The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Megan AM

This 1975 Hugo Award winner is probably the most literary bit of SF I’ve read all year. I’ve never read Le Guin before, but Jo Walton’s Among Others referenced her quite a bit, and made me eager to try her out. I’m glad I did.

Le Guin’s writing is beautiful. Nearly every page, especially for the first half of the novel, contains brilliant observations about the human condition, written in delicate language usually reserved only for high literature. This isn’t sci-fi. This is Literature with a big “L”.

It’s Literature that happens to be about a brilliant alien physicist who lives on an anarchist planet that was settled 180 years prior. As he works to discover a unifying Theory of Time, he finds his ideas stifled by the customs and needs of his anarchist community. He opts to continue his work on a neighboring planet, the planet of origin of his people, where capitalism and militarism reign, and where his work becomes threatened by the possibility of state ownership. This is a story about the tyranny of society, regardless of its legal and political system (or lack thereof), and the strength of the individual in combating that tyranny.

The story is secondary to the backdrop, which is why the second half of the novel dragged. I was much more intrigued by the first half, during which the world-building and philosophizing took place. However, as the worlds of Annares and Urras developed, the story unfolded and I found myself less eager to continue reading. Despite that, it was a beautiful book, and I would recommend it to anyone. Regardless of its vintage publication date, the themes and problems in The Dispossessed are easily transferable to modern times, and it doesn’t read like cheesy ’60’s/’70’s SF. This is a thinking person’s SF novel. Get out your highlighter.

Some quotes:

“A scientist can pretend that his work isn’t himself, it’s merely the impersonal truth. An artist can’t hide behind the truth. He can’t hide anywhere.”

“Nothing said in words ever came out quite even. Things in words got twisted and ran together, instead of staying straight and fitting together.”

“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”

“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.”

Enjoy!

This review originally appeared on From couch to moon.

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The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

the-dispossessedThe 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.

This review originally appeared on Ekostories, and is the final part of four-part discussion of The Dispossessed. See parts one, two and three here, here and here.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

the-dispossessedThe Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Shannon Turlington

You shall not go down twice to the same river, nor can you go home again. That he knew; indeed it was the basis of his view of the world. Yet from that acceptance of transience he evolved his vast theory, wherein what is most changeable is shown to be fullest of eternity, and your relationship to the river, and the river’s relationship to you and to itself, turns out to be at once more complex and more reassuring than a mere lack of identity. You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.

Long after I closed this book for the night and lay waiting for sleep to catch up with me, I thought about what I’d read, about the ideas posed by the novel’s premise and characters, and the implications for my own life and our society. That’s a sign of a book that’s definitely worth reading.

The story is set in the future on a distant planet, Urras, and its moon, Anarres. The culture on Urras is similar to ours: capitalist, competitive, with a huge gap between haves and have-nots. One hundred and fifty years ago in Urras’ history, a group of anarchists rebelled against this way of life. They settled on — or were exiled to, depending on your point of view — Anarres, a desert world where they built a subsistence society based on the premises of no government and no ownership of private property.

Despite the difficulties of their environment, life on Anarres is like a simple Eden. No one goes hungry while others eat. No one goes without a sheltered place to sleep at night. People work and study at what they enjoy, travel where and when they want, and everyone communally shares the necessary but non-glamorous jobs. Without commercialism to occupy them, people spend their time working, learning and socializing. Even an eight-hour workday is considered unusually long.

Of course, there are problems in this utopia, which have at their root the conflict between the continued survival of the society and the human drive to assert ourselves as individuals, to push the boundaries and explore new ideas. Without a government, Anarres is ruled by societal approval. Challenges to the status quo are unwelcome, and the challenger is often shunned.

This is the situation that the main character, a physicist named Shevek, finds himself in. He is on the cutting edge of theoretical physics but unable to progress in a society that does not want his work. So he begins communicating with physicists on Urras, and becomes convinced that he needs to be the first Anarresti to travel back to Urras in order to shake up his own society and return them to their anarchist roots.

The Dispossessed plays on the theme of time in many ways. The narrative is divided into two timelines: the present, when Shevek is living on Urras, contrasted with the Shevek’s past life on Anarres and growing discontent with his own society. Shevek’s physics are also concerned with time; applications of his theories could make possible faster-than-light space travel and instantaneous communication across space to other known worlds, including our Earth (called Terra).

The four cultures of humans portrayed in the novel — Urras, Anarres, Terra and another planet called Hain — also represent four possible timelines of the human species. Urras is most like modern-day culture, if exaggerated; consumption, possessions and power are all highly valued. Terra’s future warns of the consequences of such excess, a planet made desert by the waste of previous generations, now trying only to survive. Contrasted with these outcomes are the alternate paths proposed by Hain and Anarres. We are not told much about Hain, only that it is a very advanced civilization, which helped save the Terrans. It seems only fitting that when Shevek finally returns to Anarres, the only person who wants to accompany him and learn from him is Hainish.

This novel is rich and meaty, full of ideas and keen observations of human nature. Like the dusty plains of Anarres, it takes some time to get used to Le Guin’s dry writing style, which incorporates hard science and spare prose. But give it time and you will find many fascinating landscapes to explore.

This review originally appeared on Books Worth Reading.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)the-dispossessed
Review by Adam Whitehead

Shevek is a brilliant physicist from the barren anarchist world of Anarres. His work could revolutionise interstellar society, permitting instantaneous communication – maybe even instantaneous travel – between the worlds of humanity. But, in contrast to the idealism of Anarres, he finds his work undervalued and even repressed by jealous colleagues. Frustrated, he travels to Anarres’s capitalist sister world of Urras, hoping to find more tolerance there but instead becoming embroiled in politics, rebellion and war.

The Dispossessed is widely considered to be one of Ursula Le Guin’s finest novels and is arguably her most ambitious work. The book asks nothing less than how best should human society function and by what means. Le Guin picks two popular models, that of a semi-communist state and a capitalist one, and pits them against one another. She is not interested in ‘proving’ the values of one over the other, instead comparing and contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of both and also the affect they have on the individual, particularly on the individual who has a great, transformational idea but whom is seen by others purely as a pawn or something to be crushed.

The novel relies on this thematic idea to sustain it, but the actual plot structure is also intriguing. The book alternates chapters between the present-day storyline (Shevek on Urras) and events in his past (Shevek growing up on Anarres). We see the present-day Shevek as being an open-minded, questioning individual and how he has changed from his earlier incarnation as a blinkered man who accepts dogmatic ideas as fact (such as the notion that Urras is a corrupt capitalist state that will one day destroy itself), with later Anarres chapter depicting his shift in belief and motivation. Le Guin constantly has Shevek developing as a character even as she develops her ideas and the setting of the two worlds.

The novel’s greatest strength is its depiction of someone who seeks simple answers and is instead rewarded with having his worldview broadened and made more complicated. Shevek sees Urras as the answer to all his problems but instead of the utopia he was hoping for he finds a cluster of nations all feuding with one another (at one point fighting a Vietnam-style proxy war between two superpowers with the rulers acknowledging that nothing will change, only thousands dying for no real goal). Anarres is not rose-painted either: the world is desolate, the people poor and, for all of their freedom of choice, are often forced into jobs and roles they despise and are not well suited-for. The book is sometimes criticised for condemning capitalism and promoting communism/anarchism, but it’s more complex than that. Le Guin’s argument appears to be that all human societies are prone to dysfunction and corruption, no matter how well-meaning people are.

The novel’s ending is intriguing, as Shevek’s conflicted views are commented upon by an outsider (an ambassador from an Earth ruined by war and ecological disaster) and her analysis spurs him to reconsider his approach. However, the book somewhat abruptly ends before Shevek’s return to Anarres with him not having reached a conclusion. This is presumably because any answer would be unsatisfying and simplistic. Instead we are left with the questions, which are far more interesting.

The Dispossessed is a thought-provoking novel that does not attempt to simplify complex matters and combines fascinating worldbuilding and character development with a refreshing plot structure and some rich prose.

This review originally appeared on The Wertzone.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin

The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (1974)
Review by Paul Graham Raven

Ursula le Guin is lauded not only as an author who has been unashamed to admit to being a genre writer, but also as one who has pushed the limits of the genre as literature by dealing with serious themes in sfnal settings. The Dispossessed is a prime example of this, exploring as it does the ideological conflict between two opposing cultural and political hegemonies.

Shevek is a theoretical physicist from the arid planet of Anarres, which is a satellite of the more verdant Urras. Anarres is home to an anarcho-syndicalist culture, created by a revolutionary splinter of Urras’ population a century and a half in the past. When their demands for freedom became untenable to the ‘propertarian’ governments, they were permitted to secede and colonise Anarres, whose only natural resources of any worth or note are deposits of metal ores that are in short supply on Urras.

Thus Anarres became a sealed enclave; the only contact between the two planets are the spaceships that bring certain essentials in return for taking metals back to Urras. Shevek, an idealist, and a revolutionary among revolutionaries, has come to believe that some sort of mutual exchange between the cultures is not only possible but necessary. He sees his scientific discoveries as something that should be shared for the benefit all people, not just his own.

On his homeworld, Shevek’s ideas are considered deeply inappropriate. Despite the lip-service paid by the Anarresti to the notion of freedom from constraint, their anarchism has become a rote tradition, stagnated and stultified by the powers of convention and consensus – by kowtowing to their nominal freedoms, they have locked themselves into a way of life that frowns upon any change or challenge to the status quo. Their revolutionary ideas have become dogmatic and unquestionable. Over the years, Shevek and his close friends work against this attitude, suffering from the contempt and anger of their fellow Anarresti.

Eventually, having formed their own syndicate to lobby for the need for change and progress, Shevek volunteers to go to Urras, to exchange his scientific ideas and to act as a hand extended in good faith. Despite serious resistance to his actions, the lack of active enforcement on Anarres means he can go, leaving the world he was raised on for one that has always been in clear sight, yet also utterly out of reach.

Urras is a world of nation-states, each operating a different flavour of government. Shevek is hosted by a university in A-Io, whose dominant mode is closest to the ostensibly democratic capitalism that is so familiar to Europe and North America. Shevek is, unsurprisingly, ill prepared to deal with the duplicity and power-plays that make up the day to day interactions between people on Urras; for all the flaws of syndicalist Anarres, it has nothing analogous to the iniquities that the private ownership of objects and ideas has produced on the richer planet. Idealistically striving to be an exemplar of his homeworld’s way of life, and at first blissfully ignorant of the extent to which he is being exploited through his own good will, Shevek ends up as a political playing piece, spied upon, mocked behind his back and shielded from seeing the dark underside of A-Io’s culture.

Examining politics through storytelling is a risky business, and many books that do so end up stamped with a partisan patina of the author’s own attitudes. The triumph of The Dispossessed is its utter lack of bias to either side of the equation. Far from idealising and glorifying the syndicalism of Anarres, le Guin is careful to show its flaws as well as its benefits – while arguably more free than the people of Urras, they live a hand-to-mouth existence that allows few luxuries and little development of technology or science that has no immediate practical value. While free of rigid hierarchies and class conflicts, their social system is poorly equipped to cope with natural disasters such as drought and famine, which turns their lives into a Benthamist struggle for survival.

Likewise, Urras is depicted using this ‘warts and all’ approach. The institutional iniquities and inequalities of capitalism are present, but le Guin also shows the many benefits of such a system – art, science, variety, plenty and choice. Shevek himself is somewhat seduced by these cultural aspects during his early days on the planet, as well as by the beauty of a world with a plentiful biosphere, but due to his previous life in a world where the notion of property is anathema, circumscribed and stigmatised by doctrine, he cannot help but see the terrible consequences from an outsider’s perspective. Shevek is in many respects a perpetual exile – his ideals and intellectually aloof character mean that he is as out of place on the planet of his birth as he is on Urras, and as such he makes the perfect lens through which the reader can observe the two cultures.

The differences between the two societies are carefully mirrored and enhanced by the relative differences between the planetary environments that host them. Urras is a verdant world, covered with agriculture that provides a variety of foodstuffs, whereas Anarres is an arid place with an attenuated biosphere. This means that a huge amount of manual labour is a necessity for Anarres to be able to feed itself – this subsistence economy ensures that the syndicalist culture isn’t portrayed as some simple utopia.

Similarly, Urras is not painted as a world ravaged by rampant capitalism – indeed, with the exception of the working class slums it is described as a beautiful place, home to rich historical architecture and vast tracts of land where nature rules. There is further emphasis in the form of the interwoven narrative – alternate chapters, one following Shevek’s adventures on Urras, then one describing his former life on Anarres, juxtaposing the wildly different experiences of life under the two systems.

Far more than just a simple story of ‘anarchy versus The System’, the outer framework of the ideological binary allows a great number of interrelated themes to be examined: this is a book about people living under ideologies, people as pawns of power; about the clash of idealism and realism; about the dichotomy between the word of the law and the spirit of the law; about hypocrisy and two-facedness; sacrifice and concession; defiance and repentance and the making of amends.

Running right through the book from the first page to the last is a symbol that binds the whole tale together – the symbol of the wall, used to represent and evoke division at every level. The wall is not just the schism between Urras and Anarres and their respective political systems. It is also the division of convention, resistance to change; the division of property and ownership, and the barriers built between individuals; and the division of personal assumptions and comprehension, the walls we all build inside our own minds.

To write a story examining this clash of ideologies would have been almost impossible without the sfnal conceit of the binary pair of planets; geographical separation alone could not have provided the isolation necessary to allow Anarres to exist as it is described. But although the central theme of the book is deeply political, it is far more than just a set of ideological comparisons, which would have made for a dull read even at the hands of an author of le Guin’s stature.

Instead, The Dispossessed is a deep and passionate examination of human nature, both at the macro- and microcosmic scales. The characterisation is excellent; Shevek and his unconventional comrades are vividly portrayed, their foibles and flaws and the dramas that occur in their lives are described in intimate and touching language. The passages dealing with interpersonal relationships are some of the most moving prose a reader could hope to find in the entire canon of the English language.

The Dispossessed is astonishingly rewarding, a powerful and moving novel whose themes will linger in the memory for a long time. Detailed but uncluttered, vast in scope but centred around a believable and sympathetic character’s efforts to change himself and the world around him, this book is everything that science fiction is frequently criticised for not being. The sfnal tropes and conceits, rather than being thrust into the foreground, are merely frames within which the story can be painted properly. The compassion and lack of vitriol make it a rarity among all books; the honesty of the storytelling and the avoidance of advocacy mean that The Dispossessed is still deeply relevant in today’s political climate, and will remain so for years to come – a crucial read for devotees of serious science fiction, and an excellent exemplar to give to science fiction’s most vocal critics.

This review originally appeared on Velcro City Tourist Board.