Let me just start by saying that this book is a Sci-Fi story in the same sense that 1984 is a Sci-Fi book. It is certainly set in a different world from our own, and it’s certainly involves fancy technology, but the science fiction is mainly to just provide a backdrop conducive to the characters and conflicts the author is trying to set up. It’s not especially important what theoretical physics the societies are fighting over, or how they travel through space or that one planet is a moon, it’s only important that the societies are how they are, and the living conditions are just so.
I think really the best way to describe the story is a thought piece on utopian societies, or at the very least idealized extremes of social systems. I know that sounds dull as all hell, but Le Guin manages to make it a fairly compelling book, nonetheless. For the most part, it’s a story of a pure anarchist society living on one world, and the pinnacle of capitalist society on another, and how the main character (an anarchist) interacts with both of them. Sure there’s some sort of post-cataclysm Earthlings, and a Soviet style socialist state, and another alien society, but these exist so much on the fringes they really aren’t worth considering too deeply. A capitalist world full of incredible opulence and aesthetic success that leaves a whole subset of the populace wretchedly poor and oppressed, or a utilitarian and austere existence free from any government or property. They are both flawed despite the artistic leaps the author takes to make them feasible, and both are led to compromise their values when “human” nature gets involved. There is a fair bit about love and selfishness and expression and surface beauty compared to deeper personal beauty, but most of it seems secondary to the exploration of these societies.
I found the first few chapters of the book to be far too ambiguous and confusing to be worth the dawning revelation, and the pace often dragged on portions that I felt did not add to the plot all that much. And despite the effort and nuance that Le Guin lends to the societies she creates, and the intense amount of work she puts into thinking out the consequences of her world building to its full extent, I still felt like some of the story was cheating. It’s simple to create an open, egalitarian society when you somehow eliminate disease and basic greed and somehow convince all people everywhere to self-regulate themselves. The notion that there is no need for a criminal justice system because everyone will turn themselves in or fail to even conceive of breaking societal boundaries is silly, and perhaps the most nagging detail of the book. I also found the story of the main character meeting his family and developing his new theory to be far too intermittent to hold my interest or elicit any deep empathy.
Even so, the book is an extremely interesting intellectual exercise and far more well thought out than the book’s cover and opening chapters suggested. I felt a bit let down that more of the world wasn’t explored before the book finished, which is I think a sign that Le Guin managed to develop something fascinating. Le Guin looks with a remarkable depth and clarity at “utopian” notions and the restraint that societies impose on them, and fill the world with a wide range of unique and flawed characters. I might perhaps give the central plot a C+ for execution, but the work itself was so well formed and so cerebrally satisfying that I didn’t much mind.