Monday, November 29, 2010

The Dispossessed - Ursula K. Le Guin

My experience with the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin is limited to one short novel and a short story. I enjoyed both and since neither the novel, The Eye of the Heron, nor the short story, The Season of the Ansarac, are considered Le Guin's greatest work so looking a bit further was tempting. Le Guin is one of the very few women to have made it to Gollancz' SF Masterworks lists. Two of her books are included main list, with a third limited to the hardcover series. Her 1974 novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is the first of these, number 16 in the series. Although I will no doubt read The Lathe of Heaven, some time next year,The Dispossessed was higher on the list because of the link with Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain. Reading that novel earlier this year made me curious about Le Guin's book. I can definitely see why it made Kress think.

Some 170 years ago a group of rebel anarchists from the planet Urras made a deal with the government they were rebelling against. In return for an end to the rebellion the movement got a one way trip to the moon, help establishing a colony and a promise to be left alone to implement their vision of what society should look like. At the opening of the story, a society without government, law, authority or personal property has formed on the moon Anarres. The moon is arid, low in resources and life on land has not evolved as far as on Urras. Survival on Anarres is a struggle and luxury of any kind is unknown. Still, people are mostly content to live by the philosophy of the leader of the rebel movement, a woman named Odo.

Despite the freedom and generally peaceful life on Anarres, human nature still has its dark side. Envy, guilt and greed are not so easily left behind. Something the physicist Shevek finds out when he tries to publish a ground-breaking theory on the nature of time. The only people who truly understand and appreciate what he is trying to do live on Urras. He will have to venture into the world of monetary economy, strange forms of government and personal possessions. A move not everybody on Anarres approves of.

I'm pretty sure that whatever I write on this book will not do it justice. I finished it on Sunday night and after sleeping on it, my mind is still reeling with the implications of what Le Guin wrote. I'm simply amazed at what she managed to put into this fairy compact novel in the way of ideas and ideologies and still manage to flesh them out enough to show both their strengths and weaknesses. Society on Anarres and Urras are radically different but Le Guin doesn't present either as right, or even better than the other. The capitalist system Shevek is exposed to, clearly has it's problems, while the anarchy on Anarres only seems workable in a place of extreme isolation.

This novel is full of different modes of governments and political theory but the very first thing that struck me about the novel is the use of language. On Anarres the people speak a constructed language designed by a computer. Their language frowns on the use of possessive pronouns (there is no such thing as personal possessions after all), so it isn't "my book" but "the book I am reading". When there is no longer a reason why the book should be in your possession you are supposed to return it or pass it on to someone who does need it. Le Guin refers to a scientific theory known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis here. This theory, oversimplified, states that language shapes thinking. By removing the possessive entirely, the programmers of this new language hoped to remove an in their eyes perverse impulse from society. I understand the theory is not as popular as it once was, but it does show up in older science fiction novels quite a lot. If I remember correctly, Frank Herbert refers to it in some of his novels and it also shows up in works of people like Jack Vance and Samuel R. Delany to name a few. Whether or not you support this theory, Le Guin does some interesting things with it in this novel.

Besides language, time is also an important element in The Dispossessed. Shevek's researches a new mathematical understanding of time, one that he hopes will lead to a technique that will make it possible to instantly communicate across the vast distances of space. He means to make the current reliance on electromagnetic means of transmitting, which are limited to the speed of light, obsolete. Shevek views time as linear and as a circle, with Le Guin including an analogy of a book. It's all there between the covers but it only makes sense if you look at it in the right order. In line with Shevek's ideas on time, the novel is written out of chronological order, with Shevek's departure being the first chapter followed by chapters set on Urras mixed with chapters describing events that lead up to his decision to leave. In effect the final pages are both the halfway point and end of the novel.

Some say science fiction is a way of looking at the present. This book certainly supports that statement. There is no parallel for the anarchistic society Le Guin describes on Anarres but events on Urras are certainly recognizable enough. The state that hosts Shevek appears to be a laissez faire capitalist state, with a number of neighbours who prefer other political and economic systems. A lot of the politics go right over Shevek's head, he's hopelessly unprepared and very naive about the political minefield he has willing walked into. For the reader, even if these events play in the background to an extend, an outline of the cold war and the smaller conflicts played out on the territory of less powerful states are clear.

I liked both the form and themes of this novel a lot but they do not make for the easiest book to read. A lot of the novel is devoted to Shevek's observations of an alien world and its economic system or his developing theory on time. The long, fairly densely written chapters do no lend themselves to reading in a few stolen moments on your lunch break or right before going to sleep. It is a pretty challenging book some may even say it is dry at certain points in the novel. For me, it was not beyond what I could handle. Many of Shevek's insights were very interesting because they provide a convincing outside view on a capitalist system. His opinions are so convincingly different that I loved every moment of this novel. As far as I am concerned The Dispossessed is an absolute must read for fans of the genre and more than worthy of the shelf full of awards it has collected.

Book Details
Title: The Dispossessed
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 318
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-882-6
First published: 1974


  1. Wow, thanks for reminding me of this classic. Clearly, another one I need to re-read. I still have the pocket edition somewhere, along with Left Hand of Darkness. Most recently I read Malafrena, a 'historical' novel set in an alternate Europe, in which she also uses political themes to tell a very personal story.

  2. Yes, you really should read The Left Hand of Darkness. It just blew me away when I first read it, decades ago. Of course, it might not hold up now, I don't know. But it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards back then, and it's certainly a book any SF fan should probably know.

  3. @ The Arnout: for some reason I kept this one on the to read stack for ages. Le Guin is someone I really should read more of. I'll make a point of it next year.

    @ WCF: The Dispossessed is definitely dated in some respects but it holds up pretty well today. I suspect many of Le Guin's other novels do as well. Besides, I've read SF that's a lot more dated than The Dispossessed is and still enjoyed it. One of the things that always gets me is how many people smoke in 1960s SF novels.