Friday, June 17, 2016

Physics Book Club: The Hainish Cycle

The Hainish Cycle, a loosely interconnected science fiction series by author Ursula K. LeGuin, is everything sci-fi ought to be. Set in a universe where humanity was “seeded” across the galaxy long ago from an ancient spacefaring homeworld, each book explores new worlds of humans and their cultures, and in doing so takes a magnifying lens to aspects of our own culture here on Earth. Some of the differences between the various worlds’ inhabitants are only skin deep, but those are the least of the differences between the Urrasti and the Anarresti in one of the Cycle’s most famous books: The Dispossessed.

Cover art for The Dispossessed.
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The Dispossessed follows the story of Shevek, a theoretical physicist from the hardscrabble libertarian world of Anarres who is convinced that his Theory of Simultaneity (a sort of alien analogue to relativity) will revolutionize interstellar communication and travel—if he can just get the details worked out. Life on Anarres is difficult, a sharp contrast to the lush, Earthlike conditions of its “moon” Urras, from which the original settlers of Anarres fled to escape the ideological enslavement of a capitalist economy grown out of control. There are no laws on Anarres, in accordance with the philosophies of freedom and voluntaryism espoused by Odo, an Urrasti philosopher of old whose writings inspired their belief system and spurred the settlement of Anarres. Even without laws, though, the society functions in an orderly fashion, by necessity—on a world without fruit to eat or animals to hunt, it’s a choice between cooperation and starvation.

Shevek finds himself dissatisfied with the state of affairs on Anarres, worried that social pressures and de facto power structures have effectively replicated the tyranny of Urras’ laws and economy. Certain that he is on the verge of something tremendously important, Shevek feels that his theories’ development is being hampered by the social atmosphere of Anarres, and resolves to be the first Anarresti ever to leave the planet and return to Urras.

Ironically, The Dispossessed is one of the less satisfying books from the Hainish cycle from a physics perspective. A physicist—someone who can provide extraordinary value to society purely through the machinations of his mind—makes for a perfect protagonist in a story that explores themes of social order, liberty, idealism, and duty. Unfortunately, whenever Shevek talks about his theories, he ends up sounding—at least to this reader—like a philosopher doing an impression of a physicist, or perhaps vice versa. This is, of course, a pretty inevitable consequence of giving your character a fictional theory that’s supposed to be as important as relativity—I can’t hold it against Le Guin for not actually having revolutionary physics for her character to spout, but it does require an extra touch of suspension-of-disbelief. That said, it’s not a bad review if the greatest criticism you can muster is that the author isn’t literally Einstein.

Other stories in the Hainish cycle actually do a better job of exploring the social and political implications of futuristic technology. In one story, The Left Hand of Darkness, an envoy is sent to a small and perpetually wintry planet called Gethen, as a representative of the so-called Ekumen—a federation of known worlds where humans have ended up.
Cover art from The Left Hand of Darkness.
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On his mission to induct Gethen into the Ekumen, the envoy—Genly Ai, by name—is met with resistance from the king of one of Gethen’s domains, who sees Genly (and perhaps the rest of the humans in the universe) as a “pervert”. See, on Gethen, people have no fixed sex or gender, except for a brief period of “heat” (known as kemmer) once a month, when their bodies become distinctly male or female depending on environmental factors and hormonal influences. In the modern day, when topics of gender identity and fluidity are at the forefront of our collective discourse, the book is both prescient and fascinating, riddled with bizarre circumstances guaranteed to challenge your perspective. To the Gethenians, and king Agraven of Karhide, the thought of someone with a fixed, permanent sex—perpetually in heat—is appalling.

"So all of them, out on these other planets, are in permanent kemmer? A society of perverts? So Lord Tibe put it; I thought he was joking. Well, it may be the fact, but it's a disgusting idea, Mr. Ai, and I don't see why human beings here on [Gethen] should want or tolerate any dealings with creatures so monstrously different. But then, perhaps you're here to tell me I have no choice in the matter."

"The choice, for Karhide, is yours, sir."

"And if I send you packing, too?"

"Why, I'll go. I might try again, with another generation…"

That hit him. He snapped, "Are you immortal?"

"No, not at all, sir. But the time-jumps have their uses. If I left Gethen now for the nearest world, Ollul, I'd spend seventeen years of planetary time getting there. Timejumping is a function of traveling nearly as fast as light. If I simply turned around and came back, my few hours spent on the ship would, here, amount to thirty-four years; and I could start all over."

This is part of Le Guin’s brilliance—not only does she understand relativistic time dilation, she explores how humans would apply it to their advantage in politics and diplomacy. This brilliance shines through the entire Hainish Cycle, binding it into an expertly written series that transports readers through space and time to distant worlds and far-flung futures. The most extraordinary part however, the true gift of a world-weaver as exceptional as Le Guin, is that—standing on the dusty plains of Anarres or the glaciers of Gethen—you can see your own world, often more clearly than you can from here on Earth.

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