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Book Review: The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

A science fiction novel that speculates equally upon physics and sociology.


The Dispossessed

Harper Voyager, 1974, 387 pages



Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Anarres, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.





There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.


Science fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas. Reading The Dispossessed took me back to my youth, when the science fiction I read was mostly the Golden Age classics, from Asimov and Heinlein to E. E. "Doc" Smith and A.E. Van Vogt. Keith Laumer and Ray Bradbury. Arthur C. Clarke and Jerry Pournelle and Poul Anderson. Then moving into the Silver Age — Larry Niven, Alan Dean Foster, Fred Saberhagen, Jack Chalker, C. J. Cherryh, Frank Herbert, David Brin.

All of that fiction impressed me mightily. I have been trying to identify why a lot of modern SF leaves me dissatisfied. I am not saying no contemporary authors are writing idea-heavy and innovative science fiction that Says Things. Vernor Vinge, hell yeah, and you can see his libertarian philosophy shading his work even if he doesn't soapbox much. Richard Paul Russo (go read Ship of Fools, seriously). Iain Banks. Peter Watts. Paolo Bacigalupi.

But then there are the names who dominate the field, like Brandon Sanderson and John Scalzi. Both of whose books I have enjoyed, but found them lukewarm and derivative more often than not. I like Allen Steele's books too, but so far have not found him to be saying anything, it's just more space adventure. And I like space adventure! But where is the gosh-wow factor? Where is the Big Idea? Where is the "Shake up the world and piss you off because this author is wrong! (But in an interesting way!)"?

And no, E.E. "Doc" Smith was not writing thoughtful, intellectual science fiction. He wrote over-the-top space opera about Bug Eyed Aliens who were universally evil and had to be exterminated by square-jawed incorruptible heroes. (Chicks can't be Lensmen.) Alan Dean Foster mostly writes plain old space opera plus movie tie-in novels. But I seem to remember, well, characters, aliens, technology, weirdness, that is not characterized by the watery-blooded fiction that makes up a lot of today's best-selling SF&F. And I don't just mean the lefties like John Scalzi, either — I've read plenty of "red-blooded" military SF that just drones on and on about muzzle velocities and cardboard characters, no more complex than Smith's Lensmen, blowing shit up.

I have slammed Niven & Pournelle a bit for their hidebound views on race and sex, but at least there is stuff there to sink your teeth into (and maybe gnash them a bit). I have found reading John Scalzi to be a bit like drinking Diet Coke. Which I drink in copious amounts, but I know it's fizzy and empty.

So, anyway. I haven't started talking about Ursula Le Guin yet.

My experience with her, until now, has been limited to the Earthsea books, which I read when I was much, much younger. She's written a whole lot of adult science fiction, but I have never read any of it. 'Tis a shame — I will need to remedy that.

The Dispossessed (which won just about every award there was that a science fiction novel could win back in 1974) is part of her "Hainish" universe, which includes The Left Hand of Darkness, but the books seem to be largely unrelated to each other. It is a far future in which humanity is starting to spread among the stars, but still in slower-than-light ships, and discovering that somebody already "seeded" the galaxy with their species. They find human races on multiple worlds. The Hainish are the most ancient and technologically advanced. Terrans (us) have already pretty much destroyed Earth and are saved from extinction by the Hainish. And the indigenous people of Tau Ceti live on Urras, a lush Earth-like world, and its harsh but habitable moon Anarres.

All of that backstory is mostly irrelevant, since the offworlders (Terrans and Hainish) have only bit parts at the very end. The Dispossessed is mostly about the Anarresti, who fled Urras nearly two centuries ago to become the first settlers on Anarres.

This is not really space opera. The conventions of space opera (space ships, multiple habitable worlds, offworld aliens, conflict between planets) exist only to make this an allegorical tale of speculative sociology, and the philosophy of freedom.

Urras, the original homeworld, is much like Earth. It's got several governments, ranging from A-Io, the dominant superpower, a modern capitalist nation, to Thu, a socialist police state, and various smaller countries which A-Io and Thu use for proxy conflicts. The analogies to the world in which Le Guin was writing in 1974 should be obvious.

The people who fled Urras are "Odonians," who have created a society based on the teachings of a revolutionary woman named Odo. Odo is a bit of a Marx-like figure, and a bit of MLK, maybe even a bit messianic. Her philosophy, Odonianism, is essentially a true stateless anarchy, collectivism taken to its most idealistic extreme.

Now, one can immediately see the ideological objections, especially from folks on the more conservative end of the political spectrum. (Libertarians will have a harder time pinning down their objections, since libertarianism ranges from anarcho-libertarianism which is actually not dissimilar to Odonianism, to the modern American strain of libertarianism which is basically Republicans who love capitalism but not so much Jesus.)

I would say that those who take issue with Le Guin's political constructs in The Dispossessed have a point, if their argument is that it's not a true compare and contrast on a level playing field. I would argue that to read this novel as "capitalism vs. communism" is an extremely shallow reading, but I'll get to that.

Anarres is a true stateless world. They are all Odonians, anarchists, communitarians. There is no property, there is no central authority, there is no force. People are assigned jobs, but no one can make you do them. You are free to pursue your interests, with the caveat that no one else is obligated to provide you the resources you need, and if your projects require cooperation, then you need to join a syndicate, and syndicates are social organisms and thus prone to the usual human frailties of ego and jealousy and pettiness and the ever-present desire for power and acquisition that no "Odonian" philosophy can breed out of people.

The world runs largely on social convention. Everyone identifies as an Odonian, there is a genuine spirit of everyone being in it together, encouraged by the inhospitable environment in which mere survival is a struggle. Anarres produces very little animal and plant life. It's a dry, dusty world with mineral resources but not much else, which is the only reason the Urrasti let the Odonians have it — they have a trade agreement by which the Anarresti ship back the minerals they mine, and this is cheaper than invading and colonizing the world themselves.

The Anarresti take pride in their shared hardships, especially during a years-long drought. They view the Urrasti with horror, especially now that no living Anarresti has ever met an Urrasti. The Urrasti are "archists," "propertarians." The Anarresti are free in every way (so they believe). Ostensibly there is no gender discrimination, nor any stigma against homosexuality, but of course being Odonians doesn't free them from human nature where sex is concerned either.


The presence of females was oppressive to them all. It seemed to them that lately the world was full of girls. Everywhere they looked, waking or asleep, they saw girls. They had all tried copulating with girls; some of them in despair had also tried not copulating with girls. It made no difference. The girls were there.


The main character is Shevek. The book alternates between chapters; telling the story of Shevek's journey to Urras, the first Anarresti to return to Urras since they left the homeworld, and between those chapters, Shevek's growing up on Anarres, a brilliant iconoclast, a man who would become the foremost physicist in human space, and who begins to see the cracks in Anarres society.


There's a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.


There are supposedly no "authorities" on Anarres, no one who can censor or censure or suppress, but of course there are. Shevek finds his attempts to disseminate his new branch of physics — Simultaneity — balked by the Sequentialist "establishment." Le Guin shows her sci-fi chops in making the entire Sequentist/Simultanist dispute interesting and plausible without ever explaining in detail what it means.


"You are throwing a rock at a tree, and if you are a Simultanist the rock has already hit the tree, and if you are a Sequentist it never can."


It has the feel of an Einstein challenging Newtonian physics, or quantum mechanics threatening to topple Einsteinian assumptions, in a pseudo-socialist non-state where they can't technically gulag him, and yet people who rock the boat do seem to find themselves not getting the academic and research work postings they wanted and instead being sent to dig ditches in the Anarres equivalent of Siberia. And as Shevek himself points out, technically anyone can refuse a work posting, that's what everyone says — they are all free Odonians — yet no one ever does, except for a "nuchnibi" underclass, a fringe society of vagabonds who wander from settlement to settlement, never starving since Odonian society doesn't forbid anyone from taking food and shelter wherever it is available, but failing to honor the social contract.

Shevek manages to send his papers to Urras, where they light an explosion of interest in his work. He is invited to come to Urras, to be a visiting academic. The Urrasti, of course, are not benevolently interested in the advancement of science for science's sake. Shevek's Simultaneity theory has the potential to solve the problem of slower-than-light travel and communications.

Shevek goes to the planet where Odo was born to bring Odonianism back to them. It takes him a while to realize the obvious, that he's a bird in a gilded cage, that he's "negotiating" with state actors who don't negotiate. He wants to set off a revolution, but doesn't know where to start.


The individual cannot bargain with the State. The State recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself.


The contrast between Iotic society and Anarresti society is, again, not a "fair" one. The capitalist A-Ioans have built a sort of Dickensian society with the mechanics of American commerce; the poor are wretched huddling masses who are given rat-infested hospitals, while the rich wax enthusiastically about sending the common classes out to fight wars because that's what they're for. Urrasti women have no role in business, science, or politics. The A-Ioans, in other words, seem to be voicing what one might imagine a left-leaning author like Le Guin thinks capitalists all really believe in: rigid social and gender stratification on the assumption that you will be among the privileged classes.

Comparing them side by side, and also bearing in mind that the Urrasti live on a rich, fertile planet and the Anarresti live on a barren moon, it's easy to make the Anarresti look good by comparison. Even though Le Guin tries to balance this somewhat, with Shevek seeing the flaws in Anarresti thinking and perceiving his misapprehensions about Urrasti society, it's easy to see who the "good guys" and "bad guys" are.


He had been taught as a child that Urras was a festering mass of inequity, iniquity, and waste. But all the people he met, and all the people he saw, in the smallest country village, were well dressed, well fed, and contrary to his expectations, industrious. They did not stand about sullenly waiting to be ordered to do things. Just like Anarresti, they were simply busy getting things done. It puzzled him. He had assumed that if you removed a human being's natural incentive to work -- his initiative, his spontaneous creative energy -- and replaced it with external motivation and coercion, he would become a lazy and careless worker. But no careless workers kept those lovely farmlands, or made the superb cars and comfortable trains. The lure and compulsion of profit was evidently a much more effective replacement of the natural initiative than he had been led to believe.


However, this goes back to the point I made at the beginning of this review. Le Guin is writing speculative fiction. I do not know what was actually in her head when she wrote The Dispossessed, and I don't know what her political views are. I think concluding she's a communist because she wrote a book about an anarcho-communist "utopia" would be as wrong-headed as the readers who assume Heinlein was a fascist because of Starship Troopers — and for similar reasons. The society in Starship Troopers was not fascist, and the society in The Dispossessed is a purely fictional one, and hardly a utopia.

Most Big Idea science fiction writers use some major world-changing event or technology as their idea, or an alternate universe, or some other premise with which to say "What would the world look like if...?" or "How would this work?"

Le Guin seems to be answering the challenge of those who say that communism can never work above the kibbutz level, and she designs a truly anarchist-communist world. Anarres works. It's a planetary civilization with universities and farms and mass transit, and it can produce a brilliant physicist like Shevek (which it does not know how to appreciate, nor what to do with). It is, of course, fictional, and one might question whether such a stateless society could really last a hundred and fifty years as it does in this book, but rejecting it based on assumptions about the author's intentions or ideological issues with the story I think misses the point of science fiction, which is to explore ideas in a universe where you can pose these "what ifs." Too few authors nowadays really do that.


"You see," he said, "what we're after is to remind ourselves that we didn't come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we're no better than a machine. If an individual can't work in solidarity with his fellows, it's his duty to work alone. His duty and his right, We have been denying people that right. We've been saying, more and more often, you must work with the others, you must accept the rule of the majority. But any rule is tyranny. The duty of the individual is to accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible. Only if he does so will the society live, and change, and adapt, and survive. We are not subjects of a State founded upon law, but members of a society founded upon revolution. Revolution is our obligation: our hope of evolution."


Poll #1934863 The Dispossessed

Have you read The Dispossessed?

Yes, and I liked it.
17(81.0%)
Yes, and I didn't like it.
0(0.0%)
No, but now I want to.
3(14.3%)
No, and I'm not interested.
1(4.8%)

Have you read any other books by Ursula K. Le Guin?

Yes, I'm a fan.
21(95.5%)
Yes, but I didn't like them.
1(4.5%)
No.
0(0.0%)




Verdict: In my slightly snobby opinion, this is the kind of speculative fiction we should reward with Hugos and Nebulas. Rather than, you know, deconstructions of Star Trek. There is nothing wrong with pure action and adventure and nuking of aliens, nor with space romances, when you are in the mood for that, but The Dispossessed is one of those books to hand to people when you need an example of how something can be science fiction and literature. It's a novel of ideas, and like any novel of ideas, you the reader are not required to agree with them, but they are worthy of deconstruction.




My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, reviews, science fiction, ursula k le guin
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