Richard's Literary Byways: The Dispossessed, by Ursula K Le Guin

About Forums Den of Writers Blogs Richard's Literary Byways: The Dispossessed, by Ursula K Le Guin

Viewing 5 posts - 1 through 5 (of 5 total)
  • Author
  • #1391

    Our moon is so much larger in relation to its planet than any other moon in the solar system that some astronomers believe that our Earth-Moon pairing should instead be considered a double planet. Imagine, if you will, a true double planet, with one planet only slightly smaller than the other.

    This small difference has had a profound effect on the way the planets have evolved. The larger, Urras, is much like our Earth, hosting a highly developed civilisation, while the smaller, Annares, is a barren near-desert where terrestrial life has not evolved beyond invertebrates, though there are fish in the seas. Annares does, however, possess a wealth of the minerals of which centuries of exploitation have depleted Urras, so when space travel comes along Annares is settled on a limited basis as a mining colony.

    But all is not well in the largest and most powerful nation on Urras, A-Io. Its capitalist society is being riven by the dissenting and revolutionary activities of a widespread anarchist movement, until a radical solution is proposed. If you troublemakers are so disgusted with our society, why don’t you all go and live on the moon, where you can be as anarchic as you like and leave us in peace – if you don’t starve first? All we ask is that you keep those minerals coming. The offer is accepted, and the anarchists decamp to Annares to set up a society according to their beliefs.

    Two centuries after the Settlement, this is the setting for Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

    Le Guin is probably best known for her Earthsea series of YA fantasy novels. While I yield to no one in my love for Earthsea, The Dispossessed is something else. It is probably the most philosophically profound science-fiction novel ever written, exploring more political, social and moral themes than most mainstream novels. It is one of the reasons why Ursula K Le Guin is one of my favourite authors, in any genre.

    Le Guin was the daughter of a noted anthropologist, and it shows in nearly everything she wrote. No other author I know is so skilled at constructing, in rich detail, believable imaginary societies, usually very different from our own. In The Dispossessed she uses this talent to create a portrait of an anarchistic society that actually works. It has to. Annares is so inimical to life that if its people don’t cooperate and all pull together, submerging their egos and personal agendas for the common good, they will die.

    Of course, your reaction to that portrait will depend on your own outlook. It may be your idea of utopia; it may be your idea of hell on earth. I have to say that I personally find it rather liberating and uplifting.

    There is no government nor laws, though, in a society so crucially dependent on cooperation, anti-social behaviour, acquisitiveness and self-aggrandisement are deeply distrusted and frowned upon. There is no money and no concept of property: the custom-built language they speak doesn’t even have possessive pronouns (not ‘You can borrow my handkerchief’ but ‘You can share the handkerchief I use.’). If you need a new shirt you go to the local clothing depot and simply take what you need, dumping your old one for recycling. If you need to eat you go to the refectory. Most people sleep in dormitories, but if you wish to live on your own or as a family you are free to do so – though you will probably have to build your own home. You follow the path in life your inclination and talents best fit you for (the language uses the same word for work and play), though you are expected to participate in rotas for getting essential but unfulfilling work done. But there is no compulsion to do anything, only your conscience and the value you place on the goodwill of your fellows.

    That is merely skimming the surface. There is no room in a short piece like this to go into all the subtleties and complexities of the society Le Guin has created. And, though the book, like most of her writing, does reflect her own beliefs (she was a socialist, a Taoist and a feminist), she was too clever to rest content with painting a starry-eyed portrait of idealised perfection. Her anarchist society is not without its imperfections and problems.

    The protagonist of The Dispossessed is Shevek (Annaresti personal names are meaningless combinations of five or six letters randomly generated by computer), a brilliant physicist in search of a unified theory of time which will reconcile opposing theories held on Urras and Annares. His work blocked by jealous colleagues who claim that his thinking is politically unacceptable, he decides, after much soul-searching and against considerable opposition, to go to Urras, ostensibly as an ambassador of good will, but really in hopes of getting his work recognised and published there.

    Shevek’s reactions to what he finds there hold up a mirror to our own society, for the society in the nation that hosts him, A-Io, is recognisably like ours – except that it is both technologically more advanced and socially more backward. After initial gratification at the warmth of his welcome and enchantment by a world so much gentler and more rich and beautiful than his own, disillusion sets in. Schooled to austerity, he is shocked by the extravagance and waste of consumerism. He is baffled by the way the men simultaneously put women on a pedestal and dismiss them as inferior creatures, for on Annares no distinction is made between the sexes (except for the obvious!). His hosts are incredulous when he tells them that the renowned Annaresti physicist Gvarab, his mentor, was a woman, and shocked when he remarks that he’s often wished he was as tough as a woman. When he learns what he has been carefully shielded from, the squalor and deprivation of the lives of the poor, he is disgusted and appalled. And finally he realises that his hosts’ obsession with property and gain extends to himself: they are hoping to exploit his work for their own ends.

    The book has two timelines in alternate chapters: Shevek’s visit to Urras, and the story of his life on Annares leading up to that voyage,

    By now you may be fearing that The Dispossessed is a turgid political homily, a book whose message submerges its plot. It is neither. Above all, it is a compelling human story, the personal odyssey of a man who has to fight hard to find his fulfilment and make some hard choices along the way, told in Le Guin’s trademark simple, supple, poetic prose. It is uplifting and moving. You cannot help warming to Shevek in his uncompromising determination to follow his conscience and do what he believes is right. And the reunion between Shevek and his lifelong partner Takver after several years of separation and deprivation as the Annaresti combat a period of drought and famine (each having voluntarily gone to where they are needed most), and the daughter he hasn’t seen since she was a baby, is one of the most moving moments I know of in fiction.

    • This topic was modified 3 years, 8 months ago by RichardB.
    • This topic was modified 3 years, 8 months ago by RichardB.

    Great blog, Richard. While I didn’t get past the first few pages of Earthsea, I did discover a fondness for City of Illusions, and it may be that I need to explore The Dispossessed when I have some time to appreciate it.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 8 months ago by Seagreen. Reason: Illusions, not Illusion 🤨

    I’ve been tempted to read Earthsea a few times, but was put off when I read Le Guin uses a quite distant narrative style.
    This blog has piqued my interest though, and I think I might go find out for myself, because The Dispossessed sounds fascinating.
    Thanks for writing about it Richard.


    Apologies, Richard, I saw that you’d written this blog a few days ago but was busy, and then it slipped my mind. I’m ashamed to say, as a fan of SF, that I’ve never read any Le Guin (or K Le Guin). I’d been wondering where I might start, and now I know. The Dispossessed sounds as though it is brimming with ideas, which is to my mind a hallmark of the best kind of SF. (And anything that doesn’t explore ideas is not SF).

    Philippa East

    Thanks @richardb
    I’ve just ordered a copy from the library 🙂

Viewing 5 posts - 1 through 5 (of 5 total)
  • You must be logged in to reply to this topic.