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Darko Suvin defines science fiction as "a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device" (Suvin 7-8) is a fictional "novum . . . a totalizing phenomenon or relationship" (Suvin 64), "locus and/or dramatis personae . . . radically or at least significantly" alternative to the author's empirical environment "simultaneously perceived as not impossible within the cognitive (cosmological and anthropological) norms of the author's epoch" (Suvin viii). Unlike fantasy, science fiction is set in a realistic world, but one strange, alien. Only there are limits to how alien another world, another culture, can be, and it is the interface between those two realms that can give science fiction its power, by making us look back at ourselves from its skewed perspective.
The Dispossessed takes as its novum a general theory of time, illustrated by the paradox of a rock thrown at a tree, a rock that can never reach its target because "there's always half of the way left to go" (Le Guin 26). Shevek, Le Guin's protagonist and formulator of the general temporal theory, sees himself as one who "'unbuilds walls'" (Le Guin 289), as the "primal number, that [is] both unity and plurality" (Le Guin 30) crossing interfaces. Walls abound in The Dispossessed: the wall between Anarres and Urras (Le Guin 1-2), the wall that separates one individual from every other (Le Guin 6), the wall of social conscience (Le Guin 287), the wall between men and women (Le Guin 14-16), the wall of time--Zeno's paradox--the limit that prevents the rock from striking the tree (Le Guin 26).
But as Shevek knows, the rock does strike the tree; that is the joke (Le Guin 27). The wall can be crossed. He crosses it when he leaves Anarres; he crosses it in his love for Takver and Sadik; he crosses it with the Syndic of Iniative, and he crosses it with the Terrans and the Hainish. This need to "unbuild walls" is his "'cellular function,'" his "moral choice," but it is "process" and not "end," a "journey and return" and not merely a "repetitive, atemporal" cycle (Le Guin 290-291). The paradox of sequence and simultaneity is that nothing stays the same; it is not the same river going past the bank, or the same wind blowing through the same tree as last spring.
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Shevek tells us that the key to Odonianism is revolution, change, falling. Anarres, anarchy, is the future because the future is change. Le Guin's portrayal of Urras, the power struggles between A-Io and Thu with each other and with Benbili, the struggles between aristocracy and working class, men and women, parallel and parody Earth. The Terran ambassador, Keng, calls A-Io a paradise, "full of good, of beauty, vitality, achievement . . . what a world should be . . . alive, tremendously alive--alive, despite all its evils, with hope" (Le Guin 303). But Urras is also Hell, a society of half-measures with "no way to act rightly, with a clear heart" where "[t]here is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, and fear of loss, and the wish for power" (Le Guin 302). Urras is earth crystalized, alien and familiar through the looking glass of The Dispossessed.
But a totally alien environment is not necessary to create an estranged vantage point from which to view ourselves. Suvin typologizes utopian (and dystopian) literature as a subgenre of science fiction, a special limit case of estrangement where the fictive world is still our own, only following a historically alternative path (Suvin 53). Specifically, Suvin defines utopia as "the verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where the sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author's community, this construction based on estrangement arising out of an alternative historical hypothesis" (Suvin 49).
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man can be read as dystopian literature, a failed utopia of white and black relationships personified in the experience of the Invisible Man. Throughout the novel, the Invisible Man tries to measure up to the standards of the white men, believing "only these men could truly judge [his] ability" (Ellison 25). Despite the heckling and degradation of the incidents of the battle royal his constant thought is on his speech (Ellison 17, 24, 26, 29), and his reward, the calf-skin brief case containing his admittance papers to the State Negro college, becomes a symbol of his constant push to excel in their eyes.
The impossibility of ever measuring up, the unrealizable dream of human dignity, of being more than just a "mark on the score-card of [white] achievement" (Ellison 93) becomes the estranged perspective of Invisible Man. As the Invisible Man's dreams forewarn him, the documents in the brief case, whether his admission to the state college, his letters from Bledsoe, or his brotherhood reports all bear the same message--"Keep This Nigger-Boy Running" (Ellison 33, 187-191). To survive in a white-dominated world, he has to repress his humanity (Ellison 92), lose (as he does in the company hospital--Ellison ch.11) or deny his identity (c.f. his new "brotherhood" name and separation from Mary and his family--Ellison chs. 14 and 15), become invisible.
Situations are never what they seem in Invisible Man. A constant subversion occurs between appearances and reality. His grandfather's meekness and humility become the actions of a traitor and a spy (Ellison 16). The State Negro college, supposedly an institution of Negro enlightenment, is seen in its graduates, Trueblood and the vets, as a means of further enslavement, for either its graduates become better sharecroppers like Trueblood, or they become social misfits like the brain surgeon of The Golden Day who "was forced to the utmost degradation because [he] possessed skilled hands and the belief that [his] knowledge could bring [him] dignity" (Ellison 92).
However, what the Invisible Man eventually realizes is that invisibility has its own kind of power, like the ten drops of black dope added to the pure white of Liberty paints (Ellison 195-198) or Lucius Brockway tending the oils and resins forming the foundation of the paint from the basement (Ellison 202-214). "Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only in division is there true health" (Ellison 563). Rejecting the chaotic, rainbow unreality of Rineheart's multiple identifications, the Invisible Man opts for remaining invisible, because anything else is lost identity, "colorlessness" or "dull and gray" (Ellison 564).
He will not remain in his underground world. "Old Bad Air" has to come out because all men may suffer subjugation as society becomes increasingly dehumanized. As his dream in the sewer revealed, technological civilization, the "iron man" threatens to subjugate all humanity in the same way whites had subjugated blacks (Ellison 558). His startled cry, "No, no, we must stop him![the robot]" (Ellison 558) and his final image of speaking "on the lower frequencies" (Ellison 568) for all men suggest an attempt to reach out again, a final "socially responsible role to play" (Ellison 568). His vision of unity in diversity--"Our fate is to become one, and yet many"--(Ellison 564) is reminiscent of Shevek's primal number, and the Invisible Man's belief that brotherhood may yet be possible, in an estranged future, parallels Shevek's thought in The Dispossessed, "I'm trying to say what I think brotherhood really is. It begins--it begins in shared pain" (Le Guin 55).
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage Books, 1952.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1974.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale UP, 1980.