I’ve now read three sci-fi novels by Le Guin, and this thoughtful, intelligent exploration of anarchism vs capitalism, and the impossible dream of a truly free society, might be my favourite so far.
The Dispossessed is a tale of two neighbouring worlds, Urras and its twin planet Anarres, the former a green bountiful paradise, the latter a barren, barely-habitable wasteland that was initially colonised for mining purposes. 150-odd years before the story begins, the extreme social inequality on Urras gave birth to an unusual arrangement: the idealistic dissidents were allowed to leave and set up their own anarchist society on Annares, based on principles of shared wealth and shared responsibility as envisioned by a revolutionary philosopher named Odo.
It’s also a tale of Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anarres, who paradoxically finds himself a rebel in a world built on rebellion. In the opening chapter, he bids a hasty farewell to his home planet, as he’s escorted to a transport ship that will take him to Urras while the mobs outside protest what they see as an unspeakable betrayal. Shevek’s hope is that, on Urras, he’ll be free to work on his groundbreaking theory that, among other things, will provide a method of instantaneous communication between the many human societies in the universe.
From then on, the novel is split into alternating chapters covering two different timelines. One is essentially a fish-out-of-water story, with Shevek struggling to adapt to and understand the society where material wealth, inequality between sexes and everything else he’s been brought up to despise are the overarching rules of existence. The second timeline jumps back to Shevek’s birth; throughout the book, we watch him grow up in the Annaresti society, and come to understand how it’s shaped and moulded every aspect of his life, including his eventual decision to leave.
Some sci-fi utopias are more convincing than others, and Le Guin obviously put in a tremendous amount of effort into envisioning every aspect of the Annaresti society. I was able to believe that, under very specific conditions, such society could realistically exist and function (the two key conditions being, 1) isolation from any outside influence and 2) a harsh natural environment that makes mutual cooperation essential to survival). On Annares, all resources are held in common and the idea of property, while not completely non-existent, is culturally frowned upon. There is no taboo attached to sex whatsoever, and the most derisive epithet one can hurl at another person is “propertarian”. All work is organised on voluntary basis, with no superior governing body presiding over everything. Even the language, invented from scratch by the original settlers, stays away from possessive pronouns like “mine” and “yours”.
But, as Shevek comes to slowly realise, a free society without class, laws or government can still be ruled by tyranny – the tyranny of public opinion, the resentment and fear of any new ideas, the individual pettiness and jealousies ever-present in human nature. Without anyone intending so, the Annaresti society has become calcified, and the revolution has stalled. Being a rebel, Shevek finds out, is as uncomfortable and costly as it’s ever been.
I’ve seen a few reviews which described the novel as fairly even-handed towards Urras and Annares, but I can’t say that I was left with the same impression. Though Le Guin is clear-eyed and critical about the shortcomings of the Annaresti society, to me it was pretty obvious that her heart is with Annares; the capitalist Urras, in comparison, is portrayed with much broader strokes and with little sense of historical perspective. Near the end of the novel, there’s a brief appearance by a minor character whose perspective on Urras is vastly different to Shevek’s, and provides some counterpoint at least, but otherwise we see Urras exclusively through Shevek’s eyes.
Shevek’s personal, eye-opening journeys on both Annares and Urras are compelling, there’s also real weight to his life-long scientific pursuits. He’s however similar to the protagonist of the previous Le Guin novel I’ve read, Orr from The Lathe of Heaven, in that he’s almost too detached, humourless and insular to really warm up to. In some novels, a romantic subplot may feel utterly superfluous, but with Le Guin’s books so far, I felt that the slow-burn romance introduced into the story did a lot to humanise the main character. She does understand love and the human need for love.
The Dispossessed is the kind of sci-fi I adore: grand in scope, full of ideas and exploration of Big Questions, with imaginary worlds made real through vivid language and descriptions. It obviously draws parallels with our real world, and perhaps more specifically with the Cold War world of 1974 when the book was first published, but also distances this fictional universe far enough for it not to feel dated. Despite the hero’s many disillusionments, it ends on a strikingly optimistic note.