The Dispossessed is a perfectly achieved thought experiment, perhaps Ursula K. Le Guin’s greatest achievement, but there is little I can say that hasn’t been said more eloquently, forcefully, thoroughly, or knowledgeably by other reviewers. It transcends genre as a Novel of Ideas. It explores with great intelligence anarchism-socialism vs capitalism; freedom/slavery in terms of politics, economics, society, intellectual endeavor, and personal relationships; the struggle to perfect a scientific theory that unifies time and space; whether human nature inevitably corrupts all political ideals; whether political utopias can ever be achieved to a meaningful degree; whether only hardship and privation can support socialist sentiment; and whether we must therefore settle for capitalism and the pursuit of possessions, money, and power.
Having just read all the many insightful reviews of this towering novel, which remains humble, grounded, and refuses to provide easy answers where there are none, I don’t think I have much to add to the body of discussion and analysis The Dispossessed has generated in the almost half-century since its publication. Rather, I think it has achieved its goal of perfectly integrating a story of Big Ideas with the profoundly-moving story of physicist Shevek in his struggle to pursue his theories in the arid anarchist society of Annares and later in the capitalist societies of the more abundant Urras. It is also a surprisingly powerful love story about Shevek and his partner Takver, as they try to navigate the difficulty of living their ideals within a less-than-perfect anarchist society in which the needs of the group take precedence over those of the individual.
What is really impressive about this book is that is remains gripping and thought-provoking despite a lack of almost any kinetic action or intricacies of plot. It truly rewards the patient reader who wishes to contemplate the ideas presented and examine them in terms of their own life experiences, compare them with their understanding of the political systems that govern their own society, and what aspects could realistically be changed for the better. After all, considering what happened in the disastrous US election in 2016, I don’t think anyone out there could for a moment claim that the US political system is the pinnacle of human achievement.
Having said that, without any viable anarchist social experiments to point to beyond kibbutzes in the desert, it’s hard to say whether that model could ever exist on a large scale in the real world. And that is exactly what The Dispossessed sets out to do — depict a realistic, non-idealized anarchist society that functions with the full participation of its members maintaining continuous revolution on a daily basis. And by showing the flaws and inevitable creep toward bureaucracy, conformism, and petty power struggles, Le Guin is willing to put her anarchist society under stress tests that raise legitimate questions of its viability.
In the end, it’s quite easy for us to see the flaws of capitalism given that it relies on greed, self-interest, consumption, private possessions, and competition between social classes, but it is another thing entirely to create a fictional anarchist utopia and put it through the ringer within the context of a compelling story of real people with complex motivations and ideals. It would be easy to dismiss such a thought experiment as hopelessly idealistic or irrelevant, but I think that would be to miss the point of this book. Le Guin’s book is not a call to arms to discard our corrupt capitalist systems and form anarchist or socialist communities with The Dispossessed as our Little Red Book. Instead, she wants us to examine our own lives and political structures and think about what ideals really should drive society, and then what aspects of our political and social systems should or can be improved upon, since we can all agree they are far from perfect.
Sadly, even when such a hypothetical society is composed of people dedicated to such political ideals as Annares is, it still struggles to hold together over time. It is this willingness to accept the fallibility of all political systems that is Le Guin’s most mature sentiment, one sorely lacking among demagogues or jingo-chanting nationalists. It is the refusal to simplify things that makes The Dispossessed both intellectually-stimulating and politically-unsatisfying, since it is unlikely to galvanize us to action, but rather pushes us to reflect on our own assumptions about ourselves and our societies. It is a masterpiece in the genre and a great book by any measure, one of my all-time favorites.
The late 1960’s and early ‘70s was a magnificently productive time in Ursula LeGuin’s career. Though she continued writing award-winning, successful novels, nothing matches the quality and quantity of her output in this time. The first three novels in the EARTHSEA CYCLE, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, and The Lathe of Heaven were all written then, each winning one if not more awards and flying off shop shelves. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, published in the middle of this stretch, rounds out the triumphant group and is considered by some her greatest achievement.
The Dispossessed is at heart the tale of Shevek and his struggle to acquire and disseminate knowledge in two different socio-economic systems. A minor physicist, Shevek’s research into the effects of time on space is interrupted and downgraded by the orthodox, or exploited by ambitious colleagues. His home planet is essentially a desert wasteland, so basic habitation is also a struggle. Shevek and others, including his partner Takver, spend a great portion of their lives dealing with food shortages and the difficult circumstances arising from their planet’s geological conditions and weather patterns. Feeling his work holds more value than what it is appreciated for, Shevek sets aside his life’s problems and takes drastic steps to change the quality of his research. The surprising result is that the push leads him places he least expected. The grass is not always greener on the other side, and it is the manner in which Shevek compromises the situation that the novel makes its point.
One of literature’s greatest realizations of an anarchic society, The Dispossessed is a thought experiment through and through. LeGuin imagined a planet and its inhabitable moon, placed a system analogous to capitalism on the former and anarchy on the desiccated latter, and named them Anarres and Urras. Not a Che Guevara or Sex Pistols-esque style of anarchy glorifying non-government, LeGuin handles the subject with maturity; the lives of the people on Urras are anything but utopic despite their lack of authority. The social problems they face, while in a context potentially difficult readers to relate to but related clearly by LeGuin, adheres to the nature of an anarchic system — for better and worse. Human vice being what it is, the oft idyllic nature of anarchic theory does not prevent LeGuin from exposing its vulnerable side. The capitalist system being more well-known, she portrays the Anarrens with equal aplomb, and the resulting ideological clashes between the two planets serve up the tension in the novel, not to mention being amongst the greatest social commentary sci-fi has produced.
The Dispossessed’s narrative structure alternates between the two planets, Anarres and Urras, with a chapter at a time devoted to each. Innate to this structure is also an oscillating timeline: the concluding events of the Anarres timeline correspond to opening events of Urras’ to form a satisfying whole. This structure, while breaking from the linear to make the text more engaging for the reader, likewise forms an analogy to the ultimate outcome of Shevek’s research. This symbolism, both in the narrative and in denouement, is rich.
In the end, The Dispossessed is a peak of anthropological science fiction and one of the top twenty-five science fiction books ever written. LeGuin’s voice is neither lavish nor expansive; she writes in effective prose, sensitive to the causes and effects of the social concerns raised. Shevek, those he encounters, and social systems they are a part of are dealt with in a realistic fashion that further confirms LeGuin’s maturity. Both answering and raising an equal number of profound questions, this book is for the ages.
The Hainish Cycle — (1966-2000) From Wikipedia: The Hainish Cycle consists of a number of science fiction novels and stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is set in an alternate history/future history in which civilizations of human beings on a number of nearby stars, including Terra (Earth), are contacting each other for the first time and establishing diplomatic relations, setting up a confederacy under the guidance of the oldest of the human worlds, peaceful Hain. In this history, human beings did not evolve on Earth but were the result of interstellar colonies planted by Hain long ago, which was followed by a long period when interstellar travel ceased. Some of the races have new genetic traits, a result of ancient Hainish experiments in genetic engineering, including a people who can dream while awake, and a world of androgynous people who only come into active sexuality once a month, and can choose their gender. In keeping with Le Guin’s soft science fiction style, the setting is used primarily to explore anthropological and sociological ideas. The Hainish novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed have won literary awards, as have the novella The Word for World Is Forest and the short story The Day Before the Revolution. Le Guin herself has discounted the idea of a “Hainish Cycle”, writing on her website that “The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones.”