Readings for an Anarchist Summer Vacation

By Jesse Harasta

In solidarity with all of the students released from their institutions these precious few summer months, I have chosen to review two works about slavery and liberation for summer reading. I found these two books, Four Ways to Forgiveness by Ursula K. Le Guin and Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson, at my small local branch library, so hopefully they're easy enough for you to pick up.

Four Ways to Forgiveness

Ursula K. Le Guin is perhaps the best known writer of anarchist fiction alive today, particularly for The Dispossessed (1974)—her science fiction description of an anarchist society—and Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which describes a world of genderless human beings. Four Ways to Forgiveness (1994) is not as well known, though it exists in the same science fiction universe as the other two. The book is a collection of four densely interconnected novellas, and each section can be read independently (perhaps while in a hammock) though a full understanding of the work cannot be achieved without reading all four.

Four Ways is set in a solar system with two inhabited worlds: Werel and Yeowe. For millennia, society on Werel was divided into two groups, the Owners and the Assets, the former owning the latter as chattel slaves. More recently, the Owners of Werel have settled Yeowe with massive plantations of Assets who, over time, develop a distinctive society that rebels against its oppressors. The book opens in the wake of this generations-long revolution, as the Assets of Yeowe have thrown off their oppressors and begun rebuilding their communities and constructing a new society.

The primary themes of the book are, of course, slavery and liberation, though Le Guin, per her usual, takes them to deeper levels than one first expects. Underlying the text is the fact that despite the liberation of male Assets on Yeowe, the women of the planet remain under the oppressive thumbs of the men. Both freedom and forgiveness take many forms in the text as she explores the war and its aftermath from numerous points of view: a disgraced revolutionary leader, an enslaved woman growing in political consciousness and organizing resistance to her condition, a historian visiting from an outside world, an androgynous performer seeking to find a new niche, and a soldier who realizes he was on the wrong side and has been betrayed by the society he fought so hard to defend.

As always, where Le Guin shines is in her incredible attention to the details of the cultures of the people she has created. In Four Ways, she creates a society that captures many of the dynamics of post-colonial and post-slavery societies around the globe. One can feel the lives of the people she describes through her book—and not just their feelings, but also the cultural contexts in which they have grown up.

If Four Ways has any great weakness as summer reading, it's that it is perhaps too slow and contemplative at points. This may be right up your alley, but for those seeking a summer escape from life-as-it-is, Four Ways may actually hit too close to home for comfort.


I have to say, I began Mistborn (2006) with considerable suspicions. The author, Brandon Sanderson, teaches at Brigham Young University and was highly recommended by arch-conservative Mormon novelist Orson Scott Card. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the work, which is the first of three novels detailing a slave revolt and the building of a new society in a fantasy world.

Mistborn combines elements from classic swords-and-sorcery fantasy (like J.R.R. Tolkien), heist films (such as Sneakers or Oceans 11) and graceful wuxia kung-fu (like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The combination is clever and leads to a fast-paced, action-filled romp that kept me turning the pages long after I should have gone to sleep.

The setting of Mistborn is a grim one, as its central premise is that the Dark Lord (a common feature in the genre) has won and has ground the world under his thumb. This world-spanning dominion is called the Final Empire and is continually bathed in a rain of ash from innumerable volcanoes. The groaning masses of serfs—called Skaa—constantly slave just to brush their crops free of the ash. Above the Skaa are the feuding, cruel noblemen, themselves ruled by the theocratic Obligators and the demonic Inquisitors. The text is set primarily in the capital city and captures much of the oppressiveness of the Dickensian sprawl.

The book follows Vin, a Skaa street urchin girl who possesses a strange power she calls the Luck, which has allowed her to survive against all odds. She is recruited into a gang of thieves for what she thinks is the greatest heist of all time, but she soon realizes that the gang is the forward team for a revolutionary army of Skaa. As Vin finds herself trained to mimic noblewomen in order to infiltrate their circles, she is torn by the conflicting images of genteel society and the violence she knows underlies it.

Mistborn deals with a number of important topics: the dangers of messianic leaders, the ability of the powerful to recreate themselves into gods, the paradoxes of revolutionary violence, and the continual debate among the oppressed between collective action for liberation and self-centered survival. While the book has a number of problems from an anarchist perspective, including a simplistic understanding of social movements and disappointing elements in the final scenes, it is overall worth the read. Also, if you're into Mistborn, it is good to know that the author has a chapter-by-chapter commentary and “deleted scenes” on his Web site in a manner similar to DVD special features.

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