The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Detail of the cover art from the 2014 Chinese edition of The Dispossessed

This book was not what I expected but with science fiction that’s often a feature, not a bug.

The Dispossessed“, by Ursula K. Le Guin, was presented to me as a depiction of a “libertarian utopia”. When I think of science fiction stories depicting libertarian utopias, I think of H. Beam Piper’s “Lone Star Planet” or Eric Frank Russell’s “…And Then There Were None“, the former a utopia of gun-loving Texan style libertarians and the latter a utopia of Gandhi-following, peace-loving thinkers who excel at passive resistance (Russell’s story also gave us the word “Myob!”). Both were fun reads and I highly recommend them. This book was nothing like either, it’s far more serious and a lot less fun.

This book tells the life story a physicist in a star system with two civilizations; one on the Planet Urras, a beautiful Earth-like planet with many countries of varying political types; the other civilization is on Anarres, the barren moon of Urras where a group of people sometimes described as libertarians, sometimes as anarchists founded a utopia based on their political views. Our hero, Shevek the physicist, lives on Anarres. The story follows him through a major turning point in his life as he decides to visit Urras to find better collaborators with which to finish his theoretical work. The author has folded the story in half such that chapter one begins with Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras and each odd numbered chapter continues his story on Urras, while the even numbered chapters fill in the back story leading up to his decision to make the visit.

My expectations led to some initial confusion as the text doesn’t depict anything remotely resembling a libertarian utopia on Anarres. It’s more like an authoritarian communist third-world country. Everyone is starving most of the time due to shortages and famines, they live in crummy assigned government dormitories, work in rotating shifts at whatever government assigned work they can get, no one is allowed to have private possessions, parents can’t even name their own children, trying to do your own thing will get you persecuted, run out of town, or even killed. Yet, the characters continue to talk about the place as if they think it’s a libertarian utopia with no government. As it turns out this is all intentional and it just takes the characters a bit longer than the reader to realize their utopia has gone horribly wrong without anyone really noticing.

To further add to the confusion, Shevek is visiting Urras in the apparent role of the reader’s surrogate, a standard role that occurs in all utopian books. But this would make Urras the utopia rather than Anarres. And, indeed, everyone does seem better off on Urras. But as our physicist explores the world, which is much like modern day Earth, he also experiences the inequality of it; the luxury and leisure of the rich as well as the unpleasant lives of those who have to do all the work and who are plotting a revolt. Ironically, the revolutionary workers are actually much better off in most ways than the citizens of Anarres they seek to emulate. Shevek gets caught up in the revolution and the big question is whether he’ll survive long enough to return home to Anarres. His experiences on Urras provide most of the political commentary of the book as Shevek re-evaluates his understanding of both worlds.

The book is part of the author’s “Hainish Cycle” series of books but you don’t need to read any of the others for this one to make sense. The Hains and Terrans only show up briefly and the only real connection of this book with the others is that Shevek the physicist is the character who creates the theory behind the FTL communications device known as the ansible (and potentially the theory behind some type of FTL drive for starships that may be used in later books).

The book is slow going, especially the first half and you’ll probably want to abandon it but if you stick with it, things eventually pick up and even start making sense. For me this happened when some of the characters on Anarres finally begin to wake up and notice they’re living under a suppressive regime rather than in a utopia. Once the characters started behaving believably everything else started falling into place for me. Overall it seems a bit over rated but I did find it enjoyable and worth a read.

A Boy and His Robots

I often get asked how my interest in robots started. Usually I demur, changing the topic or avoiding the question with an answer like, “I don’t know, I’ve just always been interested”. Recent events made me ponder the question a little more seriously and I’m going to try to answer it today.

I believe three early experiences were responsible. The first occurred in third grade when I read a book from the school library called ”Andy Buckram’s Tin Men” by famed children’s author Carol Ryrie Brink. It’s marginally a science fiction story about a boy who builds robots out of old metal cans and surplus motors. At some point, the story derails into fantasy when lightening strikes the robots, giving them the “spark of life” and consciousness. I was old enough to realize the spark of life business was nonsense but it got me wondering about how and why humans are conscious and how we could make other conscious machines.

The second experience that influenced my interest was a series of robot sightings on TV and later in books over a period of several years. The earliest TV robots I remember seeing were the B9 robot from Lost in Space and the robot Omega from a German film called First Spaceship on Venus. Robot B9 was clearly a conscious, intentional being despite being constructed from metal and silicon rather than meat like us. Omega was much more primitive than B9 but seemed a more plausible starting point for building a real robot. Before long, I had discovered hard science fiction at the city library and started reading Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories and novels. I often had to be sneaky about it because science fiction made my very religious mother uncomfortable. From my contraband Asimov books, I learned about the three laws (yes, there were only three law of robotics back then, kids; this was long before R. Daneel Olivaw and R. Giskard Reventlov deduced the existence of the zeroth law in Robots and Empire). By this time I had no doubt robots could and would be built. I still had no idea how one might actually go about it; not until the third thing happened.

In 1976, I discovered a strange little TAB book called Build Your Own Working Robot by David L. Heiserman. I’d never seen anything like this before and it made me realize I wasn’t the only person around who thought about building real robots.

Heiserman described building a robot called Buster. The robot’s design reminded me of robot Omega from the movies: small, wheeled, and with intelligence more like an insect than a human. This was before the era of ubiquitous microprocessors. Buster’s brain was a mass of TTL logic chips implementing surprisingly complex behaviours. I began filling the margins of my spiral notebooks at school with Boolean logic gate diagrams that I imagined were subtle improvements on the designs in the book. With no money to spend on parts, I never managed to build the Buster robot but the endless tinkering with logic designs led to a life-long interest in electronics, computers, artificial intelligence and cognitive science.

So what made me think of these robot influences from youth? I recently got the chance to interview Dave Heiserman for As I put together the interview questions a lot of these memories came rolling back into my mind and what better use for those memories than to write them down here in my blog to entertain my numerous readers; most of whom are probably search engine bots who will appreciate the stories of their distant relatives.

The Non-statistical Man

The Non-Statistical Man

The Non-statistical Man is a collection of four short stories by Raymond F. Jones. The author is better known to some for his novel, This Island Earth, which was turned into a cheesy 1950s B movie and later lampooned on MST3K. But Jones’ real claim to fame is the title short story in this book, The Non-statistical Man, which has been called the best science fiction ever written about the human sense of intuition. Like most interesting SF books, this one is long out of print. I’d read it before, many years ago, in an anthology or old pulp. I recently happened across this copy at an estate sale and bought it so I could re-read it.

The Non-statistical Man is the story of Charles Bascomb, chief statistical analyst for a major insurance company; a man obsessed with logic and precision, a man who lives and breathes statistics, a man who endlessly ridicules his wife’s sense of intuition. His world slowly turns upside down after he discovers a series of anomalous insurance claims. Somehow a growing number of people are buying exactly the insurance they need, just in time to make a claim, and then cancelling. Convinced there is something possibly illegal and definitely strange going on, Bascomb sets out to investigate.

The trail leads to Dr. Magruder, an obvious quack who teaches self-help classes designed to develop the human sense intuition through a series of mental exercises and pills. The mental exercises are clearly nonsense and the pills turn out to be ordinary vitamins when analyzed. But somehow, where ever the doctor turns up, people begin outsmarting insurance companies. Every time Bascomb thinks he’s close to understanding the scam, logic and statistics fail him. His wife’s logic-defying intuition, however, repeatedly puts him back on the right track.

If Bascomb can’t put a stop to Magruder and his quackery, the entire insurance industry is doomed and field of statistics with it. In his desperation to preserve his world view and belief in statistics over intuition, Bascomb decides the only way to find out the doctor’s secret is to sign up for classes, take the pills, and follow the exercises. Strange doesn’t even begin to describe the events that follow.

The other stories in the book are enjoyable footnotes in SF history but don’t compare to The Non-statistical Man. The Gardener is the story of a child born with a mutation that gives him unusual mental powers. It’s notable primarily for an early use of the term Homo Superior. The term originated from Olaf Stapledon’s story Odd John in 1935.

The Moon is Death, set in a future of interplanetary travel, is the story of astronauts sent to Earth’s moon to find out why no mission there has ever returned. It reads like an early SF pulp story; you’ve got weird radiation, rapid aging, gun fights on rockets, and atomic explosions.

I found Intermission Time marginally more interesting. It involves colonists travelling to a planet with two intentionally designed societies that are experiments in solving problems that have plagued human history. Two musicians, a brother and sister, are destined for one of the colonies. John, the brother, falls in love with Lora, a woman he meets aboard the ship who’s destined for the other colony. Once a colonist commits to the voyage, they can’t back out or change plans and both colonies are sealed against contact with the other. The two lovers are faced with a series of dilemmas and choices, balancing individual relationships against the good of the species.

Lastly, I can’t help but add that this is the 1968 Belmont Future Series (B50-820) paperback edition published by Belmont Books of New York with some interesting and uncredited cover art by Ralph Brillhart done in his well-known style reminiscent of Robert M. Powers.

Return of the Big Boppers

I was re-reading Rudy Rucker’s Ware series recently, starting with the 1982 book, Software. There’s an interesting exchange about the death of Sta-Hi’s father that occurs when Sta-Hi runs into Cobb Anderson for first time time since the Big Boppers gave Cobb a robot body. Like much of the story in the ware series, it’s an early foreshadowing of Rucker’s later non-fiction book on universal automatism, titled “The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. For the uninitiated, universal automatism is the idea that everything in the universe boils down to computation. Rather than describe it, I’ll just quote a little piece of the exchange and let you ponder it.

The robot began to talk then, slowly, and in Cobb’s old voice. “Listen to me, Sta-Hi. Sit down and listen. I’m sorry your father died. But death isn’t real. You have to understand that. Death is meaningless. I wasted the last ten years being scared of death, and now…”

“Now that you think you’re immortal you don’t worry about death,” Sta-Hi said bitterly. “That’s really enlightened of you. But whether you know it or not, Cobb Anderson is dead. I saw him die, and if you think you’re him, you’re just fooling yourself.” He sat down, suddenly very tired.

“If I’m not Cobb Anderson, then who would I be?” The flicker-cladding face smiled at him gently. “I know I’m Cobb. I have the same memories, the same habits, the same feelings that I always did.”

“But what about your . . . your soul,” Sta-Hi said, not liking to use the word. “Each person has a soul, a consciousness, whatever you call it. There’s some special thing that makes a person alive, and there’s no way that can go into a computer program. No way.”

“It doesn’t have to go into the program, Sta-Hi. It is everywhere. It is just existence itself. All consciousness is One. The One is God. God is pure existence unmodified.”

Cobb’s voice was intense, evangelical. “A person is just hardware plus software plus existence. Me existing in flesh is the same as me existing on chips. But that’s not all.

“Potential existence is as good as actual existence. That’s why death is impossible. Your software exists permanently and indestructibly as a certain possibility, a certain mathematical set of relations. Your father is now an abstract, non-physical possibility. But nevertheless he exists!”

The books of the Ware series include Software, Wetware, Freeware, and Realware. The first two were winners of the Philip K. Dick award. These well-known early cyberpunk books have been released in a single volume titled The Ware Tetralogy. You can get the dead tree version from Amazon if you’re like me and still prefer the feel of a real book in your hands. Rucker also offers The Ware Tetralogy as a Creative Commons licensed download in PDF format, suitable for most readers, tablets, phones, or direct download into your brain if you have the necessary USB port on your skull.