Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Science fiction is often derided, seen as something appropriate to teenage boys. Perhaps the swathes of Star Wars fan-fiction on the sci-fi shelves in bookstores has something to do with that. However good science fiction can explore very complex ideas and themes that literary fiction struggles with. Like any genre it is a matter of knowing which authors to try, and who not to bother with. Ursula K. Le Guin is known to many people as the author of the popular Earthsea series they read as children, but she is also considered to be one of the great science fiction authors. Now that I’ve started reading her other books, I’m inclined to agree. While The Dispossessed is not my favourite amongst her novels, it is a worthwhile and thought provoking read.

The Dispossessed is one of the Hainish cycle: a series of works that take place in the same universe, though not on the same planet. The Left Hand of Darkness, one of her most well known works, is another of this series. The Dispossessed is set on the twin planetary system of Anarres and Urras. It is in many ways a thematic novel, rather than a character study, and explores as major themes anarcho-socialism, authoritarianism, time and metaphysics. The story centres itself around one major character called Shevek, a physicist from Anarres.

Roughly two hundred years before the start of this novel a group of anarchists on Urras, followers of the revolutionary Odo, were offered a permanent settlement on Anarres, which was only used as a mining base, thus removing their influence from Urras, and allowing the Odonians to create their vision of society. Contact between the planets has since been strictly limited. This changes when Shevek, a minor dissident on Anarres, is offered a posting at a university on Urras, where they want him to work on his principle of Simultaneity; a theory other physicists believe will be as important as the theory of relativity. Once on Urras, Shevek discovers he is not as free as he believed he would be. He finds himself a pawn in a political system he does not understand.

The beauty of Le Guin’s set up is she is able to explore two disparate political systems, and critique both. Anarres is run on a Anarcho-socialist basis with no political structures - decisions are made by consensus, by computers, or by temporary administrators; and no possessions - people are provided with what they need, but expected not to be greedy. Work is done for the collective good, and while people specialise, everyone is expected to contribute to jobs such as garbage collection in turn. If society is to function everyone must play their part. Urras has the capitalist society of A-Io, where Shevek lives. A-Io is also a patriarchal society; women do not work and appear to spend all their time looking beautiful for the men. No wonder Odo, a woman, started a revolution! This novel is sometimes subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, as neither society is the utopia it could be perceived as. As Le Guin shows through the novel the collective society of Anarres exerts its own pressures, controlling the individual just as effectively as a state. Shevek, fleeing the pressures exerted on him as he parts from mainstream thought, believes he will find freedom and self-determination on Urras. However, everything in a capitalist society has a price.

One of the cleverest things about this book is its structure and how this interplays with Shevek’s theory of simultaneity. In explaining his theory Shevek makes the analogy of reading a book
The book is there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order.
That is to say, time is all there, at once, but we experience it by moving through it, chronologically. This book, though, is not written chronologically. The first and last chapters are set on Urras and Anarres both, with all other chapters alternating between one and the other, telling us both of Shevek’s present on Urras, and his past on Anarres, simultaneously. It is very clever, and I have to admit I missed it (thanks Wikipedia). Some people believe that it may even be unintentional, but Le Guin is clearly a clever and considered writer, surely she thought this through. The theories of physics in this book are integral to the plot. While Le Guin could have entirely fictionalised these, she instead grounds them in ideas that would be familiar to readers. She uses both the theory of relativity and Zeno’s paradox as starting points from which to explore her fictional ideas. I think this must be hard to write - she is after all a novelist, not a physicist - but she does it well. There is also a balance to be struck between exploring these ideas, and avoiding overwhelming the reader with scientific detail; once again I think Le Guin is successful.

While The Dispossessed is mainly a novel of ideas it does have successful characters. Shevek is engaging, both in exploring his new life, and back at home. He is likable, but, like the political ideals in this novel, flawed. The story of he and his partner Takver on Anarres provides a heart to this novel, preventing it from becoming a cold exploration of ideas. Finally, I hate to admit it, what stopped me truly loving this book was the ending, which felt, if not rushed, then perhaps just a little too tidy, preventing it from having the emotional cachet I expected. This is still, though, an excellent book, one that deserves its reputation as a classic of the genre.


  1. So, what does being set in the same universe as "Left Hand of Darkness" mean for the novel? I read and enjoyed "LHoD" a while back, but there doesn't sound like much of a connection from what you've written above... Is it the framing device of being visited from the superior civilisation? Anyway, it does sound as if I should put the Dispossessed onto the my list! Thanks.

    1. The Dispossessed is set much earlier than LHoD, but within the Ekumen, which at this stage in her fictional chronology is only meant to contain a handful of planets. The connections are very loose - some of these would give away plot so I won't really mention them, other to say it foreshadows some of the technology and political constructs of Genly Ai. I own a copy which you are more than welcome to borrow if you like.

  2. Thanks for the loan offer; I'll go for it once my current backlog is dealt with. (In other words, don't hold your breath! :-)