By Ursula K. Le Guin
First Published: 1974
Review © 2009 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Science Fiction (Utopian)
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin is a thoughtful, well developed utopian/dystopian novel. Le Guin does a great job in this book of exploring the possibilities of a society based on the ideals of anarchy. To her credit, Le Guin examines the potential disadvantages of this society in addition to the advantages.
The Dispossessed compares two planets which are joined in that they each serve as the other’s moon. On the planet Urras, civilization developed in a manner similar to our own earth with two major superpowers dividing control of most of the planet. About 170 years ago, a revolutionary force of anarchists left Urras to colonize the relatively inhospitable and mostly desert neighbor world of Anarres as a way to escape the tyranny of the government they were subject to on Urras. They set up an isolationist society without the oppression of government with an agreement from Urras that no additional people from Urras would be allowed to join or even visit the new society. The only contact between the planets is the occasional cargo ship used to trade goods and exchange knowledge via scientific articles.
The protagonist, Shevek, is a dedicated hard working member of the society on Anarres who questions whether his society has strayed too far from its revolutionary ideals that were founded on a belief in rule by anarchy. Shevek is also one of the leading intellectuals on a planet without much use for intellectuals because most of the efforts of this society must be directed at sustaining life on the harsh planet. As a physicist who has made new advances that have been recognized more on the neighboring planet Urras than on his own planet, Shevek is invited to become the first person from Anarres to visit Urras.
The novel follows a parallel structure alternating chapter by chapter between the present where Shevek travels to Urras and the past where Shevek’s life is shown from his childhood up to the events leading to the historic trip to Urras. Shevek’s life on Anarres contrasts sharply with his trip to Urras where he comes to experience the wonders of the despised rich capitalist country of A-IO. There is also a brief discussion of the history of a distant planet more familiar to us, Earth, towards the end of the book.
The contrast between the two societies highlights both the good and bad points of each. There is not a lot of action, especially during the first half of the book, but there is excellent character development and human drama along with weighty philosophical discussions, politics, and a smattering of futuristic physics. In addition to the examination of anarchy, there are themes dealing with the roles of the sexes, sacrifices made for the good of society, love, family, and loss.The Dispossessed is definitely a thinking novel as opposed to an action novel. If you want to explore how a society based on anarchy might really function, or simply enjoy well written works that offer new perspectives, you should pick up this novel.