Wednesday, April 21, 2010

#56: The Dispossessed, #29: The Caves of Steel

The Dispossessed:

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“It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.” 
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“Change is freedom, change is life.
It's always easier not to think for oneself. Find a nice safe hierarchy and settle in. Don't make changes, don't risk disapproval, don't upset your syndics. It's always easiest to let yourself be governed.
There's a point, around age twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.
Those who build walls are their own prisoners. I'm going to go fulfill my proper function in the social organism. I'm going to go unbuild walls.”  

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“The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.” 
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The Dispossessed is a novel of ideas. This novel, like The Left Hand of Darkness, is less focused on plot, than ideas, philosophizing, and paradoxes for the reader. Don't get me wrong, there is a plot, much more than say, Star Maker, but The Dispossessed is full of frequent intellectual discourse.
To be honest, I find this book to be very underrated. It is a hidden classic, very literary, and some scenes approach SF greatness that is only found in novels like Dune. In my opinion, it is superior to The Left Hand of Darkness, which is of course, excellent, and widely considered to be Le Guin's best novel. That novel of gender-roles is perhaps more famous and widely recognized only because of its politically correct topic.
The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is a tale of two worlds, the anarchist, socialist Anarres, and the more structured Urras. Both planets seem to be striving towards utopia, and both have fundamental problems, as well as strong points to their respective systems. Urras is a much more Earth-like planet, with countries like A-Io, Thu, and Benbili allegorical for the U.S, Russia, and Vietnam. Urras' governmental system is much more traditional and familiar than Anarres'. Anarres is a strange world in which nobody owns anything permanently, and all names are assigned by computer, and the State raises kids, rather than the parents.
It is presented in an unbiased manner , because Le Guin wants to let the reader get to their own conclusion, "Is it a utopia or a dystopia?" --in contrast to works like 1984, which obviously portrays a dystopia, or Thomas More's Utopia, which obviously displays a positive utopia (at least from More's perspective!) The book is written in a non-linear fashion, featuring many flashbacks into the life of Shevek, the protagonist, a brilliant Anarresti physicist who has come to Urras for the first time to work with their physicists to try a develop a unified theory. The stranger exploring a strange land is a theme also found in Left Hand of Darkness, and Shevek is, throughout the novel, confronted with facets of society he perceives to be alien throughout his journey on Urras. We are given flash-backs to Shevek's life, mainly to show different aspects of society in Anarres, and the cruelty of some of it as well as its triumphs. These sections highlight some of the problems in building a perfect socialist society. Le Guin even throws in some feminism into this novel, although more subtly than in The Left Hand of Darkness. Odo, the founder of the philosophy which governs Anarres, is a radical female philosopher. Even the title of the book is in reference to women.
All in all, the Dispossessed is an excellent work of SF, and an important utopian novel of ideas. The scene in which time is discussed at a Urrasti ball with Shevek and other scientists will make you love this book. Beneath its surface, it also contains a feminist message, just like Left Hand of Darkness, although its feminism is not as "on the surface" as Left Hand's. This is a great book, very literary, and verrrrry under-rated throughout the sci-fi, and regular literature community. This book should not be in the shadow of A Wizard of Earthsea, which it is superior to, or The Left Hand of Darkness, which it is on par with, if not superior to. A great, thought-provoking read, and definitely one of the hundred best novels the genre has produced.

The Caves of Steel:

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“We're forever teetering on the brink of the unknowable, and trying to understand what can't be understood.” 
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“Even as a youngster, though, I could not bring myself to believe that if knowledge presented danger, the solution was ignorance.”  
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“The robot said, 'I have been trying, friend Julius, to understand some remarks Elijah made to me earlier. Perhaps I am beginning to, for it suddenly seems to me that the destruction of what should not be, that is, the destruction of what you people call evil, is less just and desirable than the conversion of this evil into what you call good.'
He hesitated, then, almost as though he were surprised at his own words, he said, 'Go, and sin no more!” 

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The Caves of Steel is a rather light, fun Sci-fi mystery from Isaac Asimov. It isn't as philosophical or deep as most of the novels on this list, but I can confirm that it is still a good, albeit quick, read. The slang is a bit dated, and quite 1950s-ish ("Golly Gee, Jumpin' Jahosafatts!"), but the story is still a classic.
The plot goes something like this: In the future, Earth is overpopulated, and most of humanity lives inside giant cities incased in domes of steel, with no outside light. (The novel even  explores some of the implications of living ones entire life indoors) After some nicely done Sci-Fi world-building, Asimov gives us a straight forward murder mystery: a high ranking "Spacer" named Sarton has been killed. Grizzled detective Lije Baley is put on the case, and, much to his chagrin, he is joined by a robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, made in the exact likeness of the dead man. Lije is old-fashioned, and he takes some getting used to his robot partner, but the two soon make a fine team.
Baley is at first tense around the robot because of the growing influence of robots on the world. At the police station, one of Baley's friends has his job taken by a robot named R. Sammy. Baley's gruff attitude and wariness of the robot slowly change throughout the novel. The two travel and encounter smaller mysteries and anti-robot riots throughout the city while they are on their hunt for the killer, which make for lively subplots . Interestingly enough, the robots in The Caves of Steel are portrayed in an innocent, almost sweet light. While reading, I couldn't help but like R. Daneel Olivaw, with his endearingly blunt, child-like innocence.
All in all, this novel may not be as powerful as novels like 1984 or Solaris, but it's a short, light, entertaining page turner that is among the best when you're talking about the specific niche of science fiction mysteries. It's a simple book and a good introduction to Golden Age/1940s and '50s sci-fi. It's certainly an excellent introduction to the world of science fiction -- and it isn't half-bad as a mystery novel either! Check out The Caves of Steel if you like light mysteries, page turners, golden age science fiction, or simply anything written by Isaac Asimov. This novel may not be Iain M. Banks in terms of writing skill either, as Asimov was quite young when he wrote it. Immensely significant to the genre of science fiction --just like hundreds of other works by Isaac Asimov. 

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