Friday, August 18, 2017

The Day Before the Revolution

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018)
From Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels & Stories

Fred Winkowski’s jacket design for the first American edition of The Dispossessed, Harper & Row, 1974. More of Winkowski’s artwork can be seen at his website Moons, Machines, and Martians.
Throughout Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 multiple-award-winning novel The Dispossessed, the philosopher and revolutionary Laia Asieo Odo is a magisterial presence—even though she lived on a different planet and died several generations before the period in which the novel is set. She did not even live to see the revolution she instigated, but her life and writings became the inspiration for Odonianism. The year after the novel appeared, Le Guin explained what she meant by the term:
Odonianism is anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism, whatever name it tries to dignify itself with; not the social-Darwinist economic “libertarianism” of the far right; but anarchism as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism’s principal target is the authoritarian State (capitalist or socialist); its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). It is the most idealistic, and to me the most interesting, of all political theories.
When Le Guin had finished writing the novel, she felt “lost, exiled—a displaced person.” Yet while the novel was being prepared for publication, “Odo came out of the shadows and across the gulf of Probability, and wanted a story written, not about the world she made, but about herself.” That story, “The Day Before the Revolution,” was published three months after the novel appeared and went on to win the Nebula Award for Best Short Story the same year that The Dispossessed captured the prize in the Best Novel category. (The Dispossessed also won the Hugo, science fiction’s other major book award.)

Both the novel and the story belong to a group of seven novels and sixteen stories set in Le Guin’s Hainish universe. Those works have been gathered together for the first time in a two-volume Library of America edition edited by Brian Attebery with Le Guin’s cooperation. In her introduction to the first volume the author explains further how the idea of “The Day Before the Revolution” came to her.
I’d wondered who the founder of that way of life, Odo, was—could I imagine my way into the head of a political philosopher, a fearless demagogue, an active revolutionary, a woman so different from myself? Only through the back door, as it were, to that mind: the way of illness, weakness, old age. Yang claims; yin shares. I could share in Odo’s being as a mortal coming to her death.
While The Dispossessed wrestles with the ethical, philosophical, and political challenges confronting its “ambiguous utopia,” the companion story looks inward at the end-of-life preoccupations of an individual. “Utterly unremarkable but unutterably significant, she is one of the characters around whom great fiction is built,” observes Attebery, “like the Mrs. Brown whom Virginia Woolf spotted in the corner of a railway car.” In a study of Le Guin’s writings George Edgar Slusser remarks that “except for its setting, [the story] is hardly science fiction at all. It is simply an account of the last day in the life of a sick old woman. . . . She meets her fate not laughing, but with wry irony.”

Note: When Le Guin collected the essay for her story collection The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, she dedicated it to the memory of social critic and anarchist philosopher Paul Goodman, whose essay “A Young Pacifist”—a eulogy to his son killed in a mountain expedition—is a previous Story of the Week selection.

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