The Dispossessed

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Dispossessed
Ursula K. Le Guin, 1974

Hugo Award Winner - 1975

Premise: Shevek is a physicist on the moon Anarres. The followers of Laia Odo fled the planet Urras several generations ago to settle on Anarres, to create a truly free society, without government, where everyone shares in needed work per their skill. Shevek eventually discovers that freedom and choice might be as complicated as any theory of the universe.

I put off reviewing this book for a long time, because I wasn’t sure what to say. I’m still not entirely sure. As a story of two different societies and a person trying to survive in each, it succeeds very well. It reminds me a little of The Left Hand of Darkness, because that also took as its main character a man seeking to understand a culture foreign to his own. This moved me less than the former book. However, I think it’s because I personally care much more about perception of gender than political theory.

Both Anarres and Urras have problems with their societies, although Urras’s are more vocal, obvious and violent. Anarres is presented as a sort-of utopia. (One of the sometimes-used subtitles for this book is in fact ‘an ambiguous utopia’.) The people are generally happy, there is no poverty or hardship that is not shared by the entire population. However, the descriptions of the shaming and coercion faced by anyone who doesn’t fit the Annarrian ideal - like artists, outliers, romantics - horrified me almost as much as the rioting on Urras. For me, Anarres is no kind of utopia. I have sympathy for some of the stated advantages, but no desire to live on an anarchist planet. It made me a little uncomfortable how much I disliked Anarres, actually, but I couldn’t change my reaction. The ideal of Anarres is presented as a worthy goal, but I had trouble agreeing with any characters that could take the ideal seriously, given the actual reality they faced.

For Le Guin, this book was apparently a thought-experiment; a test to see how an anarchist society could work, and what the flaws would be. From articles I’ve read, it was very successful at the time at convincing its readers why this would be a kind of utopia. Today I find it more successful as a story about a culture clash and one person just trying to muddle through.

It’s a very well written book, although I don’t know that I’d especially recommend it to anyone but Le Guin fans, students of the history of utopian fiction and students of political theory.

3 Stars - A Good Book

List of Hugo Winners

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