The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Freedom is never very safe.”

Every now and again I remember that I enjoy science fiction immensely. It is a genre which is as full as rubbish as any other, sometimes descending into space opera, misogyny and trashy space erotica, but the same can be said for every literary genre. Crime is not populated purely by the Christies and Frenchs, general literature has its beach novels and its formulaic action heroes. At its best science fiction challenges both how we live and how we interact with both others and technology. It reflects our biases and our prejudices back at us in a form which is difficult to reject. It changes the world from Asimov’s three laws of robotics to Arthur C. Clark’s geosynchronous orbit, William Gibson’s coining of cyberspace to Ballard’s uncanny prescience on climate change and our relationship with advertising, science fiction both invades and defines our daily lives. It subverts language and space and time, our perception and understanding of it. The challenge, as with all genres, is separating the wheat from the chaff. Fortunately there are plenty of great names to work with that for the occasional reader it’s pretty easy to avoid the trash.

Ursula Le Guin is not just a great science fiction writer, she’s a great writer. Last year while I was away I read Lathe of Heaven, my first Le Guin, and it was interesting, challenging, but it ended in a slightly unsatisfactory way and for some reason I didn’t review it, I’m not sure why now. The Dispossessed is one of her better known science fiction novels (The Left Hand of Darkness perhaps the most famous, and one I have not yet read), it won a Nebula Award, a Hugo Award and the Locus Award, quite a set of achievements. It is, I discovered, part of the ‘Hainish’ series, the Hainish being a species which are referred to briefly in The Dispossessed, which has further piqued my interest. Science fiction has a way of world building which, if done well, can be utterly convincing and compelling. It can be fun to disappear into an unusual world with strange echoes of our own.

The DisImage result for the dispossessedpossessed tells the story of Shevek. Shevek is a physicist living on te moon Anarres which orbits the planet Urras. Shevek’s home is an arid, difficult and rocky environment on which the inhabitants eke out a living. His race are descended from anarchists who separated from Urras, desiring to live as a community without government or governance, no leadership. What we would term communism, but communism properly realised, without the ‘leadership’ which exists in those parts of the world designated communist here. A system devoid of personal and structural power, in which people do not exercise authority over each other. The Anarres live according to the tenets of Odo, an Urras woman who seeded the anarchist movement, who was imprisoned many times for her beliefs and who herself never left Urras. The people of Anarres live behind a wall, they trade with Urras but on strict terms: no one from Urras can enter Anarres (kind of like Dejima in Nagasaki), fearing what they term are the ‘profiteers’, a culture which exists on the backs of the poor and the disenfranchised. Citizens of Anarres are deterred from ‘egoizing’, which might be described as forceful individualism, there are no prisons and no laws beyond the tenets of Odo (and these, too, are loosely interpreted) and no punishment, there is a created language which avoids possessive terminology – for example, Shevek’s daughter offers him the use of the ‘handkerchief I use’, as opposed to her handkerchief, a denial of possession – people work on what they want to but collective labour is encouraged for the benefit of society first and people are given work assignments, when requested, by a centralised system called ‘Divlab’. No one has any possessions, everything is shared and not owned. The needs of society come before the needs of the individual.

Shevek is working on a unified Theory of Temporality, a scientific breakthrough which will revolutionise communication between worlds. At the opening of the book we see Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras, by this time Shevek is widely considered to be a ‘traitor’ (an interesting concept for a planet without structured law), being the first resident of Anarres to leave his planet. Shevek is concerned with bringing down walls, the first of which is the restrictions which keep Urras out and Anarres in. Yet his society see this as a risky prospect, opening them up to the profiteers who will use Shevek’s ideas to subjugate their world. Yet Shevek still goes. The book then proceeds with alternating chapters – one telling of Shevek’s new life and experiences on Urras, a world which he finds strangely beautiful and compelling, contrasted against his old life on Anarres. Thus we discover Shevek’s back story whilst discovering, with Shevek, how different the ‘old’ world is to the society which has been built on Anarres. At times Shevek is overcome by the beauty, the plenty and the abundance of life on Urras, as he describes here:

“It was the most beautiful view Shevek had ever seen. The tenderness and vitality of the colours, the mixture of rectilinear human design and powerful, proliferate natural contours, the variety and harmony of the elements, gace the impression of a complex wholeness such as he had never seen except, perhaps, foreshadowed on a small scale in certain serene and thoughtful human faces.

Compared to this, every scene Anarres could offer, even the Plain of Abbenay and the gorges of Ne Theras, was meagre: barren, arid, inchoate. The deserts of the South-west had a vast beauty, but it was hostile and timeless. Even where men farmed Anarres most closely their landscape was like a crude sketch in yellow chalk, compared to this fulfilled magnificence of life, rich in the sense of history and of seasons to come, inexhaustible.

This is what a world is supposed to look like, Shevek thought.”

However, Shevek soon comes to realise that he has made a terrible bargain. Though Urras is beautiful on the surface, it hides an ugliness at the heart of its culture. Inequality, authoritarianism and subordination dominate its society. There are wars and violent suppression of demonstrations. Shevek, initially, is shielded from this. His ‘hosts’ (read: jailors) on Urras show him only the surface, their achievements and accomplishments. They seduce him with an array of foods and comforts, the likes of which would never be seen on Anarres. Yet Shevek is not fooled. He knows he cannot trust his hosts, though this is an impossible situation for someone who has been brought up to be open and trusting. He is unused to scheming and the idea of having been ‘bought’ because currency and trade do not exist in his society. Yet the inequality inherent in the society is unavoidable, as Shevek learns early on:

“Shevek turned the conversation, but he went on thinking about it. This matter of superiority and inferiority must be a central one in Urrasti social life. If to respect himself Kimoe had to consider half the human race as inferior to him, how then did women manage to respect themselves – did they consider men inferior? And how did all that affect their sex-lives? He knew from Odo’s writings that, two hundred years ago, the main Urrasti sexual institutions had been ‘marriage’, a partnership authorised and enforced by legal and economic sanctions, and ‘prostitution’, which seemed merely to be a wider term, copulation in the economic mode. Odo had condemned them both; and yet Odo had been ‘married’; and anyhow the institutions might have changed greatly in two hundred years. If he was going to live on Urras and with the Urrasti, he had better find out.”

Through the chapters on Anarres, we learn that the society is not much better there. Whilst the ideology is such that power is not exercised, Shevek finds to his disappointment that his attempts to expand his theory are blocked by vested-interests in his field and restrictions on the ability to publish. He is forced, though force is said not to exist, to share credit for his theories just to enable them to be published and whilst he has been indoctrinated not to ‘egoize’ the dissonance between how his society is supposed to work and how it does work grinds Shevek down. He partners with a woman called Takver and both she and his group of close friends find themselves being persecuted, treated with dismissal or hatred, because of their ideas. They are anarchists on a world said to be built on anarchy, yet Shevek comes to learn that any centralisation becomes prone to abuse, to the seduction of power. As Shevek realises through his experiences on both planets, ‘freedom is never very safe,’ one has to fight for it, risk for it, and demand it at all turns. It is a powerful message, made more powerful by the intricate structure of the book and the idealism of the character of Shevek, a man who finds himself an outsider wherever he turns.

The Dispossessed is a very clever book, beautifully written and absorbing. Le Guin has the ability to combine examination of complex ideas with an entertaining story so that you find yourself swept up in it whilst never failing to recognise the concepts she’s exploring. By contrasting the cultures of Urras and Anarres as she does, she reveals the positives and the failings of both systems, she manages to remain entirely non-partisan all the way through because it is in Shevek, the man who combines the best of both of these worlds, that the ideal exists. She does not set one society above the other, she simply explores the ways in which each society results in hardship and for some whilst enabling others. Whilst the setting is alien, the concepts are not and it is easy to see Urras as the decadent West and Anarres as communist Russia or China, though the communist systems as we’ve lived them have never been a true leaderless society (as, arguable, Anarres is not either). Le Guin plays with the way language can be used to shape and control behaviour, and she explores cultural assumptions which we live with today with a clinical and unfiltered eye, such that it leads you to question the validity of some of our cultural practices, the way we justify them and the mechanisms that are used to enforce them. It is a book which asks what it means to be free, how we secure individual and collective freedoms without compromising the freedoms of others. It is as timely a book now as when it was written in the ‘70s, perhaps more so given the rise of populism which is, to a degree, controlled and directed by a small number of vested interests. It has reinforced my love of science fiction, my respect for Le Guin, and the importance of literature in general. All whilst being very entertaining and enjoyable to read.

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About bookbii

I'm an ordinary woman living an ordinary life in an ordinary place, and it is quietly wonderful
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4 Responses to The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. JacquiWine says:

    I really like the way you’ve introduced this piece, Belinda – it puts the genre into a broader context. I often think that the best sci-fi can gives us fresh insights into our own society, both the positive aspects and the negative ones. It sounds as if that’s the case here.

    • bookbii says:

      Thanks Jacqui 🙂 science fiction has a bit of a poor reputation, I think, but it can be extremely powerful. Le Guin seems to be a great writer, whether in fiction or non-fiction, science fiction or fantasy.

  2. SimplyMe says:

    The only Le Guin I have read is The Left Hand of Darkness, which to this day occupies a spot in my bookcase. Regarding The Dispossessed, you wrote: “It is a book which asks what it means to be free, how we secure individual and collective freedoms without compromising the freedoms of others.” I do not think there is a definitive answer to this question conceptually; I do think it is in the ongoing act of asking this question that we move towards greater and lesser realizations. In this sense, writers, like Le Guin, and all artists who touch us provide a service to the world; they engage us more fully in the questions themselves.

    • bookbii says:

      I think you make a great point Jan. Le Guin is cautious to show that neither society is ‘perfect’, it has its flaws and its merits, but the mere act of questioning and examining helps us to think more about how we fit into our own societies and how we shape our behaviour so that it reflects our values. But also I think it enables us to see how, for some people, the pressure points can bring out the worst and help us to empathise with experiences which are somehow quite unlike our own.
      I take your comment concerning The Left Hand of Darkness as a strong recommendation! I will have to track down a copy, thanks 🙂

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