For me, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a treasure — along with The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven, I think, her finest work in science fiction. It brings together so many of her themes in a complex story that is beautifully written and deeply engaging. Themes like coming home, the double-edged problems of walls and barriers that separate people, the difficulty of adapting human nature to a utopian ideal of society, the excesses of capitalism, the complexity of gender and love and, perhaps most centrally, the roles societies of all types impose on individuals.
For this is the story of Shevek, a brilliant temporal physicist who tries to bring two worlds together through the objectivity of science, only to meet frustration and rejection. The Dispossessed presents parallel stories in alternating chapters of Shevek’s efforts to bring his work to the planet of Urras and of his earlier life on Anarres, its sister planet. While this is no action plot, the novel brings these two stories together in a deeply moving way at the end. Like all great fiction, it rewards re-reading with its richness of detail in the worlds and people it explores.
The Dispossessed begins with an angry mob trying to attack Shevek as a traitor for leaving Anarres where for almost two hundred years millions of people have worked hard to create a nearly utopian society based on equality, sharing and a rigorous elimination of power relationships among people. These are the followers of Odo, originator of the social philosophy, very like anarchism, that she formulated while a prisoner on Urras.
The contrast between the two planets could not be more extreme. Anarres is largely an arid and barren place where resources of all types are scarce and have to be carefully managed and shared. Under the Odonian ideals, society is based on radical sharing. Parents come together to have children but not to live in a permanent property and power relationship of marriage. The children are communally raised. Everyone lives for long periods in dormitories, eats in central cafeterias, and learns from the earliest age to share rather to acquire personal wealth or power over anyone else. People are assigned to work in industries where they are most needed, frequently sacrificing personal careers for the greater good.
Urras is a wealthy planet of abundant resources divided into many nations and types of government. A-Io, the country Shevek visits, is as rigorously capitalistic as Anarres is anarchistic. When Shevek arrives there, he is feted as a hero both because he is a brilliant scientist and because he is attempting to bridge the worlds for the first time in two hundred years. He is at first impressed by the opulence, generosity and enthusiasm of the society of scientists that welcome him but gradually calls the surface splendor into question.
He is warned by someone from another country, this one ruled as an authoritarian socialist state, that the Urresti are simply trying to take advantage of him and use his theories for economic and military advantage. Shevek sees more deeply into Urresti society, starting with the discomfort he feels at being so richly rewarded – having money in a bank account, a well-appointed room to himself, specious publicity in newspapers. He teaches at a university but when he tries to overturn the grading system to get students to work on what most interests them, the students themselves object. They want to learn the subjects dictated by the master teacher and need grades to separate themselves into different levels of talent.
All these things rub the wrong way for someone brought up in the austerity and sharing ideals of Anarres. The Urresti are walling him in with riches he has no use for. He finds he cannot work effectively, despite publishing a few papers, and starts exploring parts of the city he is living in without the guidance of his hosts. Eventually, he travels farther afield and encounters a group of revolutionary Odonians who want to make him a leader in their movement.
While that strand of the story works toward its climactic moments, the other strand about his earlier life records Shevek’s much different frustrations on Anarres. Even as a child he runs into the terrifying nature of walls and boundaries that can cut him off from the life he wants. In one dream, he crosses an open area to find his way blocked by a wall that has no opening. He is plunged into despair, feeling that he will never get home, until he sees a number that he perceives as the primal one, embracing both unity and plurality, a cornerstone, a kindly voice announces. He is full of joy because he knows the wall doesn’t exist and he is already home.
Shortly after that dream, he and a group of other boys learn about prison cells from a lesson they were taught about the life of Odo, who spent years imprisoned on Urras while writing her most important book. The boys find a room under their learning center, and one of them volunteers to be locked in to test the experience of being forcibly deprived of liberty. His friends wind up leaving him there for thirty hours. Though weakened and filthy after that ordeal, he doesn’t say much, but the episode has a powerful effect on Shevek, who vomits violently for participating in this boyhood torture. We later find that the incident permanently affected the life of the boy who volunteered and remains a haunting memory for Shevek.
Later, as a young man, Shevek, recognized for his brilliance in mathematics and physics, wins a place at a university under the wing of a physicist named Sabul. Far less talented than Shevek but experienced in university rivalries and politics, Sabul limits what Shevek can explore in his work (another wall) and refuses to publish an especially brilliant book the young man has produced unless he is named as its co-author. That is the beginning of a long period of discontent in Shevek’s life, though he is often at a loss to pinpoint the cause.
The bright side of this period is his relationship with a young woman named Takver who has a child with him. Their love for each other withstands all the stresses of separation caused by postings to distant work assignments and Shevek’s bouts of despair, and one of the most beautiful moments of the novel occurs at their reunion after a four-year separation. It’s one of the most affecting love relationships I have found in Le Guin’s work.
When Shevek, inspired by a rebellious friend, demands to be allowed to visit Urras as part of a scientific exchange project, he finds himself in conflict with some of the most determined ideologues on Anarres. It is this clash that leads eventually to the opening scene of the book, with Shevek under attack as a traitor as he boards a space ship to take him to Urras.
The novel’s structure, so beautifully realized, is suggestive of Shevek’s theories of time as non-linear but primarily is powerful for the many dimensions it adds to the complexity of Shevek as a person. Re-reading The Dispossessed after several years helps me appreciate the richness of detail and the care with which the story is constructed. Le Guin’s exploration of the worlds of Urras and Anarres is incredible, not just for the details of how things work but also for the way she dramatizes the sources of commitment the characters have to their societies. She is always pushing them from the argumentative recitation of ideology to the inner motivations that shape their lives. This is one of the great books of science fiction.