The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Dispossessed Cover

A masterpiece


Calling this book "perfect" would do it an injustice. Its brilliance is not so much in meeting SF standards, but in exceeding them and leaving them far behind.

The Dispossessed is a complex novel. It's not complex in terms of structure or themes; it's not a hard book to read. Quite the opposite. But it manages to touch on so many aspects of the human experience at once that it's hard to sum up what makes it so fascinating.

At the heart of it all is Shevek. Shevek, so complex and delightful to read. Shevek's a hero, an outcast, a brilliant physicist, an idealist, an alien, a father, a lover, and a bit of a goof. He's so many things at once that the only word to describe him is real. He anchors the whole story, brings it to life, fills it with emotion and thought. Through Shevek, Le Guin explores a plethora of themes: anarchism, politics, science, inspiration, love, responsibility, injustice, freedom. He's the most realistic and inspirational fictional scientist I have ever read, and yet there is still time for him, in a mere 300 pages, to be a caring father and a poignant lover. Shevek's awesome.

Some readers see in this book a plea for anarchism. I like the political theory, especially Noam Chomsky's take on it, which he calls social libertarianism. By tackling anarchism, Ursula Le Guin is doing what SF should aspire to do every time: she explores a Great Idea, playing with it to see if it's possible. In that sense, yes, she gives anarchism center stage, and gives it the space to make its plea. But I don't think she set out to write a straight-up inspirational Utopia. Anarres doesn't sound like such a great place to live.

The utopia of The Dispossessed is Shevek, not Anarres. Anarres' brand of anarchism is broken, bogged down by the usual power struggles and human pettiness. Anarres forgot that a revolution must continue, lest it becomes the new order. The real anarchist revolution of this story is Shevek. He is a stranger in his own home, and he exiles himself to another world to find it again. In so doing, he touches both worlds in unexpected ways--and far beyond.

I can already see that this first read of The Dispossessed won't be my last. This is SF of the first order, one that enriches my own world by its mere existence as a thought experiment. And besides, I have a feeling I'll miss Shevek if we spend too much time apart.