The curiosity miracle
When your beloved project beomes Frankenstein's monster

Anarchy, book design and a surprisingly good read

In a previous job, my work for a few months was choosing books I wanted to read, buying them, then reading them. Although I was reading at my desk rather than settled into a comfy chair with a nice cup of tea (or a pint of beer), it was pretty cushy as work goes.

One of the books that caught my eye was The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin. I use caught my eye in the very literal sense here because I read the book based solely on the cover and I'll happily admit that if I'd seen any of the other covers, I'd have avoided it like the plague.

Here are some of the covers in question:


Now, can you guess which one caught my eye? Nope, it's not the one with the bloke in the floppy hat who looks like he wants to write a poem as he looks away from the rest of the cover (presumably because he thinks it's horrible and he's a bit embarrassed). It's the stark black one with the anarchy symbol.

You don't see that many novels about anarchy, and those you do see tend to be about the world going mad and people killing each other all over the place, often for entertainment. You see even fewer in which anarchy is part of a utopian theme, so my interest was piqued.

Anarchy is one of the themes explored, along with revolution, capitalism, individualism, collectivism, and linguistic relativity. Linguistic relativity, for those who didn't know (like me), is the theory that the structure of a language affects how those who speak it see the world.

The story revolves around a scientist, Shevek, who lives on the habitable moon of the planet Urras (no, it's not real - it's science fiction). The moon, Annares, was set up as a revolutionary commune for anarchists and has remained so. Shevek is seeking to develop a General Temporal Theory, which I won't even attempt to explain other than it involves time and communication.

The point is, I really enjoyed the book and it's one of the few books I've gone back to reread because the themes interested me enough. Not only is Annares used as an example of an anarchist society in its purest sense - that is, a society without government or coercive authoritarian regimes - it details how they deal with the inevitable questions that arise: what about crime, or the desire to own things, or dissent?

In contrast, the main planet of Urras is split into states that serve as analogies to systems we're more familiar with back in the real world, namely capitalism, patriarchal governance, totalitarianism, and communism.

In short, I like The Dispossessed as a book, I just think most of those covers are hideous. Although in moments of weakness I like to see myself as an enlightened soul who wouldn't do something as simplistic as judge a book by its cover, the truth is I do. Everybody does, whether that means avoiding a book because of floppy hats and spaceships, or simply because the words "Dan" and "Brown" are featured prominently.

The problem is, we might just miss a good book, as I nearly did. So if you're just about to reject a book because the cover is crap, at least give the blurb on the back a read. And if you design book covers, please don't design crap ones. Readers and authors alike will thank you.