The Dispossessed

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Cover image

Publisher: HarperPrism
Copyright: 1974
Printing: February 1994
ISBN: 0-06-105488-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 387

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Urras is a beautiful, lush, vibrant world, populated by a human-like race. Anarres is a desert world, home to only a few species, and largely devoid of the water and biological diversity to support much life. Each is the other's moon, forming a two planet system. And 150 years ago, a dedicated group of revolutionaries left Urras for the desolation of Anarres to found a political utopia.

Science fiction is particularly well-suited as a setting to explore utopias. Setting one up is difficult enough without dealing with the questions of who lived in that space before and what they thought of the utopia, but other planets can provide lots of empty space. Entering or leaving a utopia is a hook for a story, and is used here to great effect, but the utopia breaks down if too many people cross that boundary. Space provides a natural and enforcable barrier. And certain questions of political feasibility can be set aside by assuming a different culture, a different history, a different world.

As advertised by its subtitle, "an ambiguous utopia," The Dispossessed is about such a society, but not a clear-cut advocacy of it. It's also about a man, a scientist and genius in theoretical physics, who grows up in the utopia, learns and rebels against its limitations, reaches out to the world outside Anarres, and in the process learns much more about what is important to him. And, finally, it's about familiarity, belonging, and home.

Told in two threads, one set in the past giving the background of Shevek's life and one in the present telling of his trip to Urras, The Dispossessed is largely a tour. There is a plot to be sure, faster-moving in the present-time thread, and Le Guin is far too good a writer to let exposition overwhelm her story, but the events of Shevek's life are themselves an exposition of the Anarres utopia. Le Guin uses a matter-of-fact biography told from the perspective of a native as the description, letting the reader be constantly surprised by the differences that none of the characters notice. It's very effective, but it's also slow-moving and sometimes not engrossing. The present-time thread, involving political intrigue, the questionable motives of Shevek's hosts, and interstellar politics is more gripping and provides most of the tension when the plot heats up near the end of the book.

Shevek has an unusual character for the protagonist of a novel. I was impressed by Le Guin's skill in constructing a true reluctant hero, a man who was very content with his society and its politics but was forced by his brilliance, circumstance, and a solitary disposition into challenging orthodoxy. Shevek is not a dramatic person. He isn't prone to grand statements or romantic acts; he's thoughtful, introspective, and philosophical, and when he does take dramatic stands, almost accidentally, they have an endearing realism. While The Dispossessed goes into considerably less detail about science and scientific practices than Timescape (and rings false in those few places where it strays into detail), I found Le Guin's portrayal of a working scientist more sympathetic than Benford's. Shevek is someone who has a life both before and after the great events of his story.

The true focus of this book, however, is the Odonian utopia on Anarres. The details of the political philosophy are mostly communist and anarchic: little to no personal property, no political structure, no one in authority, and peer pressure used as the only policing force. The drudge work of the world is shared in common, each person giving a day in ten. Utopian theory is always a bit iffy — it's hard to believe in a utopia without fundamental changes in human nature — but Le Guin thinks through the ramifications in more detail than most. Quite a bit of effort was put into the foundation of the utopia to create a break from other political systems, up to and including invention of a completely new language and computer assignment of unique names. Parents are well aware that the way of thinking that the culture requires is foreign to humans and has to be thoroughly and carefully taught. The inhabitants also still have human failings, bureaucracy is starting to grow, and there are power structures, even though there aren't supposed to be. And yet, like most human institutions, cracks don't mean collapse. The Odonians adjust and change and try to find ways to keep their society working.

Embedded in the narrative are perceptive observations on the nature of politics. When Anarres faces a drought, despite fears that it could mean the end of their society through greed and fear, the utopia is actually strengthened. People pull together in temporary adversity, build a sense of comraderie, and help each other through crises. Starvation is a very simple moral problem; it sparks cooperation rather than debate, suspicion, and division. The real threats come from creeping bureaucracy and complacency during the good times, the remnants of emergency measures that are never abandoned, petty personal politics and desire for power, and controversy about what might happen instead of what is happening. The xenophobic attitude of Odonians towards their mother world is an excellent example: there isn't a concrete threat that people cooperate to address, but rather only suspicions over what might happen and disagreements over the right approach. From that comes political factions, arguments, and desire to force other people to comply with one's point of view.

Another impressive insight was the acknowledgement that politics are tied to wealth and circumstance. The Odonians are very aware that one gets the government one can afford, and that their brand of communist anarchy requires a rich and robust infrastructure. Without their economic wealth, even if less than that of Urras, they wouldn't be able to afford a utopian society. This is poignantly made clear when Shevek finally meets a representative of Earth, who speaks wistfully of Shevek's utopia as something that the ravaged world of Earth has long since lost the opportunity to attempt.

In the end, there is only a partial resolution to the problems raised by the story, fitting the ambiguous and complex nature of human government. One starts the story with the impression of a sharp contrast between two mutually exclusive worlds, and while the high-class citizens of Urras are always presented as less nuanced characters and more obvious villains than I'd like, one is left with a much different impression by the end of the story. Shevek leaves the stage still as firmly convinced that his home is right, but "for him" has been tacked on to that belief by the story. If The Dispossessed has a message that can be summed up in a few phrases, it's this: utopias are situational, loyalties are sentimental, constant work and self-examination is required in any political system, and simply expanding one way of living to others who are not used to living that way doesn't work.

This is not typical science fiction fare, but it's excellent writing. Highly recommended if you have ever struggled with the concept of an ideal society, or are tired of facile political struggles.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-07-08

Last modified and spun 2017-05-02