I toyed with creating a new category for this book: "Nonfiction Stranger Than Fiction." But no. Some of the stories and experiences of people that thiI toyed with creating a new category for this book: "Nonfiction Stranger Than Fiction." But no. Some of the stories and experiences of people that this book chronicles do seem very far-fetched (say, to mention just one out of several dozen, the former newspaper cartoonist who becomes boss of one of the strongest Hindu fundamentalist parties in the country – an Indian Rush Limbaugh – and who provokes some of the most violent riots in the country’s history.) But it is all believable once you recognize that the world is a far meaner, violent, corrupt, or at least a far different place than one would probably imagine living in one of the wealthier countries on the planet.
Although the Maximum City of the title is Bombay, this book is also - and I would say primarily - about poverty, more precisely, the extremes of existence that poverty creates; extremes of tolerance and intolerance, violence and benevolence, community and isolation. Even in chapters that do not directly deal with poverty, such as the excellent chapter on the Indian film industry, the desperate masses are never far from the author’s focal point.
One of my dozen-or-so favorite episodes from this book is "Adjust," a passage about the Bombay train system. Toward the end of this section, a man whose job it is to monitor communal violence and religious flare-ups within the Bombay slums - in short, someone who regularly sees some of the worst aspects of humanity - is asked if he is pessimistic about the human race. He responds "Not at all.... Look at the hands from the train." He is referring to all of the hands that stretch out of the train cars when someone is running alongside the train car, reaching to pull you in. It is one of several very beautiful passages, and all I can do is quote from it at length:
“Your fellow passengers, already packed tighter than cattle are legally allowed to be, their shirts already drenched in sweat in the badly ventilated compartments, having stood like this for hours, retain an empathy for you, know that your boss might yell at you or cut your pay if you miss the train, and will make space where none exists to take one more person with them. And at the moment of contact, they do not know if the hand that is reaching for theirs belongs to a Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Brahmin or untouchable …. All they know is that you are trying to get to the city of gold, and that’s enough.” ...more
While reading The Dispossessed, I found myself drawing parallels with, of all things, Fahrenheit 451. While they are fundamentally different books, thWhile reading The Dispossessed, I found myself drawing parallels with, of all things, Fahrenheit 451. While they are fundamentally different books, there is a similar arc that both stories share: a renegade from society flees or is driven from the mainstream because of his non-conformism (in the case of The Dispossessed, Shevek flees two different societies). Both read like fables; indeed, despite the richness of LeGuin's depiction of Anarres and Urras, the detailed and fascinating description of the two societies seem to serve mainly to highlight the decision Shevek makes in the end. And both novels are extremely didactic in their own way: The Dispossessed in its anti-materialism (which I was cool with save for the hamfisted speech by the Terran ambassador towards the end), and Fahrenheit in its anti-censorship.
LeGuin's treatment, however, is by far the more complex, effective, and moving of the two. Not only are the characters and societies more vividly rendered, but the way the story unfolds, with the story of Shevek's experiences on Urras interleaved with the story of his fall from grace on Anarres, highlights the ways that two very different kinds of societal structures can manifest the same kind of intolerance and fear. There was something I found desperately sad about this novel that hit me at those moments when Shevek's faith in others is either confirmed or shaken: either outcome was a small revelation. The relationship between pain and joy, as opposed to passivity and pleasure, is a constant theme throughout, and the various ways pain is depicted--separation from or loss of loved ones, starvation, oppression, fear, loss of community--is really what make this a great novel rather than a rollicking good SF story. (The idea of a purpose or redeeming value to suffering, however, is one that I will forever question after having read this little book).
One small problem I had with Shevek, however, and one that I have with other science fiction novels, is how they describe brilliant people doing brilliant things. Shevek, a brilliant physicist, does not seem to do a whole lot of physics. We are treated to some conversations wherein certain principles of science are discussed in general, and there is one section where we are told Shevek is really busting his ass getting his universe-changing theory on paper, but we are not treated to the details. I mean, of course we're not, because they're mind blowing and complex, but this is still something that I find hard to swallow. It is hard to swallow when Asimov's Hari Seldon discovers psychohostory; it is hard to swallow when Banks tells of how Jernau Gurgeh wins at a massively complex game whose intricaies he only hints at; and it's a little hard to swallow here. Still, that's not all that important in the scheme of the novel.
_______ * The only two exceptions to this in the genre that I can think of are Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse in Cryptonomicon, who is a convincingly brilliant mathematician, and Isaac der Grimnebulin in Perdido Street Station, the descriptions of whose scientific experiments I found credible. I'd welcome other suggestions....more