RogerBW's Blog

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin 16 June 2017

1974 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning science fiction. Shevek is a physicist working on a new theory of time, but he finds political obstruction even in an anarchist utopia. He travels to the mother world to continue his work.

The most immediate stumbling-block for the reader here is the time-sequence of chapters, starting in the middle of the story and alternating between earlier scenes on Anarres and later ones on Urras in a manner that Iain Banks would later make into his recurring gimmick. Here it's useful to the story as well as providing disorientation, allowing Le Guin to show more clearly the parallel problems Shevek faces on these very different worlds; though it's still somewhat frustrating, in that one often wants to continue with the current narrative rather than jump tracks to the other one.

As fictional anarchist societies go, Anarres is certainly one of the more convincing ones: it's built by fallible people, and although it manages to muddle along most of the time it's broken in significant and non-obvious ways. Urras is less impressive, with its major states as blatant analogues of the USA (capitalism, patriarchy, barely-hidden poverty, left-wing opposition parties) and the USSR (authoritarians ruling in the name of the proletariat), who even engage in a proxy war; this stuff may have worked well at the time but fails for me now. On the other hand, the attitudes on Urras towards Anarres are one of the best things here: they just don't care about those exiled anarchists, and their philosophies are not shaken by the existence of a Perfect Society, as long as the minerals come through on time.

Probably the major theme, though, is the concept of the wall, and its two-sided nature: the "only wall on Anarres", the boundary to the spaceport, can be viewed as keeping those filthy foreigners out of the anarchist paradise, or as keeping the dangerous anarchists inside and away from the rest of society, and the interpersonal walls that people build round themselves have similar effects. It's still heavy-handed at times, but this basically works.

I found Shevek less convincing. At times he works well, in particular in the romantic subplot; but he's too often a tool of the narrative, doing and thinking what needs to be done and thought to keep the story moving in the direction Le Guin wants it to move, and profoundly slow to pick up things about his society which his fellow products of it have known for years.

In the end: still tough going and rarely fun, but I didn't dislike it this time anything like as much as I did The Left Hand of Darkness. Reread for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread.

Series: Hainish Cycle | Next in series: The Left Hand of Darkness

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