by Sheila Finch


Using Benford’s five characteristics of reactionary utopias (1984) as a framework for discussion, Finch examines the literary utopian societies of two novels. The social, political, and physical worlds of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1973) and Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty (1981) offer ample evidence for a thorough comparison within this framework. The arcology used as foundations for these literary worlds is key in the development of their respective social, political, and intellectual realms.


Utopian or dystopian, the view of the near future adopted by an author owes much to the political and social climate of its time. Two dystopian works by Paolo Bacigalupi, out of the many that have appeared in recent years, illustrate this point: The Windup Girl (2009) with its fears of megacorporations and genetically modified crops, and The Water Knife, (2015) which explores social collapse and regional water wars as result of global warming. Well thought-out utopian fiction is harder to find; perhaps it’s harder today to be hopeful about the world’s fate! In the early days of science fiction, it was possible to write a paean to progress such as Hugo Gernsback’s 1925 serialized novel “Ralph 124C 41+,” a title more readily understandable to the younger generation used to the abbreviated language of text messaging than it may be to their parents. (Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932, an obvious candidate for an ambiguous utopia, so the tide was already turning.)

The primal vision of utopia is ultimately derived from the myth of the Garden of Eden; the perfect state, benign, protected, unchanging, conflict free, perhaps even climate-controlled. Literature is full of examples of human longing, often inchoate, to return to such a paradise, and from this deep yearning come the experimental designs of its establishment on Earth that we call Utopia. Yet even the primal pair found Eden an impossible place to live for very long, static, authoritarian, technophobic and guilt-ridden as it turned out to be.

For the purpose of this discussion we shall accept as utopian fiction only works in which the description of the society is at least as important as the plot or the characters, a society the author obviously intends as displaying admirable, even ideal characteristics. One such novel that appeared in 1974 is Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia.” Another in 1981, intended I think less ambiguously, is Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty. By comparing the two, we may illuminate the problems authors face in creating truly believable  – and admirable – utopias in a skeptical age.

Five Reactionary Signatures of Literary Utopias

In order to give structure to the discussion, I propose adopting the five-point yardstick of what we might call “trouble in paradise” developed by Gregory Benford (1984). According to Benford, “Nearly all utopias have one or more characteristics which we shall call reactionary, in the sense that they recall the past (often in its worst aspect.)” These characteristics are:

  1. Lack of diversity
  2. Static in time
  3. Nostalgic and/or technophobic
  4. Presence of an authority figure
  5. Social regulation through guilt.

How well do The Dispossessed and  Oath of Fealty measure up to these criteria?

Cultural Homogeneity

Concerning the first aspect, diversity or lack of the same, Benford points out that in many literary utopias, culture is homogenous, and there are few divergences from the norm, social or ethnic. While it might be unrealistic to expect much ethnic diversity on this barren planet, populated by an original group of anarchists sharing similar backgrounds and beliefs even after they’ve dispersed into separate settlements, Le Guin’s description of society on the planet Anarres portrays very little diversity from one settlement to another. Contrast this uniformity with the decidedly non-utopian, colorfully decadent sister planet of Urras where several nations exist. On Anarres, children are raised in a communal crêche; they receive a carefully restricted education which from an early age discourages individuality as egoizing (Le Guin, pp. 25-26). This avoidance of difference continues into adulthood, complicating the careers of artists and scientists who’ve been taught that it’s unacceptable to stand out from the crowd.  Clothing, too, shows a lack of diversity in this society. While on his trip to Urras, Shevek is taken to a bewildering shopping center where garments of all kinds and materials are available for purchase, something unthinkable back home on Anarres. “He could not look any more. He wanted to hide his eyes” (p.116). Le Guin is obviously aware of the paucity of color and individuality in the society she describes, and intends its effect on the reader. One of the causes of utopia’s “ambiguity” here is that it is ultimately visually stultifying. Later in the novel, we go back to a time when Shevek, frustrated by his lack of progress in physics, spends time with a group of students, one of whom is a composer who isn’t being offered an expected position by the Music Syndicate. “’You see, I don’t write the way I was trained at the conservatory,’ Salas says. ‘I write dysfunctional music….They want chorales’” (p.153). A society where the ruling Syndicate exerts control over what music will be acceptable is a dull society indeed.

We might expect Niven and Pournelle’s work to portray the near-future world of Todos Santos, bordering on a modern Los Angeles teeming with minorities and cultural idiosyncracies that both authors must be familiar with, to pass this test. However, one of the first things we learn about this arcology is that despite the percentage of the population represented today by the Black minority, Preston Sanders  – who “ranks high in the Todos Santos heirarchy”– knows himself to be “one of a couple hundred black people in a building the size of a city” (Niven & Pournelle, p.14). It’s not an idle comment, for this fact fuels Sanders’ already strong feelings of isolation. And if Blacks and Black culture are scare commodities in the arcology, other ethnic groups fare worse. We meet no Mexicans, for instance, and no Asians, not even running the obligatory Chinese restaurant. (Not even such characters as tattoo artists, bulldozer operators or even a subway mugger have non-Anglican names. Possibly this is something we should be thankful for!)

If there is a lack of racial diversity in Todos Santos, perhaps there is social diversity to compensate, a way the residents have of dressing or behaving that marks them apart from the crowd?  “’What was it about them,’ muses visitor Sir George Reedy, a Canadian Deputy Minister, ‘that made them seem like a gathering of distant cousins?… They don’t dress as flashily as one expects of Southern Californians’” (p.35). A more telling detail occurs in arcology resident Cheryl Drinkwater’s explanation to Thomas Lunan, newsman and outsider, of the way the neighborhood park concept operates (or not) in Todos Santos. Showing him a fantasy-like playground in a gigantic, artificial tree on the roof, she explains how all the children of the arcology come there to play. Neighborhood parks are not much used any more, being relegated to “adults and babies mostly. And we use them for ball games if it’s raining on the roof” (p.122). There are no neighborhood fiestas or community cook-outs in Todos Santos. The breakdown of the localized system is explained as being due to increased security. Since it is safe to wander anywhere in Todos Santos, people no longer form attachments to neighborhoods, once the stronghold of cultural diversity.

This sameness also distinguishes the behavior of the residents in certain key areas. Everybody loves the cops (and there isn’t a bad cop among them). Nobody chafes at the lack of privacy which results from the constant surveillance under which they live. And never is heard a discouraging word in Todos Santos at the way the leaders handle the occasional intruder incidents – no protests, no hesitations, no alternate suggestions. The reader may well ask: a city-sized building in which no one at all has a complaint or at least a different opinion?

Static in Time

Samuel R. Delaney’s novel, Triton (1976), argues that since humans are by nature prone to change, a static utopia cannot survive. But a utopia that changes implies that it was not perfect in the first place, and therefore not utopian as we use the word, a visionary system of political and/or social perfection. Life involves change on every level, and such change is not always perceived as negative. Some change represents the effect of new and better data that doesn’t necessarily cast doubt on the wisdom of the old way of doing things which it replaces, just the now-outdated knowledge. There is nothing to suggest that the original society conceived of by its prophet and martyr Odo was designed not to evolve. Yet this understanding runs counter to the tendency of the citizens of Le Guin’s Anarres to resist the very originality and individuality of its thinkers that would lead to significant cultural growth. In an early exchange between a young Shevek and his fellow students, the (to them) odd idea that perhaps life on Urras has become quite different in the one hundred and fifty years since the anarchists came to inhabit the moon is discussed (p. 37). And at the novel’s close, the Ambassador from Terra has a conversation with Shevek in which he recalls his understanding that his home world had cut itself off, that his people “refuse to look outward,” that he’d hoped inspiration for change would come from Urras but believes now that he was wrong. She tells him that it is Urras – “the kindliest, the most various” –that more closely resembles Paradise in her opinion (pp. 298-303). The inward-looking, static quality of society on Anarres is what makes it the ambiguous utopia that Le Guin calls it.

Todos Santos is a prime example of a static society. The most telling point is that this arcology is not run as a democracy with the seeds of change built into the system itself, but as a feudal aristocracy. It is a tri-partite dictatorship; Arthur Bonner, General Manager, and Barbara Churchward, Director of Economic Development, are in actual control, with Frank Mead the comptroller putting in the word received from the parent company in Zurich. All decisions are made at the top and (as we’ve seen), enthusiastically received by the residents. Since Bonner and Churchward are said to be geniuses, and have computer implants to increase their efficiency as well, it becomes hard to imagine change being contemplated on any level above that of refining the security measures. Indeed, the residents congratulate themselves that there are no alternatives possible. (As a side note, compare this ominously repressive system of “utopian” government with the mafia-like controllers of the desert arcologies in Bacigalupi’s dystopia, The Water Knife.)

There are areas in which it is admitted that something is not as all-perfect as everything else in Todos Santos, but even here, astonishingly, real change is never considered. For example, all the residents are expected to eat a certain number of meals each month in “Commons,” a high-tech cafeteria; the purpose of this is to reinforce the cultural sameness observed previously, and also to give the residents access to their executives who must follow the same rule. We might expect that everybody would love this custom, given their propensity for preferring the universal over the local. But we are given a curious detail. MacLean Stevens, not a resident nor a fan of Todos Santos, tells Reedy, “’They’re not only charged for

[their meals] as part of the services, but they pay extra if they skip out too many times.’” And Reedy replies, “’That doesn’t sound very pleasant’” (p. 49). Perhaps the cafeteria food is bad? The fact that there is a fine for non-compliance suggests this is an example of an unpopular area where change is being suppressed. Perhaps there are more areas which the authors are not exploring.

Nostalgic and technophobic

The scientific community on   Anarres is far from technophobic. Shevek, a physicist is responsible for the invention of the Ansible, that handy little device that will later allow interplanetary communication among Le Guin’s inhabited worlds. Interplanetary travel between the two worlds, Urras and Anarres is represented in the alternating chapters set on the two worlds. In the background, we have interstellar travel, represented by the presence on Urras of the Ambassador from Terra. Similarly, as far as Oath of Fealty is concerned, we can dispense with the technophobic charge immediately. Todos Santos owes its existence to technology, and its residents are delighted with everything: from the fast-moving walkways to the high-speed elevators that make the structure habitable, to the electronic surveillance that guarantees their safety if not their privacy. Nor is the technology an afterthought, a kind of science fictional metaphor operating outside the confines of the story, such as interstellar travel in The Dispossessed. One would expect no less from two authors with solid scientific backgrounds.

Nostalgia, on the other hand, is another matter for both novels. The very title of Niven and Pournelle’s novel betrays the backward-looking aspect of the arcology seen as feudal aristocracy. The implication here is that there was something very heroic and pleasing about feudalism. This is reinforced through the ironic titles – Kings, Wizards, and so forth – fancifully given to the top level of management of Todos Santos in Lunan’s television documentary, and adopted readily by the managers to explain themselves to themselves. This feudal metaphor is used in a plan to break Sanders out of the Los Angeles jail he’s being held in on a murder charge. “’We’re a new feudalism,’ Tony Rand the Chief Engineer says, ‘Snatching our man out of the king’s hands’” (p. 183). The jailbreak itself is a high-tech version of many a nostalgic Hollywood scenario. The implication here is that things were simpler, more efficient, perhaps even better in the good-old-days of feudal aristocracy, when men were men and kings didn’t need to consult a committee to get something done. Again, one is tempted to contemplate the way things are done by the water companies operating as rogue states in Bacigalupi’s dystopic vision as a comparison.

As for the people of Anarres, remembrance of their founding figure, Odo, and nostalgia for those purer, early days of the revolt and relocation, is never far from their minds, a point which we shall deal with more fully in the next section.

Presence of an authority figure

The fourth of Benford’s reactionary signatures found in literary utopias concerns the figure of authority. He points out that in actual utopian communities (as opposed to fictional versions) there is frequently a patriarchal figure present, in whom the authority to found and govern the utopia resides. Consider as an example, the Mormon communities founded by Joseph Smith as religious utopias and later governed by Brigham Young. In a literary utopia, the authority is the prophet whose work inspired his or her followers to establish the community, and this person is frequently referred to in conversation as a guide to proper life. In The Dispossessed, for example, the citizens of Anarres constantly refer to the no longer present, almost legendary figure of Odo, whose political thought forms the basis for their utopian society. Odo’s teaching and Odo’s experiences guide their everyday transactions – even to the odd scene of the young boys playing prison after reminiscing about Odo’s own time in captivity. [There is deeper significance to this incident which I have discussed elsewhere, but it is not relevant here. (Finch, 1985).] The difference between the founding figure and the authority figure (if there is to be one in a utopia) is important. In Le Guin’s novel, Odo is the founder, but as Judah Bierman points out, “On Anarres, the anarchist ‘syndicate’ is the institution of the permanent revolution” (Bierman, 1975).

There is no such clear-cut patriarchal figure in Niven and Pournelle’s utopia. However, two interesting pseudo-candidates emerge. The first of these is Paolo Soleri, the real-life father of the concept of an arcology. To Tony Rand, Chief Engineer of Todos Santos, the obvious prophet of the community is his old architecture teacher, about whom he often thinks when problems arising from the design of “Termite Hill” intrude. Soleri’s name is invoked frequently; his shadow looms over this novel. Like Odo, he was the visionary whose dreams led ultimately to utopia. Unlike Odo, Soleri was real not fictional, and he designed structures to live in whereas Odo laid down rules to live by.

Art Bonner is the present, patriarchal authority figure, for he is the one the residents think of as the representative head of their community. “Armand,” Lunan asks of a typical Todos Santos resident he is interviewing on television, “are you jealous of Mr. Bonner’s position?” And the man replies, “Great Ghu no! I only have one boss. Mr Bonner works for everybody!” (p. 171). It might be said that there is an almost religious sense of their General Manager’s position operating here. The arcology’s residents obey his edicts, but they speak of him using the quasi-Christian religious imagery of the servant.

Perhaps the question of authority figures is an unfair one to ask of any planned community, for if it did not evolve through the passage of time, then there must have been a definite someone who founded it. Naturally the community will revere that figure. The question is, why is the founder singular in this situation? Why not a utopia founded by a group after democratic discussion? And why is a founder figure needed for the community to keep going? (America’s “Founding Fathers” may be quoted in another planned utopia – especially in the heat of political argument – but it would be a stretch to see them considered as sacred figures in American society.)  It’s interesting that the authority figures of Todos Santos see themselves, however jokingly, as kings.

Regulation through guilt

In The Dispossessed, guilt is used as the principal means of social control. Feeling obscurely guilty for the long imprisonment of Odo, the citizens of Anarres strive to obey the codes of society, for only if that society thrives and prospers will Odo’s suffering have been worthwhile. From childhood on, they are made to feel that the success of this undertaking rests on their unworthy shoulders. Out of Odo’s pain and suffering in the nine years she spent in the fort at Drio has come all the goodness and happiness that characterizes life on Anarres.  Daily reminded of this hard fact at the center of their lives, it’s hard for citizen not to feel guilty, a situation Le Guin explores mythically in a short story, “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas”(1973). There is an interesting parallel operating here: Like the Christian religion, the society of Anarres rests on the belief that only by imitating the suffering of the originator of that society can the believer find a return to the lost paradise.

The same cannot be said for the residents of Todos Santos. Whereas Le Guin’s utopia is founded on the battlefield of good and evil in human nature, Niven and Pournelle have chosen to show a population controlled by custom. The problem of persistent evil, so crucial to Le Guin’s examination of utopia, is not considered in this one – though its effects are noted. “There have been murders in the Box,” Lunan narrates to his television audience. “And last year a man used a kitchen knife on his wife and two children” (p. 170). The rarity of this violence is noted by the way Lunan speaks about it. The people in this arcology are accustomed to being under constant surveillance; they don’t think about complaining. They are accustomed to speaking in low voices to avoid the excessive noise that so many under one roof would be likely to produce. They are accustomed to eating in Commons a prescribed number of times a month, whether they want to or not. They are accustomed to not intruding on the privacy of a public figure in a public place. They are accustomed to conserving water and energy; they all understand the fragile relationship that exists between Todos Santos and the outside world, and they all accept this unquestioningly. There is an underlying element of guilt in all this, a recognition that their better circumstances come at the price of others’ (outsiders’) loss, but it isn’t stressed.

If the citizen of Anarres fears his society will collapse unless he is virtuous, the resident of Todos Santos is no less afraid of what will happen to his arcology unless he is eternally vigilant. He considers loss of privacy a small price to pay for order. Protesting would make him feel guilty. This is the reason there is no diversity, no desire for change, and no argument with the rather brutal way authority handles the crises of the saboteur incidents. And they are both right, for both Anarres and Todos Santos are vulnerable to collapse unless the average participant in these societies goes to extremes to maintain them.

Reading the silences

Benford proposed in his examination of utopian fiction that we read the silences, paying attention to what the author leaves out. What the author does not or cannot deal with often illuminates the central problem he or she fears to wrestle with. We might state this less unkindly and say the writer looks at the fictional society through rose-colored glasses, missing things that occur to the reader who is less involved. It’s a useful tool of analysis in any case.  Oddly enough, the silence in both The Dispossessed and Oath of Fealty, different as they otherwise may be, turns out to be the same thing: violence and violent behavior.

There is plenty of peripheral violence in Niven and Pournelle’s novel. Muggers attack victims in the streets of Los Angeles. Would-be suicides jump from the roof of Todos Santos (and are caught by a net). Practical jokers are gassed to death in the service tunnels because they carry boxes labeled “bomb.” Ecology freaks (not residents of Todos Santos) kidnap and rape the arcology’s top female official when she is out of range of communication. But inside the arcology, amongst its own inhabitants there is virtually no violence. Yes, one murder did indeed occur last year! But other than that, no one gets mad enough to punch out a rival. No one even pushes or shoves in a crowd. What are we to make of this omission? The people of Todos Santos are so contented they never break laws, not even the smallest ones?

Le Guin shows us one incident of juvenile delinquency in the prison game Shevek plays in his youth, a highly significant image at the heart of the novel. Meanwhile, in the branches of a Disneyesque tree in Todos Santos, a score of laughing children play a team sport and nobody gets as much as a skinned knee. We are told that the arcology comes under the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County, and that wrongdoers have to be handed over to the proper authority as happens to Preston Sanders. But this is the only example we are given, and Sanders, reacting in self-defense to hostile invaders, is technically not guilty of committing a crime at all.

What this odd silence suggests is the authors have no answer for the problem of evil that might still exist even in an idealized utopian society and have avoided the subject, a core problem in human experience.


What emerges from a study of these two novels is the insoluble conflict between the idea of utopia and the idea of democracy, for the one can never be the other. (“Never forget,” Winston Churchill wrote in 1947, “all the rest [forms of government] are so much worse.”) Democracy is uncomfortable much of the time, its solutions frequently far from ideal, messy, a work in progress. But utopia has to maintain its established ideal society, and is thus in conflict with the concept of progress.

If these examples of utopia fail to appeal, if we don’t find ourselves checking the real estate ads, then we’d do well to remember that the island society envisioned by Sir Thomas More (1516) was named from the Greek “Ou-topia” (no place), not “Eu-topia (beautiful place).  We have criticized the society of Todos Santos as lacking diversity, but so does More’s island which offers no unemployment, but also no private property, common dining rules, and little variation in fashion available to the residents.

A truly progressive (as opposed to reactionary) utopia must reconcile hard-learned lessons of the individual’s yearning for freedom, even to make mistakes, with the virtues of a peaceful, stable, technological existence. The Dispossessed: an Ambiguous Utopia recognizes the paradox at its heart. Oath of Fealty, like More’s Utopia before it, might have been a more thought-provoking book if some of the questions it raised had been answered.


Bacigalupi, Paolo. (2015). The Water Knife. New York, NY: Random House.

Benford, Gregory. (1984).  “Reactionary utopia: Le Guin’s outlook on  change.’ Paper delivered to J. Lloyd Eaton Conference on Science Fiction, UC Riverside.

Bierman, Judah. (1975). “Ambiguity in utopia: The Dispossessed.” Science Fiction Studies, Vol 2, Part 3.

Delaney. Samuel R. (1976). Triton. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Finch, Sheila. (1985). “Paradise Lost: the prison at the heart of Le Guin’s utopia.”  Extrapolation, Vol 26, No 3.

Gernsback, Hugo. (1925). “Ralph 124C 41+.” Modern Electrics.

Huxley, Aldous. (1932). Brave New World. London: Chatto and Windus.

Le Guin, Ursula (1973). “The ones who walk away from Omelas.” New Dimensions 3. New York, NY: Nelson Doubleday.

Le Guin, Ursula. (1974). The Dispossessed. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

Niven, Larry and Jerry Pournelle. (1981). Oath of Fealty. New York, NY: Timescape Books.

Sheila Finch

Sheila Finch is the award-winning author of eight science fiction novels. In 1998, she won the Nebula Award for her novella, “Reading The Bones.” She has been a teacher of creative writing and still offers private workshops.