means and ends, a question Dune deflects, though later novels of the cycle, notably God Emperor of Dune, delve into it. Genly Ai for his part is emphatic the Ekumen hold beginnings sacrosanct. The importance of a friendly, benevolent introduction is one of their chief reasons for sending only one “visitor” to a new world. Neither Left Hand nor Dispossessed gives us much information about power dynamics on core Ekumen lands, and judgements of benign vs. sinister are left to the reader’s imagination. Genly Ai is certainly persuaded of its virtues, but he is hardly trustworthy, being an Ekumen evangelist by profession. The phlegmatic approach the network adopts towards expansion can suggest either a plodding, megalomaniac intelligence or a genuine attempt at proactive cohesion, decided primarily on the length of one’s optimism.One doesn’t have to dissect the Ekumen, or even make sweeping observations about them, to share their respect for a sound start.  To them, as to the physicist Shevek, the first step in a course of action is as important as the goal, because only the right approach will throw up the right path. The journey demarcates the goal; one cannot exist independent of the other. By extension, to enter any conflict with inappropriate violence is to distort it immeasurably; and yet the worm often turns upon the knowledge that violence is the quickest way to unleash unpredictable consequences upon formidable foes. Le Guin’s relationship with violence is a pragmatic one- accept it exists, while defending against all the common manifestations. Violence may be the fastest way to cut through the dross, but it is also the fastest way to create a blindly devouring conflagration.

Herbert is more inclined to the romantic school of morally cleansing violence opposing decadent variants. Paul and his Bene Gesserit mother, Jessica, are equally burdened by axioms about delicate beginnings, and it one of the themes of the initial confrontation with the Fremen. In Dune, the beginnings epigram is solely deployed to fortify aggression and justify displaying power (thereby establishing utility), with no blazing edge to the blade. Herbert reworks and reduces Le Guin’s ambiguity into the fierce certitude of survival: Genly Ai and Shevek are willing to sacrifice themselves, and often others, to their cause; the Atreides are their own cause.  It is anyone’s call whose violence is more worthy. After all, who can profitably pin freedom and Facebook against the “fertility drive of the species” (Jessica’s ingenious rationalisation of sex)?   Jessica and Paul dominate their first encounter with the Fremen at Tuono Basin, proving to the latter their water is worth saving within their bodies (water, not spice, is the currency of spice planet).  The display is clearly intended to channel power and buy favour (with a fair measure of authority) in a society that reveres martial skill and textbook mythology. As beginnings go, it is a fair one to Paul’s ruinous jihad in Dune Messiah

Prise de la Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houel


Freedom means
you’re free to do
just whatever
pleases you;

– if, of course
that is to say,
what you please
is what you may

Piet Hien


The Dispossessed is a diagnosis. It is the story of a vision- its hope, betrayal, and revitalisation.  Did Shevek really change his planet, or did it continue its spiral into iniquity and intolerance? Le Guin leaves us cautiously hopeful. He indisputably shed some light, and his primary goal, the transmutability of information, was achieved. It would be missing the point of the novel to worry overmuch about its culmination. Le Guin’s chief challenge is not directed at the Cetians of Annares, it is issued to humans on Earth:  can we really imagine Anarres? If I were given to hyperbole, I would say it is a question upon which our humanity depends. Are we already the people of the distant Earth (‘Terra’) of Ekumen times, gutted and smouldering; unable to imagine true freedom, incapable of envisaging the real dangers it implies? The Terrans in the Hainish Universe are a lost civilisation, calamitous to the bitter end. The species itself survives, but within strictly regimented cloisters on ravaged Terra, and only with alien benevolence. Humans, like cockroaches, will live through anything,  statistics masking individual fragility. It is how we live that is up for scrutiny.

If we do manage to transcend our planet and escape our sins, are we headed towards a Dune-future, unable to learn from mistakes? Caged behind the same institutions, shackled by the same norms,  are we doomed to build walls and peer down them? Annares and Arrakis are both planets tied down by poverty; with life in unexpected places that is tended by a civilisation geared to survival and galvanised by a dream. Why  is it, though, that the Fremen dream leads to jihad, while the Annaresti one leads to breakthrough? Herbert’s people, of whatever sex, are obsessed by the minutiae of physical dominance, either of sex or of eugenics. Le Guin’s, on the other hand, are usually engaged in imagining beyond established norms and structures of power/violence and discovering how they make subtle entry into otherwise revolutionarily equal societies. Herbert comforts us by describing how society will be the same in 30,000 years; Le Guin focuses on mining where it might be different. Of these two apposite simulacra, which haunt speculative fiction across time and movements, I confess to finding the latter more stimulating. One can rest happy, then, that it was Le Guin’s vision, as much as Herbert’s, that led us down the lane to Firefly and Battlestar Galactica


This was written in fragments, a fact that tells rather in the reading. However, it was written largely to exorcise long held opinions about spec fic so I could move on to other things, and I hope I have occasion to revisit it one day.

4 responses to “Anarchist, Ahoy!”

  1. The Things That I Must Say.

    i read your piece again, and i don’t know if the things that i’m trying to say are what you imply and don’t state, or whether, perhaps you’re missing a few things that would give the books coherence.

    the thing is that the basic difference between herbert and le guin is that, ultimately, they’re talking about entirely different organisations of their universes, and the differences in power structure follow from there. le guin’s universe is one of diversity and coexistence, while herbert’s talking about hegemony, ultimately. therefore, across the ekumen, the cetians establish a benign sort of democracy/anarchy, where membership, for remarkably different humanoids is a matter of choice and easy transition. herbert, otoh, speaks of a system born of single-species expansion and dominance (the theme of Empire is one that runs through the books, even post-scattering). the natural child of that is the idea of a single centralised Power, and i would argue, teleologically, that centralised power naturally tends to heredity/class/monarchy. because where people are inherently similar, artificial classes must be established to shore up the power structure. somehow, other authors seem naturally to divide between these two ways-of-dealing: orson scott card does this really well in the ender books for the dealing-with-Others thing, and the star wars/asimov are probably what tells you precisely how power gets concentrated. these unsaid things about the birth of the system are how i’ve always explained the duneverse/ekumen.

    the ritualisation of power also, therefore, follows naturally in a system where class and it’s trappings must be validated constantly. the differences between cults in the dune books would also be something that builds in that sort of a centralised universe, where diversity grows in the corners rather than naturally in the midst of life. gender roles again, i would explain away by saying that most societies built on ideas of dominance tend to do that.

    there’s also the fact that herbert’s preoccupation is with mass action, and le guin is much more concerned with individuals. herbert’s heroes are servants to Destiny or genetics or whatever. i’ve always thought of the genetics thing as a mistake, btw. possibly because i don’t know what they thought of this in the 70s, but it doesn’t agree with my science. with what little psychology i know, i’ve always thought herbert’s major influence has been jung, and the ideas of collective unconsciousness, concretized beyond belief, seem to be the seed from which his prescience grows. even then, i’ve always found his fallback (upon a terran past, rather than the period of expansion and jihad) a little frustrating, especially in the later books, and on that convenient use of blueprint, i think i agree with you.

    le guin, otoh, is naturally less of an extrapolationist, and probably has less of a bias towards what has been, when she goes on to talk about what might be. she makes her books parables of individuals and the choices they make. her stories (even earthsea) are framed as vignettes from an ongoing story, rather than mythologies in themselves (as dune would want to paint itself) and that’s a result of le guin’s natural tendency to focus on people for their own sake. the mythologising of shevek/ged is something she references off and on, but not something that she acknowledges or even condones.

    from this pov, i’d argue that each author wrote what suited their worlds, and for that, they’ve done a pretty good job, in terms of coherence (unlike asimov, who swings hither and thither with each book). i don’t know whether perhaps, with both authors, i’ve explained away some things on the basis of my psychoanalyzing the authors in this way, or extrapolating from other books i’ve read. but that’s only so that i don’t lose my worldview, and my opinions about authors i rather like. :-).

    ps: i have a tendency to verbosity that this blog brings out, and which i couldn’t really exercise on something as public and scary as firstpost. i’m sorry if this strikes you as overkill… 🙂

    • this blog is all about verbosity! (though this was one of my longer posts, twas also an early post, hence the rants. :D) on balance, I agree with you. Herbert’s novels were well done within their framework. What I was objecting to, really, was the framework itself, and it’s influence/popularity etc.

      my only quibble is with the sentence “le guin, otoh, is naturally less of an extrapolationist, and probably has less of a bias towards what has been, when she goes on to talk about what might be.” she has a great bias towards the past- witness the Paris Commune Annares- and extrapolates with an ease and style Herbert never matched, not even in Heretics/ Chapterhouse.

  2. No actually I was saying that as a positive. Scifi has to be extrapolative in that it must be, in some way a reflection on the way we are or could be, or else it’s irrelevant. But le guin lets go of preconceived notions more easily than most other writers, and imo that’s an undeniable strength. She debunks rather than follows, even when she talks about annares/urras… her point in that contrast seems to be based on that, in fact. And it’s an idea she goes to again and again, which is why it’s so obvious. Herbert is more stolid when he sets off on whatif journeys, and therefore more prone to easy tropes. That’s what I was trying to say.

    I was trying to say that herbert’s world cannot be but this way. His framework follows from what he wants to say, and you can’t pick up little details you find distasteful because that would collapse the rest (in this I would exempt duncan idaho, whose presence I’ve never understood. And wish I could excise… :)…) Whether he should have written the books he did is too basic a question for me to consider, honestly. But the world would be less interesting minus dune. :p. So I’m willing to let it pass… :).

    I suspect that the reasons people read scifi is more diverse than I imagine, however, and this discussion must be predicated on that. From what I understood, your reasons are similar to mine-you’re looking at these as possibilities rather than exotica. But this ecological thing is only one corner of the genre. But again, you probably know that already. 🙂

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