The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Isaac Yuen
“You are our history. We are perhaps your future. I want to learn, not ignore. It is the reason I came. We must know each other. We are not primitive men. Our morality is no longer tribal, it cannot be. Such ignorance is a wrong, from which wrong will arise. So I come to learn.” (p 75)
The Dispossessed features two diametrically opposing societies: Urras is technologically advanced and ecologically balanced, but suffers from extreme social injustice. Anarres is strong in the areas of equality and human relations, but lacks non-human connections and entrepreneurial innovation. A lot of Le Guin’s personal Taoist philosophy can be seen in this fictional universe – each world’s weakness is its counterpart’s strength and vice versa, the yin to the other’s yang. Yet Urras and Anarres also share something in common, a tragic fundamental flaw. Both are only aware of the present, ignorant of the realities of their shared pasts and the possibility of new futures. On Urras, Vea proclaims that the horrific injustices of past centuries “couldn’t happen now” (p 217), even as fellow citizens suffer in nearby slums (p 291) and are shot dead by the State (p 302). On Anarres, Shevek’s mother Rulag clings stubbornly to isolationist attitudes seven generations old, perceiving the rest of humanity as enemies of society. (p 355) Indoctrinated by propaganda and shaped by social norms, many Urrasti and Anarresti can no longer envision change, have become afraid to take risks, and so have lost the ability to imagine a better society. Things are as they are and must always be. Shevek serves as witness to both worlds’ failings. Acting out of his own initiative, he disrupts the status quo, embarking on a journey to “shake things up, to store, up, to break some habits, to get people asking questions” (p 384). Whether he succeeds in affecting lasting change in either society is left deliberately unresolved (a wise decision, I think). The A-Io government crushes the working class demonstration. Shevek travels home not knowing what kind of reception he will receive when he steps foot on Anarres. True to real-life, nothing is ever safe or certain for revolutions or revolutionaries. But by the end of the story, new conditions have been created, and with it, new hopes and possibilities.
Shevek’s struggle to connect Urras and Anarres parallels his work as a physicist. Throughout The Dispossessed, Shevek attempts to merge the theory of Sequency – the notion that time is linear and successive, with the theory of Simultaneity – the idea that time is cyclical and eternal. This proves impossible until he learns to embrace and accept time’s inherent contradiction, to grant legitimacy for its dual nature to coexist as a whole. One of the things I love about The Dispossessed is how Le Guin portrays science and those who do science – I find that few authors do either justice. Her depiction of temporal physics strikes a careful balance – it feels real without getting too abstruse or explanatory. In Shevek Le Guin beautifully captures the temperament and nuances of a great scientist: That innate curiosity towards the world; a singular dedication to work; the craving for an exchange of ideas; a lifelong passion for grasping a larger truth. To me, Shevek embodies the essence of the scientific spirit, with roots in the natural philosophy of the ancient Greeks.
Many people think science is about the end products – novel inventions, new technologies, gadgets for easier living. But while it may lead to such things, The Dispossessed’s portrayal of science and scientists reminds me that science is at its heart a method of inquiry, a process used to both better understand and appreciate the universe, and done by real and flawed human beings to derive meaning and purpose. As Shevek’s story demonstrates, this can be an extremely frustrating and difficult journey. But it is one well worth taking.
Walls are the central recurring image in The Dispossessed. Throughout his life, Shevek encounters many negative ones, constructed upon foundations of manipulation and exploitation. In a supposedly egalitarian society, he experiences how his colleague Sabul wields public opinion and ignorance to control the flow of new ideas and gain power over others. On Urras, Shevek sees how the elites wall themselves off from the suffering of their brethren with their possessions and status. On a societal level, he recognizes how Anarres has barricaded itself not only from Urras, but from the planets of Hain and Terra and the rest of humanity. At each turn, Shevek strives to unbuild these walls, but at great personal cost: He is dismissed from the Physics Institute, branded a traitor by his fellow Anarresti for reaching out to other worlds, and targeted as an insurrectionist by the A-Ioti government. Yet Shevek continues to take the risks. His story makes a strong case for Roosevelt’s adage that “nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, and difficulty”. By suffering dearly, by understanding that “even pain counts”, by “working with time instead of against it” (p 335), Shevek comes to realize what he is capable of, how he can best serve his society, and how to walk the path towards a meaningful life.
In a fascinating paper in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Harvard researchers explore the differences between living a happy versus a meaningful life. Happiness, they found, is “mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money” (p 14). Meaningfulness, however, is “linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others” (p 14), with its undertaking often involving choices that directly diminish happiness. While there are overlapping factors that contribute to both qualities, the researchers argue that happiness is primarily a present-oriented endeavour, while meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. This connects strongly to The Dispossessed. As one who sees life through the lens of time, Shevek uses temporal physics to frame his thoughts on pursuing happiness without meaning and on fidelity’s role in creating purpose:
“Fulfillment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell. It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.” (p 334)
Out of everything in the novel, it is Shevek’s realization of promise as temporal reconciliation that most resonates with me. For Shevek, fulfillment comes from understanding the consequences of one’s past actions and using one’s freedom to create a responsible, compassionate, and ethical future. This line of thought is tremendously appealing.
“Because our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.” (p 225)
I’ve always wondered what draws me to environmentalism. It is not guilt like it is for so many, nor anger – I have not the stamina to sustain it. Yet love, that all encompassing reverence so many feel towards nature doesn’t quite fit either. As I reread The Dispossessed and reflect upon my life, I can see that perhaps like Shevek, it arises from a desire to understand cause and effect, means and ends. Blessed with the freedom to do anything, perhaps I chose environmentalism because it brings to light the consequences of human action on the global community, casts the widest net for responsibility, and is the most challenging to develop an ethic for. How shall I empathize with an ecosystem? What are my duties to a swarm of mosquitoes? How should I feel about the farmer who burns down a forest to provide for his family? What can I do to connect with a CEO who whole-heartedly believes his company makes the world a better place? These are hard questions to grapple with. But as Le Guin writes, “the human being likes to be challenged, seeks freedom in adversity” (p 246). Neither is the label of an environmentalist an easy thing to take on. It is an identity steeped in hypocrisy and contradiction, often saddled with despair and uncertainties. But I realize now that it has never occurred to me to escape the difficulty by denying the commitment, for the cause has grounded my life and given me purpose, even as it leads to much headache and heartache, especially in light of the ecological crisis we face today. But promises are like that, as Le Guin again notes:
“A promise is a direction taken, a self-limitation of choice. As Odo pointed out if no direction is taken, if one goes nowhere, no change will occur. One’s freedom to choose and to change will be unused, exactly as if one were in jail, a jail of one’s own building, a maze in which no one way is better than any other. So Odo came to see the promise, the pledge, the idea of fidelity, as essential in the complexity of freedom.” (p 244)
And so I choose to keep coming back, to my path, and to this book. As it is for Shevek, the process of undertaking and keeping promises gives me direction, affords me the chance to try, to do better and be better, as an individual, a partner, a steward, and a citizen. I may never get there, and things always going to be a work-in-progress, but I am excited to continue to learn, grow, write, think and connect. There’s so much more to say about the intellectual and emotional journeys The Dispossessed continues to take me on, but I fear doing what Hannah Arendt warns against: To define the story so much that its power is lost. So I will leave things “a bit broken loose” (p 384). For those who have read the novel, I hope this revisit helps spark what the book means to you. To those who haven’t, I hope this series will help you discover Shevek’s story for yourself.