Avast! Thar be spoilers ahead!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Dispossed: An Ambiguous Utopia

I am going to try this again. I want to talk about revolution. The word itself hints at the problems of a revolution. To revolve is to turn and return. The idea of return plays an important role in Shevek's life and his theories of physics.

My family is from Cuba. My mother was born just days after Castro came down from the hills and declared victory. It was what my grandmother prayed for and she reminds me from time to time to be careful what we pray for because we just might get it. A couple of years later, my grandmother move to Florida with my mother while my grandfather was in jail. If you knew my grandparents, you would be struck by the absurdity. Like me, my grandmother stubbornly says what she thinks out loud, dangerous in any dictatorship. My grandfather is the opposite, he makes do and tries to see the best. Revolution is a dirty word and many of my cousins, I am quite certain, did not vote for Obama because his promises sounded disturbingly familiar. My grandmother also likes to say, "If you aren't a communist when you are 20 then you have no heart; if you are still a communist at 50 then you have no brain."

We look at Cuba with fear and hope, with impotent anxiety, with thin-wearing patience. I have only known Havana's streets in photographs, black and white and yellowing with age but it is the place where my grandparents and older cousins came into the world, were they grew up, were they became. There is a lingering but strong homesickness, an undeniable bond, and a painful recognition of the familiar. So I keep looking at pictures, cooking Cuban food, and, lately, I have been reading a blog by a woman, Yoani Sánchez, trapped on that island.

She has recently written a post about the maintenance of the revolution. To be 'revolutionary' "it is enough to exhibit more conformity than criticism, to choose obedience over rebellion, to support the old before the new." This is the harsh reality Shevek finds on his home planet.

He lives roughly 200 years after the Odonian revolution in a communist paradise. I find my heart sympathetic and smitten with the communal and free spirit of his world, not to mention the equality of sexes and the utter frankness of bodily functions. It offers a type of freedom I will never know and could not survive: freedom from possession. And, while I envy the health care systems of other western, first world countries, I have no intention of going whole hog - not because I am disgusted by the ideal of communism but because I am terrified of the realities.

Shevek discovers that in his academic field, there is corruption where there should be none, barriers against the novel, and that the ideals upon which his society is based can be manipulated into the power structure they oppose. One of his friends is punished by continual assignment to physical labor until he breaks down, forced into an assylum. Shevek's work is stymied by his supposed mentor who denies publication of his work unless credit is shared and blocks Shevek's entry into teaching.

I know that corruption is not a new theme in the utopian genre of science-fiction. What surprised me was the description of how stability can promote corruption, how status quo can purchase power. There are many kinds of freedom: freedom to live, freedom to work, freedom from physical harm, freedom of thought, freedom of mind, freedom to speak and freedom to be heard. Shevek has a very tangible sense of the freedom he desires and is denied. It is freedom to be heard that he seeks, risking all other freedoms for the ability to communicate.

At the risk of sounding prosaic, I offer these quotes, frequently misattributed to Thomas Jefferson:
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. (This is Benjamin Franklin, by the way. You've probably heard a popular paraphrase)

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