The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Dispossessed Cover

Deep Social SF


The Dispossessed is the fourth book in Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish Cycle, which is a loosely connected series of books, novellas, and short stories utilizing the background of an inter-stellar proto-humanity that seeks to reunite it's disparate colonies. Although it is the fifth work in the series, chronologically it is the first. Le Guin pulled at hat trick with this one and nabbed the 1974 Nebula and the 1975 Hugo and Locus awards. My only other experience with Le Guin was reading The Left Hand of Darkness (another book in the Hainish cycle) as part of a capstone fiction class for my Bachelor's degree. We really dug into the book, and one element we looked at particularly closely is the cyclical plot structure in which the protagonist, Genly Ai, ends up where he started, though greatly changed by the experience. Thinking about that reading experience reminded me of what a visiting author said in a lecture that same year: there are two types of stories, someone goes on a trip or a stranger comes to town. Sometimes, though, that stranger is you returning. Indeed, illustrating that appears to be the point of The Dispossessed's structure and themes: to take us on a trip to a world similar to ours, but through different eyes so that the familiar becomes strange and we, upon returning from the journey, are changed by the experience. Le Guin has characterized herself and has been characterized as an anthropologist of cultures that never existed, but might in the future, and The Disposessed is a prime example that puts paid to this claim. The science in this book is very soft, but like The Left Hand of Darkness, it delves deep into social structures and hierarchies that characters within her fictional societies have built and struggle within.

The Dispossessed takes place on the planets of Urres and Anarres, which orbit one another in the Tau Ceti star system. Anarres is a desert planet colonized by anarchists who split with Urres. The Anarresti anarchy eschews money, property, and materialism in general, favoring an extremely decentralized government in which an individual is free to do what he/she wants, but is always expected to contribute to the communal whole. Annarresti's share in both the drudge work like planting crops and waste management as well as the higher-order tasks such as management and even research. Everyone pitches in, and being selfish or "egoizing" is frowned upon. This makes Shevek, our protagonist, somewhat of an outlier. Shevek struggles with being a member of the community and with trying to fulfill his dream of creating a unified theory of space and time. It is his ideas that will make the interstellar communicator, the ansible (an important device in the other parts of the Hainish cycle) possible. But the work isolates him, since few understand it or even want to. He eventually seeks intellectual community with the scientists on Urres, which the Anarrans regard as wicked, materialistic heathens. Shevek risks becoming anathema to his people not only because his theory could reveal the way to bring the communities of star-flung humanity together, but also a way to lower the barriers separating Urres and Anarres. Of course, everyone on Urres wants to be the ones to get their hands on Shevek's work, and he slowly comes to realize the peril this puts him in. Through Shevek's anarchist eyes, we see how the people of Urres--particularly the caplitalist, materialist A-Io and the communist nation of Thu (mirroring the United States and Soviet Russia respectively)--are strange and sometimes horrifying, but not irredemable.

What The Dispossessed Does Well

The science in this book is very soft. Indeed, it is pretty much downplayed throughout. Even Shevek's theories of space-time are not expounded upon beyond some simple analogies. This is pure social science fiction, and it is perhaps best approached with an anthropologist's eye for social dynamics. Shevek comes from a world where one is brought up from childhood to see everyone as a brother or sister (even one's biological parents), to treat everyone equally, and to eschew the idea of personal property, and to contribute to one's society. One of the strengths of this book is in Le Guin's speculation on how a utopian society of anarchists might function to achieve these goals (anarchy here does not connote an absence of morality or order, but rather a society without institutionalized hierarchies of power and control). Crime is negated by eradicating money and making all property communal and free, therefore there is no need to steal or murder someone for what he/she has. People work as they want to, and given the strong social nature of this society, most people pitch in in some way to contribute. This leads to a large portion of unspecialized labor, but it encourages people to work for what pleases them and what motivates them instead of being chained to the same job. Le Guin incorporates a somewhat strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as a tool for reinforcing the anarchic ideals of Anarres. You do not refer to something as "my book" on Annares, but say "the book". You don't ask, "can I see your book," you say, "can I use the book that you are using"? It gets weird some times when characters say "the mother" instead of "your mother," or "the nose hurts" instead of "my nose hurts," but it's all geared towards eliminating possessiveness: if the use of language affects cognition and non-linguistic actions, then eliminating possessiveness in speech eliminates it in thought and action, according to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

The plot structure also mirrors this duality: the chapters alternate between Shevek's time on Urres and his earlier life on Anarres, with situations and themes from these alternating chapters mirroring each other. Just as the two planets orbit one another, Le Guin creates a constant juxtaposition of the two worlds throughout the book. We will see the material excesses, the squalor of the poor, and the "savage civility" (a term I loved from John Masters' description of the upperclasses in Nightrunners of Bengal) of the Urresti capitalists in one chapter, and how the solidarity of the Anarrans was strenghtened by the way they pull together during a food shortage in the next. Since the social-political situation on Urres is close to that of the Cold-War era Untied States and Soviet Union, Shevek provides a contrasting viewpoint that let's Le Guin level some pretty incisive criticism about the inequality of men and women, material excess, the petty (and dangerous) nationalism, the governmental and corporate co-opting of science, etc.

The contrast between the two worlds and the way these differences are presented in the alternating plot structure makes Anarres seem a tempting utopia, but thankfully Le Guin complicates the issue. The book is subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia," after all, and Anarres is not perfect. In the generations following the revolution, informal power hierarchies establish themselves, sometimes explicitly--as in the case of the inept yet famous scientist Sabul whom Shevek has to appease to get his theories published--and tacitly, as in peer pressure. This ambiguity is further reinforced by the beauty on Urres, such as the technological wonders of aircraft and spaceships and the general material abundance, which is made possible by the plentiful resources of the planet. Shevek wrestles with these differeneces and moves towards a realization of how he can help revitalize the revolution on his planet, and thus he ends where he began and completes the loop mirrored in his theory of simultaneity and the oft quoted dictum by Anarres' intellectual founder that "true journey is return." All of this is presented pretty well through conversations (the tenor of which makes me think of Kim Stanley Robinson sans the hard science) and through Shevek's observations, tinged by his upbringing in a very different society than that of Urres, which leads to scenes that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes disquieting, but always thought provoking. The complications Le Guin adds to the Annaresti anarchy and the startling beauty Shevek occasionally notices on Urres keeps the plot of the themes from being cliche or simplistic.

Where The Disposessed Could Have Been Better

Even though this is a work of social science fiction, sometimes the narrative can feel disembodied as it summarizes situations or stretches of time in Shevek's life. These scenes do reveal a great deal about Annaresti society, but such exposition can distract from Shevek's narrative. When Le Guin does delve into an extended scene there is some great characterization done in the dialog, but the lengthy exposition lies between these scenes and bobbing in and out of it left me feeling light headed at times. The alternating chapters also made me feel dizzy as the narrative shifted gears, and for some reason I was frequently drawn in to the scene at the end of a chapter only to be extremely disoriented when the narrative shifted to the other planet and the other time period. Perhaps this disorientation is intended, but it still bothered me during those transitions. This is also a book that is curiously without much visual or technological sensawunda. My memories of The Left Hand of Darkness are punctuated by that pervasive awareness of how cold the planet of Gehellen was, and of the strangeness of the neuter people there. More visual or technological play in the book would have added welcome nice spice to the narrative.

Concluding Thoughts

The Disposessed is a great book if you know how to approach it. It is social science fiction, so there is not much in the way of action. It is best to approach this book with an anthropologist's eye, paying attention more to the speculation on social dynamics than to the technological advancements. Still, it's very thoughtful and incisive, and it illustrates an important facet of SF that readers outside of the genre probably don't think it can do very well: deep social critique. Although it was written thirty seven years ago, it still feels fresh and interesting. It's an important piece of SF, and a nice companion to The Left Hand of Darkness.

Score: 5/5