Book review: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed is one of the most awarded science fiction novels. It won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, and has been widely recognized even outside its sci-fi genre. With a good reason, I may add: the book crosses over genres and at times feels more like a philosophical diatribe than a science fiction novel. However, it can also be confusing and difficult to read, especially for people not prepared to deal with such a radical departure from traditional sci-fi. I was one of such readers, and I can unequivocally state that I did not like this book.

My second foray into Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle books has left me bored, at best. I missed a coherent storyline, found the political dialogue too long and convoluted, and the characters were unlikable. This puts me into an unenviable minority position, but if there is one thing I took away from the book, it is that I should stand by my convictions.

The book takes place on the twin worlds of Anarres and Urras. They are orbiting each other, and their inhabitants are regarding the other world as their moon. Urras has advanced industrial, social and political systems, and is very Earth-like. Anarres, on the other hand, is a desert planet, attractive only for its mineral resources. To quell a revolt on Urras, the revolutionaries were granted the right to settle on Anarres and create their own society. They created a strict egalitarian communal life there.

Most reviews, including Le Guin herself would call the political system on Anarres anarchistic, but I personally see anarchism as individualistic. I find the system in the novel to be more communal, with the society at large enforcing very rigid patterns of behavior, primarily via ostracism as the main punishment. Private property does not exist, and being called a propertarian or profiteer is one of the worst offenses one can suffer. This extends to thought as well: private ideas are to be shared, in an understandable way, so that a person isn’t seen as showing off his intellect against others. Doing so is called “egoizing”.

On this planet, the gifted child Shevek grows into a brilliant physicist. Thanks to his high intellect he has been accused of egoizing for almost his entire life. Even though he is trying his best to be a good citizen, husband, father and a scientist, he keeps crashing into rigid societal barriers of his commune. When his family gets ostracized by the society for his perceived transgressions, he grows disillusioned and decides to try his luck over at Urras.

The only link between Anarres and Urras is a shuttle service where minerals are shipped off Anarres, in exchange for food and other goods. On Anarres, no person can move over the fence separating the spaceport and the rest of the planet. Shevek is the first in a generation, and he almost gets killed doing so. He also understands that this would be a one-way trip, as he wouldn’t be allowed to go back. He boards the ship and travels to Urras.

There, he is welcomed with open arms and immediately presented with their version of the Nobel prize, which he had been awarded in absence a few years earlier. He is given professorship on a university and essentially free reign to continue his research. He comes up with a concept of instantaneous communication (this technology was later used in other Hainish Cycle novels, in particular The Left hand of Darkness). However, despite the newly found luxury and comfort of living, Shevek soon begins to understand that he’s worse off than before. Urras is divided into several countries that wage proxy wars, and his theory could significantly alter the balance of power. He is spied upon and has to hide his findings. He also misunderstands the local social norms, which leads to awkward situations ranging from a simple miscommunication to attempted rape. Towards the end, he gets entangled with class protests and ends up at the receiving end of a massacre of the protesting working class. He manages to escape to the Hainish embassy (Hainish are the people who dominate the universe and attempt to bring all planets into a trade union), where he gives away his technology for free, under the stipulation that it is freely disseminated to all interested parties.

Most reviews don’t go into such a detail with the plot, as there is little more than what I described, and the vast majority of the book is in the form of political or philosophical dialogue. Shevek is trying to explain the political philosophy under which he grew up to the people on Urras, but while on Anarres he argues against the social norms, which seemed to rigidify in the years since the colonization. The Anarresti society is so extreme that I had trouble identifying with it, even though Le Guin seemed to indicate that in its pure form it was the ideal political arrangement. All the while, Urran society was familiar, but then the author came out of left field with the brutal killing of protesters, which was more from the pages of Stalinist Russia than a capitalist system.

I personally found the political discussions uninteresting. For me, neither society was analogous to anything in the real world, and even as an allegory it was off its mark. The politics on both ends was also incredibly frustrating: even though I didn’t like Shevek, I was rooting for his quest to develop a new theory, which would change his world. Instead, he kept running into political obstacles along his entire way, and then had to resort to a very quick cop-out by finding a third party, which he would burden with his work.

Speaking of my dislike of Shevek, Le Guin is not known for creating likable characters. They are always flawed; most commonly blinded by ambition or so entrenched in their worldview that they are incapable of empathizing with people from other cultures. The latter was very evident in The Left Hand of Darkness, where the plot was being kept alive by the continuous misunderstanding of the offence of sounding patronizing. It is also true here: Shevek, despite leaving Anarres, is at heart an Anarresti, and can’t get used to the idea of owning something, including his knowledge. His acquaintances on Urras get frustrated with him and his perceived passivity, just like I did. Even the attempted rape came from trying to apply the Anarresti sexual behavior on a Urrasti woman. Overall, however, Shevek seems incapable of learning or at least accepting different societal norms, and this made him unsympathetic to me.

The last issue I’ve had with the book is the writing style. The chapters alternate between Shevek’s life on Anarres and his new life on Urras. This, along with all personal names being unfamiliar and often sounding similar, confused me to no end. It sometimes took several pages into a chapter to realize what planet I was on. If I ever re-read the book, I will be skipping chapters to create a single continuous narrative for myself.

All that said, there have been positive aspects to the book. Le Guin is incredible when it comes to worldbuilding. Not in a physical sense, at least in this book, but in a societal one. She again managed to create societies that are varied, with deep histories and a justification for their present form. Despite the extreme forms the different societies have, they are not rigid, but have evolved over time, and the author is very good at tracking this evolution. She spares no detail, and even though I was sometimes grumbling at the level of detail, I must admire her for it.

The Dispossessed is not a book for everyone. I think its biggest flaw is that it bills itself as a science fiction novel, even though it is much removed from the sci-fi norm. The sci-fi elements can be summed into two: twin inhabited planets that trade with each other, and a faster than light communication technology. Everything else is political philosophy. I approached the book as another Hugo winner, and was bitterly disappointed at the relative lack of a story. Had I expected something different and been in a mood for such a book, I probably would have liked it better. Be it as it is, though, this novel is among my least favorite Hugo winners.

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