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Demand the Impossible

Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination

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Edited By Tom Moylan

Although published in 1986, Demand the Impossible was written from inside the oppositional political culture of the 1970s. Reading works by Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, Marge Piercy, and Samuel R. Delany as indicative texts in the intertext of utopian science fiction, Tom Moylan originated the concept of the «critical utopia» as both a periodizing and conceptual tool for capturing the creative and critical capabilities of the utopian imagination and utopian agency. This Ralahine Classics edition includes the original text along with a new essay by Moylan (on Aldous Huxley’s Island) and a set of reflections on the book by leading utopian and science fiction scholars.
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Chapter 5: Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

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CHAPTER 5

I prefer to make things difficult, and choose both.

— SHEVEK (in The Dispossessed)

Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel, subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia,” is perhaps the best known and the most popular of the critical utopias published in the 1970s.1 Utopian scholars, science fiction fans, feminists, ecologists, anarchists, and many who simply enjoy a good read have found in this ambiguous utopia a welcome alternative to bleak experimental novels or didactic tracts. To be sure, that subtitle refers the reader back to the tradition of utopian literature. Le Guin’s anarcho-communism informs her narrative and recalls the radical alternatives of nineteenth century utopian writers such as William Morris and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. And yet, the “ambiguous” adjective warns the reader that the dreams of the last century are long past and that this utopia is being reasserted in a more complex and cautious way. Le Guin’s realist view of the world situation with its failed revolutions and the mystical dialectic of her favored philosophy of Taoism temper her hopeful anarchism and open the novel to possibilities more suited to the 1970s.

Written after Joanna Russ’s The Female Man but published before it, The Dispossessed is a touchstone work that has re-kindled debates about utopian literature and thought as well as cast a fresh, utopian, light on the problems and contradictions of US and world politics in the 1970s. Already a major science fiction author of both adult and children’s books in the...

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