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The Dispossessed
Ursula K. Le Guin
Orion Millennium, 319 pages

Chris Moore
The Dispossessed
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin was born in 1929, the daughter of a writer and an anthropologist. She published her first novel, Rocannon's World, in 1966. Her fourth novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, a feat she repeated with The Dispossessed (1974). The Earthsea trilogy established her as a master of fantasy as well as science fiction. She has also published poetry and short story collections, and she received the Pilgrim Award in 1989 for her critical writings.

Ursula K. Le Guin Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

This edition of The Dispossessed is part of Millennium's SF Masterworks series, which describes itself as "a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today's leading SF writers and editors." The series, which includes works by Dick, Zelazny, Silverberg, and Delany, has proven so successful that Millennium plans a similar Fantasy Masterworks series, beginning this year.

The Dispossessed -- which has not been out of print since its original publication in 1974 -- is perhaps Le Guin's most famous work, and arguably her most intellectually challenging. It's a book of opposites: a utopian novel that doesn't flinch from exposing the flaws of its model society, a feminist-themed narrative with a male protagonist, a social commentary that presents communal cooperation as the truest human ideal, yet focuses on the inevitable separateness of the creative individual within such a structure. Through these dichotomies, Le Guin examines the tension between human aspiration and human nature, between what can be dreamed and what can be achieved. This larger theme, together with Le Guin's mature mastery of her craft, give The Dispossessed a universality that has prevented it from becoming dated, despite its roots in the political issues of its time (the communal counterculture of the late 60s and early 70s, the original women's movement).

The Dispossessed takes place on twin planets: Urras, a lush world that supports a number of diverse nations, and Anarres, Urras' arid moon. Two centuries before the story begins, the followers of the anarchist philosopher Odo, seeking an alternative to the oppression and corruption of Urras, established a utopian society on Anarres. The Anarresti anarchists aren't the bomb-throwing, chaos-loving dissidents of popular imagination, but idealists who believe that most human ills grow from living under governments, and that the only just society is one based upon communal sharing, mutual tolerance, and voluntary cooperation. "To make a thief, make an owner," runs one Odonian aphorism; "to create crime, create laws." On Anarres there are no laws, no property, no governors, no nations, no money, no marriage, no police, no prisons. Even the language, deliberately created by the colony's first settlers, reflects anti-propertarian ideals: there are no possessive pronouns.

Shevek is a physicist who possesses the kind of genius that comes only once in many generations. His life's work is to unite the principles of Sequency (time moves forward in a linear fashion, like an arrow) and Simultaneity (all times are present at once; it is we who move) into a General Temporal Theory that, among other things, will make instantaneous communication possible across space. But in the environment of Anarres, he can't complete this work. Anarres, in spite of itself, has evolved a de facto bureaucracy based upon the assertion of custom and the pressure to conform (the "inadmissible government that rules the Odonian society by stifling the individual mind," as one character puts it), and Shevek's theories, diverging radically from conventional Anarresti physics, are not welcome. He isn't barred from exploring them -- Anarresti society doesn't have those kinds of prohibitive mechanisms -- but he is ignored and ostracized, and can't obtain the resources he needs.

The only solution, as Shevek sees it, is to travel to Urras, to the wealthy and decadent nation of A-Io. Despite the almost complete isolation of the two planets, his work is known and respected by the Ioti, and they are eager to help him pursue it. He conceives of his journey not simply as a way to complete his General Theory, but as a mission to break down the wall that divides the two worlds, to begin the process of introducing Anarres and its ideals to the rest of the universe.

In A-Io, Shevek is confronted by the differences between the two societies. As he struggles to assimilate them, he begins to see that the haven he thought he had found is in fact a jail. The willingness of the Ioti physicists to help him stems not from their love of knowledge, but from their greed to possess his work, to use it for their nation's advantage. He faces an impossible dilemma: how, imprisoned by his own choice, can he behave like a free man? How, on Urras, can he remain a true Anarresti?

The Dispossessed tells two separate stories, in alternating chapters: of Shevek's life leading up to his decision to leave Anarres, and of what happens once he reaches Urras. The final chapter of the first story links up with the first chapter of the second, forming a complete narrative. This elegant structure, embodying as it does Shevek's own concept of Simultaneity, allows Le Guin to explore Shevek's character in great depth, and to illuminate each society by her discussion of the other.

While Anarres is an entirely invented culture (Le Guin has said she was attempting to work out how an anarchist society would function in reality, and she has done so, with impressive thoroughness), that of A-Io bears a similarity to the United States, with its hysterical media, its rigid gender roles, its Cold War politics, and its great extremes of luxury and want. Characteristically, Le Guin doesn't present a straightforward critique of this decadent propertarian society. Her condemnation of it is certainly strong (it's here that the book's 70s roots are most apparent), but she also dwells convincingly on its seductive beauties and pleasures -- something Shevek finds hard to balance:

"The dignity and beauty of the room he and Efor were in was as real as the squalor to which Efor was native. To [Shevek] a thinking man's job was not to deny one reality at the expense of the other, but to include and to connect. It was not an easy job."
Equally, in the Anarres sections, Le Guin portrays not just the utopian strengths and joys of communal living, but the problems that accumulate at the intersection of idealism and human nature: the pressure to conformity that is the other side of voluntary cooperation, the tacit political power that accumulates from the exercise of custom, the devaluation of creative ability in a society based principally on practical necessity.

By portraying the limitations of her utopia, Le Guin avoids the one-dimensionality of early utopian fiction; also, by showing the tension between theory and practice, she is able to bring Anarresti ideals into sharper focus. This is an important aspect of the book, for the idea of Anarres, as well as the human ability to conceive that idea, is as vital as the imperfect reality of Anarresti society. Anarres-the-idea -- "an idea of freedom, of change, of human solidarity" -- represents the best of human nature, the fulfillment of its greatest promise, perhaps even the ultimate evolutionary future of all humankind. As such, Anarres-the-idea serves as a powerful touchstone not just to Shevek, but to everyone he encounters: the politicians of A-Io, who fear it as a threat of chaos; the poor workers of Urras, for whom it holds out the hope of successful revolution; the Terrans, who regard it as a choice they have forever forfeited; the ancient Hainish race, who see in it, perhaps, the possibility of something new.

Another theme that's strongly present in The Dispossessed is the manner in which true creativity places an individual at odds with communal society. Shevek's insistence on fulfilling the demands of his prodigious intellect is regarded by his Anarresti colleagues as "egoism," since it takes him down avenues his people don't value, and places individual endeavour above the common good. Shevek understands this, yet the imperative to creative individuality is absolute; at every juncture he puts it first, despite the pain it brings him. Late in the book, he comes to a realization:

"The less he had, the more absolute became his need to be. He recognized that need, in Odonian terms, as his 'cellular function,' the analogic term for the individual's individuality, the work he can do best, therefore his best contribution to his society. A healthy society would let him exercise that optimum function freely, in the coordination of all such functions finding its adaptability and strength... His sense of primary responsibility toward his work did not cut him off from his fellows, from his society, as he had thought. It engaged him with them absolutely."
In other words, by following his own individual star, Shevek is actually a better Odonian than those who condemn him for not conforming. Le Guin thus turns on its head the "I" versus "we" dichotomy of anti-communist critiques such as Ayn Rand's Anthem and Yevgeny Zamiatin's We: the creative "I" is not the ultimate subversion, but the ultimate fulfillment, of the communal "we." If this, like the understandings that motivate Shevek's final choice, doesn't entirely ring true, it may be due to the power and authenticity of Le Guin's earlier portrait of Shevek's isolation -- a truer statement about the shortcomings of communalism than she intended, perhaps, to make.

The Dispossessed isn't always easy reading. It's written in the flowing, limpid style characteristic of Le Guin's earlier works, but the narrative itself is dense and somewhat didactic, and the character of Shevek, while explored in great detail, remains oddly distant. But it is deeply worthwhile reading -- subtle, challenging, exquisitely crafted. In other words, truly an SF masterwork.

Copyright © 2000 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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