"One of the greats....Not just a science fiction writer; a literary icon." - Stephen King From the brilliant and award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin comes a classic tale of two planets torn apart by conflict and mistrust -- and the man who risks everything to reunite them. A bleak moon settled by utopian anarchists, Anarres has long been isolated from other worlds, including its mother planet, Urras--a civilization of warring nations, great poverty, and immense wealth. Now Shevek, a brilliant physicist, is determined to reunite the two planets, which have been divided by centuries of distrust. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have kept them apart. To visit Urras--to learn, to teach, to share--will require great sacrifice and risks, which Shevek willingly accepts. But the ambitious scientist's gift is soon seen as a threat, and in the profound conflict that ensues, he must reexamine his beliefs even as he ignites the fires of change.
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I took a good two weeks to get through the 319 pages of "The Dispossessed". Partly, I was doing other stuff, and partly I found it a really dense book to read. Le Guin touches on so many topics and issues I care about, and does it in such a skillful way, that often I found myself stopping and thinking something through for a good few minutes before I could continue to read. Here are some, in no particular order, with no claim to coherence, of my own thoughts.
The main message of the book is around class and ideology. In some ways it is very much a Cold War novel, with Urras modelled directly on Cold-War-Earth. Now, while I knew that SF was often used as a tool to spread subversive messages under Communism, I'd never realised that the phenomenon had a flip side on the other side of the Iron Curtain. This novel sure as hell shows that.
One of the elements I particularly liked about the depiction of the Cold War, with the nations of A-Io and Thu standing for the US and the USSR respectively, is that Le Guin chose not to show us Thu directly. And while there was no real story reason to go into Thu, I feel there's something else behind this too: Coming from the other side of the Iron Curtain as I do, I rather suspect that I would have been upset by any attempt by a western author to comment on the internal workings of a communist country. There just is no way that she could have done it in the same depth, with the same amount of sensitivity as she treated the capitalist counterpart she had direct experience of, and it is to Le Guin's credit that she chose not to try.
Second to the communism/capitalism/anarchy discussion is probably the issue of gender. On Anarres, men and women are truly equal. On Urras, they very much are not. There are a few details, a few lines Le Guin uses to illustrate that dichotomy which encapsulate so much of the issue and so much feminist thought in so few words. There is the discussion among the Urrasti physicists of how they should use women as lab technicians to allow men to focus on the truly productive and creative sides of physics. It serves as a good reminder of how women were seen in western society not that long ago. Shevek's constant bewilderment at Vea's attitude - she won't open a door, she has to have it opened for her; she won't even offer to share the bill at dinner - is wonderful. He even wonders if Vea might be a prostitute, before he figures out that what she expects of him is "chivalry". And there is of course Vea's reaction to being told that Anarresti women don't shave - anywhere! - which made me whince because I can identify with both sides of that one.
If ideology and gender are the two main themes of the novel, there are a number of other ones presented more subtly though in no way with less impact. There is a strong environmental/sustainability message which rings particularly true to the 21st century reader. There is a lot of subtle but ever-present commentary on the power of language to shape thought. There is an interesting side note on race - the Terran ambassador is Indian, and for an SF work of the 70s, "The Dispossessed" is well ahead of its time on that.
The one area where the novel bears a touch of criticism is in its treatment of homosexuality. We are told that homosexuality is perfectly normal and accepted on Anarres. But really, we are never shown it. The one character of whom we know that he is gay lives the kind of life that was almost socially accepted in western society when the novel was written: he has no long-term partner, he throws his energy into other things, and that's pretty much all we know about him. In some ways, this makes sense when viewed in the context of Anarresti society where being partnered appears to be by far the less common option. And yet, Shevek, the main character, has what is reasonably close to our understanding of a family, with a long-term partner and two children. Bedap on the other hand seems to be spending all his time at work, with his group of friends or in politics. He does, towards the end of the book, realise that he would like a partnership, he would like his life to change, but it would have been nice to see a gay character in a happy and stable relationship. Still, had I been a teenager in the 70s I'm sure I'd have been glad of any gay characters in any fiction, as a way of validating my own universe.
Much in the same way as most travel writing tells you rather more about the traveller and where they come from than it ever can about the country travelled, any social commentary or social science fiction tells you a lot more about the society the author is living in than about any fictional world they're creating. That, however, is for me the ultimate test for good science fiction: it should hold up a mirror to humanity and make us think about ourselves. This book definitely does that.
Le Guin's novel explores these issues. Her conclusion seems to be that rules spontaneously arise in any group and become internalized. Freedom more a matter of acting in a way that is not constrained by these internalized rules.
This book was written in the early 1970s. I wonder if it was really a commentary on Mao's China. It would be interesting to compare this to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Rand has a hero who is has the courage to break the constraints of American society. Le Guin's hero seems more to be breaking the shackles of Maoist society - at least, Maoist society as idealized by the hippies of 1970.
I was in high school in Lake Forest, Illinois back then. We had a brilliant hippy in our school. We had a team in the high school quiz show on local TV. We had a bus load of kids going down to Chicago, along with the team, for the competition. One of the quiz question was about the thousand mile march. Our brilliant hippy hero, long hair and bare feet, pounced on the buzzer and shouted, fist raised: Chairman Mao! Yes! Another point for the Lake Forest team!
Yeah, Mao for us hippies was a bit like Stalin for the previous generation. An embarrassing mistake for sure, but a deeper puzzle too. What went wrong?
Le Guin tells us - the constant revolution from which freedom arises, it is an individual affair, not a social affair.
How to structure society to be most conducive to individual freedom, that is one nice question. Then, what responsibility does the free individual have to help promote those conditions so that others can achieve freedom too? But the real question, I think, is: given that freedom is an individual achievement, to whatever extent supported or discouraged by social conditions - how does an individual achieve that freedom? Freedom is freedom from constraint. What forms the prison bars that constrain us? Yes, the police can constrain us. Yes, internalized social rules constrain us. OK, even our internalized parent figures constrain us. If we break through these constraints - do we then dash out and follow our impulses? What is this individuality that might become free? Perhaps whatever it is that defines us as a distinct individual, that very boundary of "me, mine" and "not me, not mine" could be the ultimate prison! If the freedom we seek is the freedom to manifest our individuality, maybe that freedom is an illusion - nothing more than the freedom to paint our prison cell any color we like.
I didn't find all that much depth to Le Guin's exploration of freedom. It opens up the question and shuffles a few papers. It barely hints at the range of the terrain. But it's well written, an excellent novel. Almost dangerous, if a person were to be seduced by the satisfying style into thinking that Le Guin has thought the matter through and supplied a good answer.
Funny, though. What seems to correspond today to the idealistic anarchy of 1970 - perhaps that would be deregulation, some kind of libertarianism. I fear that today's reader of this novel will find it even more like Atlas Shrugged that folks would have back in 1975 when people could still remember dreaming of communes.
What we need today is another novel like this, where our hero lives in the Utopia dreamed of by the Tea Party folks. Whatever freedom they dream of, that seems to be the freedom whose limits we need to understand today, before the prison gates are locked tight.
However, being an anarchist, Shevek is not a very good trader. He quickly finds himself trapped in an invisible prison, carefully isolated from the restless masses of Urras, while the leaders of Urras try to get the Grand Temporal Theory from him in order to establish their rule over the entirety of known space. Breaking out of his luxurious jail, Shevek joins up with socialist revolutionaries and tries to make sure his life's work is not misused.
"The Dispossessed" is written in an interesting fashion, with flashbacks covering the course of Shevek's life routinely interrupting the narrative. While some might be annoyed by the story's resulting disjointedness, I personally was not bothered. The flashbacks let Le Guin explore her ideas of how an anarchist society would operate, how life, love and politics would work in a government-less world. For me, being able to explore the conflicts and tensions between society and the individual, between centralization and autonomy, between responsibility and freedom - this proved nearly as interesting as the plot itself.
Although "The Dispossessed" is technically a work of science fiction, it seems to be primarily an exploration of society and the human spirit. The physics that forms the base of the plot is presented more as philosophy than hard science and the level of technology on Urras and Annares seems hardly more advanced than what exists today. Overall, this book has excellent characters, a good plot, and a whole approach that is sure to make you think about government, society, and humanity itself. Five stars.
I don’t think I am reading too deeply when I say that world of Urras could represent our present – decadent, corrupt and with strict hierarchies based on wealth. Annarres and Earth (home to the Terrans), meanwhile, present us with two possible futures – one desolate and totalitarian, ruled rigidly in an effort to ensure the survival of the human race; the other just as concerned with survival, but offering more freedom and individual choice. To the Terrans, who have devastated their world, Urras is a paradise of flora, fauna, wealth and plenty. To the people of Annarres, who have been raised believing in the rights, freedoms and worth of every individual, Urras represents a hell of poverty, profiteering, inequities and the rule of the many by the few.
This book is very well written. The world’s are believable and the characters peopling them seem more real than even those we see on the news. Reactions and emotions are as logical as reactions and emotions can be, and by the end of the story the reader is emotionally attached to the main character, Shevek. While the ending occurs in a perfectly logical place, I found myself disappointed, as I really wanted to know what happens next.
The Dispossessed is an excellent and entertaining read. I highly recommend it to anyone from young adult to old age pensioner. I guarantee this book will leave you thoughtful, and will present you with a definite message. Whether that message is one of hope or despair, I will let you decide.
In order to follow the path of physics, Shevek has to turn away from his home to Urras, the planet the anarchist society abandoned hundreds of years before so that they could have their freedom. Urras is a world upon divided by cultures and countries, many at war with each other. Capitalism is king there, where there are drastic differences between the classes and just about anything is for sale.
One might think the focus of this novel is politics, from sexual politics to economic politics, -- and that would be true. Politics, philosophy, and and physics all play large roles here and are the subject of much discussion between the characters, each who have very strong points of view. Nothing is simple, however, and Sevek learns that his anarchist society is not as perfect as he believed, nor is the capitalistic society of Urras nearly as wicked as he imagined. There is good and evil in everything.
But even more story, this is a novel about a man who is lost, who is looking for a place to belong. His deep, deep loneliness and feelings of being disconnected from either world are very true and moving. Without this connection to Shevek, the story would be too tangled in philosophy and politics. Shevek's journey -- physical, intellectual, and emotion -- is really what makes this story come alive.
"He was alone, here, because he came from a self-exiled society. He had alwavs been alone on his own world because he had exiled himself from his society. The Settlers had taken one step away. He had taken two. He stood by himself, because he had taken the metaphysical risk.
And he had been fool enough to think that he might serve to bring together two worlds to which he did not belong."
Through Shevek's eyes the reader sees the advantages and disadvantages of a communal society and a capitalist society, the tendency of bureaucracy (and hierarchies) to creep into groups, the resolute way in which people blind themselves to the truth of the world around them, and the changes that immersion in a new culture, in the other, will bring. He goes forth, throughout his life, with empty hands, a stranger and a brother even as he completes a theory that will change all of the communicating Hainish worlds.
The novel's near perfect ending includes the poignant statement, "But he had not brought anything. His hands were empty, as they had always been."
Acute, poignant, world building and society building-- the novel does not preach or provide allegory. Rather it creates, without condoning or condemning the worlds or those who populate them. It leaves the reader not only lacking all of the answers, but feeling that they don't even have all of the questions. When it finished my chest ached, yet I wanted nothing changed about where or how the novel stopped. The tale is unapologetic, eloquent, and beautiful.
The basic premise seems simple enough – two planets, two societies with diametrically opposed politico-economical systems (Anarres is an anarchy, Urras has a variety of states and political systems, but has a pervasive capitalist economy), and a protagonist who crosses from one into the other, thus giving the reader a perspective on both. This also pretty much describes the basic plot of the novel, of which there isn’t a lot – The Dispossessed is very emphatically a novel of ideas, and any reader who cannot get passionate about them will likely be left cold by it. There is a bare minimum of plot (tbe story of Shevek’s life on Anarres, his attempt to reconcile the two planets without being instrumentalized on Urras), but in the main the narrative consists either of people talking about concepts or of people thinking about concepts. The astonishing achievement of The Dispossessed is that despite of this, the novel does not come across as dry and abstract at all, and this is because LeGuin gives the concepts a firm foundation in her characters. The ideas discussed here are not simply decreed by the author and then argued over by sock puppets, but they arise out of who and what the characters are, their specific personalities and their individual histories. In consequence, the many discussions in this novel are very far from being a dry recital of arguments but instead take the form of debates full of life because they are informed by human passions, and are accordingly more enjoyable to read.
Geometrical figures play a big part in this novel – there is the circle that is the symbol for Odonianism, the theory Anarres’ society is based on and which turns up again and again during the course of the novel in a huge variety of contexts. Life on Urras, on the other hand, is generally characterized by straight lines, more often than not forming borders, walls or prison cells; the novel’s second chapter, for example, begins with the image of the moon surrounded by the square of the window it is seen through – Anarres held in check by Urras, capitalism limiting anarchy. On first sight, this might seem like a clear-cut dichotomy, but of course circles are excluding as well as inclusive, and a straight line is something that leads forward, implies change, rather than always returning to the same point as a circle does. In the end, Shevek returns to Anares, ending his voyage by closing a circle, but at the same time he has moved forward through his life, and has (or so one hopes) initiated some progress on both worlds he has dwelled on. Last but not least, there is Shevek’s Unified Theory of Time which precisely aims to combine a cyclical with a linear concept of time.Everything is densely interwoven, the whole novel supported by a network of images whose metaphorical impetus is closely connected to the ideas The Dispossessed discusses, giving their abstractions imaginative depth and texture.
Right from the first sentence of the novel there is a juxtaposition of the neatness of the abstract and the messiness of the concrete, of theory and practice, the ideal and the real. And contrary to what one might expect, this is no dichotomy, no simple favouring of one over the other, the imagery of the crumbling wall already implies that the borders are blurry at best, and that the view from either side has its justification even as its unable to lay claim to being the only and absolute truth. While Le Guin leaves no doubt that her sympathies lie with the anarchists of Anarres who carve their frugal living out of the harsh surroundings of the moon they live on, she also shows the inherent tendency towards stagnation and bureaucracy in that society, while on the other hand the world of Urras, even as its political system is unfair, keeping a few rich and in power while the masses are poor and oppressed, still has an ease of living and an appreciation of the finer things of life – beauty, art, pure science – that is lacking on Anarres.
That impartiality is also marked by Le Guin’s use of an omniscient narrator, a rather unusual choice of a narrative perspective that appeared somewhat old-fashioned even back when the novel was written, but which suits The Dispossessed perfectly, broadening the novel’s scope beyond the merely personal and opening a wider perspective that embraces multiple worlds and systems. Even almost forty years after its first release, this remains one of the most thought-provoking novels in Science Fiction – and also one of its most beautifully written. Le Guin’s style does not attract much attention to itself, but here she gives us some of the most hauntingly beautiful descriptions of alien landscapes, and her gorgeous prose brings the arid secenery of Anarres to life like the passion of her characters vivifies the dry subject matter of their debates.
Being a book by Le Guin, this book has a great story that weaves around and behind and then comes back for a perfect ending. I had started reading this book in the library a couple years ago and decided not to read it at the
The story touches on many of the philosophical subjects that I sometimes think about, especially anarchism, socialism/communism, the breaking down of a utopian society, social relativity, the value of personal Will, and so on. Definitely worth re-reading more than once.
To start off, this book can be very confusing if you don't understand a few key facts. First, the story takes place on sister planets (each one serves as the other's moon): Urras, which is the original planet, and Anarres, a planet populated by anarchists who rebelled
There is a lot going on with politics. Urras is made of two major nations, A-Io and Thu, obvious allusions to the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union respectably. Then there is Anarres, which is a socialist planet where everyone is dependent upon each other because the conditions of the planet are so harsh. There are only a few species of life on Anarres and if humans don't work together, the species as a whole will perish.
The story begins with Shevek boarding the Mindful, a ship which will take him back to Urras. While there, he is bombarded with wants and desires he has never experienced, having come from a planet in which no one really owns anything because there is so little to be had (a common phrase amongst the Anarresti is "no one starves while another eats"). For the first time, Shevek has money and is able to have actual possessions. He gets sucked into the capitalist world and for almost a year, he does no work. His change of heart comes from seeing the other side of capitalism, the poorer side. The government, having kept Shevek boarded amongst the richer part of society, did not want an anarchist inspiring the poor to rebel. When Shevek sees the poor, he must come to terms with the fact that he has become what he most despises: a profiteer.
The Dispossessed is much more of a mental journey than a physical one. In fact, looking back at the book, there's not much action in it at all. However, I still found myself intrigued by the story. I could see this book because the source of heavy debate in the way it portrays socialism, capitalism, anarchy, and government as a whole (anarchy is greatly favored while government is scorned at) and while I can't agree with the idea of a total lack of government, I can see the pros and cons of both systems.
This is a good book if you really want to think, but not so much if you want a real page turner. It's a very confusing read, and I'll definitely be reading it again. There is no way I caught all the little details. The book has too much scope to take it all in the first reading through.
Shevek is a physicist in an ideal fully socialist - though completely decentralised - world. Life is hard, but fair, with
The part of physics that Shevk studies is time/space dimensions trying to develop a theory of relativity. there are two schools a Sequentialist school and a Simultaineous school. One rather hopes that the 'flashabcks' to shavek's youth - interleaved alternate chapters - are somehow related to this. But I doubt it, as no justification is ever given for them, and it reads as if Le Guin though this would be a neat idea. But they are exceptionally annoying, continually breaking up the narrative flow.
Shavek's thoughts lead him to a revolutionary idea, which is rejected as the people currently in charge (without in anyway being in power and especially not governing) the Institute of physics feel they belong to an outmoded school of thought. Shavek realises his ideal socialist world is in danger of relapsing into centralist dogma and determines to give them to this other world - if only he can prevent them from being bought.
The physics ideas are too rather obviously only a vehicle for the political discussions. Le Guin does make many very valid points - both for and against socialism and capitalism - but it doesn't really work as a story, and would be better off as a non-fiction piece. Given that our world has changed considerably since this was written it's also pretty clear that socialism will and does fail in just the ways she's highlighted. However it is worth noting that this doesn't make capiltalism 'better' only more sucessful. The problem is possibly just that there is far to much 'tell' and not enough 'show' particularly of the way the worlds are set up.
Perhaps the highlight of the work is in the inital assumptions required to make a stable socialist world operate for any length of time.
The main character in the novel is a leading theoretical physicist in pursuit of a grand unifying theory relating to Time, and we see him struggle in both worlds. On Anarres, his home world, he is stifled and an outcast, and on Urras, the government seeks to own the theory and profit from it. It’s as if Le Guin is showing us the shortcomings of both worlds (slash real countries on Earth), and how big a struggle it is for a person with singular advances (or quite simply the truth) to transcend the government and the people around them. She also is of course showing us the need to break down walls, to be kind to others, and to openly communicate.
Along the way Le Guin also peppers the novel with wisdom. The openness to homosexuality on Anarres, or any other sexual practice for that matter, aside from those involving children or rape. The need for strict environmental regulations by government. The freedom of the press on Urras leading to a lot of trash being published which the masses consume. The unfairness of consumerism by the wealthy when the workers struggle and don’t receive anything close to the value of what they produce. This makes the work highly relevant even as fiction, and even with the Cold War over. It’s timeless.
In chapters that alternate between Shevek the scientist’s early life leading up to his trip back to the mother world of Urras and his experiences on Urras, LeGuin compares and contrasts practices and customs through the eyes of one who has only ever lived in sharing and harmony with his fellow man. The result is fascinating, if a little devoid of plot. This is okay with me because I prefer this kind of science fiction, but if your type is a little more space opera and a little less philosophical, you might not enjoy it as much.
It is a book of opposites: a Utopian novel that doesn't refuse to expose the flaws of its model society; a
The setting is on twin planets of Anarres and Urras, both of which see the other as a moon. This dichotomy is demonstrated with Anarres as an inhospitable planet that has been settled by revolutionaries from Urras who left behind the capitalist life on their home planet to found a new society on the moon. The resulting community is an extreme communal society where everything is shared and nothing is owned individually. Urras, on the other hand, is a world that somewhat resembles our own – a male dominated capitalist society where women have absolutely no official role in politics, science or education.
Urras and Anarres have very little contact between each other beyond the rocket ships that export minerals from Anarres. Visitors from Urras are forbidden from crossing beyond the walls of the rocket port. The hero of the novel is the physicist Shevek who visits Urras as a sort of unofficial ambassador with an agenda to bring about increased co-operation and communication between the two worlds. This theme of two drastically contrasting cultures intentionally isolated from each is reminiscent of Arthur C. Carke’s The City and the Stars where Alvin escapes from a immortal pleasure-filled life in the city of Diaspar.
Both of these novels involve a man returning back to his ‘home’ society in an attempt to reconcile the philosophies of ‘home’ and ‘colony’ to solve the problems of both. The teachings of these novels is clear – fleeing and isolating oneself from a corrupted society is not a solution. I wouldn’t pursue the comparison very far though; the novels are too different for that. The story is told from the point of view of Shevek and alternates between two timelines; one starting when he flees from Anarres under a cloud of disapproval from his fellow citizens who taunt him as a ‘profiteer’ and the other starting from his childhood and moving toward the point when he leaves Anarres.
The first narrative, based almost entirely on Urras, is driven forward by the reader's curiosity about when (and if) Shevek makes it back home and under what circumstances. The second storyline, which is based on Anarres is interesting because although we know that Shevek made it off Anarres we are not told how he managed it and what happened to his family.
Some of the conversations and speeches on the Anarresti brand of communalism are intense and provide food for thought. This larger theme, together with Le Guin's mature mastery of her craft, give The Dispossessed a universality that has prevented it from becoming dated, despite its roots in the political issues of its time (the communal counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s, the original women's movement). This novel achieves more than the typical genre work with serious ideas and literary merit, thus deserving the several awards with which it was rewarded.
This novel is one of the densest stories I've read in a while, I enjoyed it no end. Action is replaced with introspection, plot points are based on esoteric theories of physics and governmental philosophy. Le Guin really got me thinking about our cultural norms, which I think was her point. I'd definitely not recommend this book to everyone, but if you are a fan of science fiction or fantasy you should probably just buckle down and read everything Ursula K. Le Guin has ever written. She's one of the masters of both genres.
This book was written in the early 1970s at a time when the Vietnam War was waning in popularity in the US, President Nixon was on the nose, and the rivalry between the capitalist US and the communist Soviet Union was reflected in the proxy war in Vietnam. But the lessons about power and its abuse, money and property as reflected in the inequality between the haves and have nots, and ideology are strong and just as relevant today as they were over 40 years ago.
The story is one of hope: for change, for the future, for overcoming resistance and the power of the elite and the incumbent. But it is also a lesson that if we don't recognise the dangers inherent in overbearing centralised power and bureaucracy then we are doomed to live our lives as outcasts in poverty. This lesson is especially relevant today in a fast changing world with strong central governments wanting to limit our freedom. I give the story 5 stars.
Finally, it's worth reading the Wikipedia entry for this book to get other viewpoints and reactions to this story.
“There was a wall. It did not look important…But the idea was real…Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon the which side of it you
In “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin
"Call me Shevek. Some years ago, never mind how many, I set out to be the tedious, most hypocritical, unreal character in all of fiction. That I failed is of little consequence. But here, for your records is some of the bare facts of how I failed.
Manuel, Manuel, Manuel. I don't drink booze? But I got drunk at a party, ejaculated all over a woman's dress (Did Bill Clinton read my tale?) and then promptly threw up. Did you skip some of my story? I am not amused! When I saw I was causing distress on page 75 to those very different to myself, I stopped. Am I not sympathetic? I make jokes. 'You have your anarchist. What are you going to do with him?' and so on...but I won't dwell on the point. ;) And now having read the novel again after about 10 years, I am even fonder of it that I was back then. Chapter 5 is like a distilled version of “The Brothers Karamazov” and the whole is a more serious, thoughtful “Stranger in a Strange Land”.
So, yes, Manuel, Shevek is quite like me in many ways, but since I've never had a single alcoholic drink in my life, I am even more unreliable as a character!!
And so this orphan is all alone without even a cardboard character to keep me company. ;)"
If you're into vintage SF, read the rest of the review on my blog.