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The Dispossessed

by Ursula K. Le Guin


This was the 22nd winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
It was awarded in 1975 at the 33rd Worldcon, Aussiecon One, in Melbourne, Australia.

This review was originally published at The Nameless Zine in October 2020.



In 1970, Ursula K. Le Guin became the first woman to win the Hugo for Best Novel when The Left Hand of Darkness allowed her to break seventeen years of glass ceiling. Half a decade later, in 1975, she became the second woman to win that Hugo, with The Dispossessed, like the prior book part of a series called the Hainish Cycle.

I appreciated The Left Hand of Darkness more than I enjoyed it. I liked it and its core ideas but it broke down into very different sections and it felt a little disjointed. This book plays very consistently and I liked it more, even though it's a slow and patient read, philosophical and talky with deeply fleshed out characters, some of which are societies, and very little happens for the majority of almost four hundred pages.

We're at a point in the not too distant future, maybe a few hundred years from now, and in the Tau Ceti system, where an interesting social experiment has been underway for a couple of hundred years. A good chunk of the population of Urras, a vaguely Earthlike world, associated not by nationality but by anarchist philosophy, chose to leave the planet entirely and colonise the "moon", Anarres instead. I put moon in quotes as planet/moon suggests dominant/subservient, but, at the point we join this scenario, the people of Anarres see Urras as the own moon, suggesting two different but equivalent worlds in a strange balance.

We see both worlds through the eyes of Shevet, a physicist of great renown on Anarres who is also widely read on Urras. He finds himself stifled by the status quo, so travels to Urras, the first to take that journey in 160 years, so stirring the pot in a way not entirely dissimilar to how Michael Valentine Smith did on Earth in Stranger in a Strange Land.

This is more than a decade newer than that book, but it holds up far better to my mind. More consistent, less objectionable and far more focused, this one seems to have a point, even if we sometimes wonder exactly where it's all going, especially when it becomes clear that the core difference in philosophy isn't going to find any resolution within these pages.

I guess this counts as a utopian novel, though it's hardly an assured one, because this anarchist commune-like society has flaws and perhaps deep ones. The chapters alternate between Shevet's present on Urras, learning how society there works (or, in some instances, doesn't), and his past on Anarres, a set of flashbacks exploring at least a decade of his life, if not more. However, they're all told from Shevet's perspective so we're conditioned to be on his side from the outset. Even if he finds friction with his society, he still believes that it's the way to go and that it can be fixed.

It's a fascinating society and it's well drawn, through good times and bad, the latter especially evident during a famine that lasts four years. Anarres is a tough world. There are no animals except for fish in the oceans. There are precious few plants either, so a particular tree is a critical source for food and material. Even a couple of hundred years in, it's a frontier sort of society.

However, it's anarchist in nature, following the teachings of a lady named Odo. Nobody owns anything and that's changed not just society but language because the possessive is not used on Anarres. If you need something, you check it out and take it back when you're done. There are no laws, society finding a balance where undesirable behaviour prompts treatment. The government is not really a government, just an organisational tool to allocate people to work. However, those people do the work they want to do, without being forced to do so.

Le Guin explores this society deeply but not blindly and it's easily the biggest success of this book. I'm used to writers building utopian or dystopian societies, but reality isn't as accepting of such extremes. Anarres is clearly an experiment that has mostly succeeded, but it's not perfect and it's not a utopia. If it was, Shevet wouldn't have had to leave to see Urras and, by exploring another society, better see the value of his own.

One of the most telling scenes in the book comes late on when Shevet has realised why the people of A-Io, one of the states of Urras, allowed him to come and why they welcomed him with such generosity. Escaping the metaphorical walls they'd built around him to discover the darker side of A-Io society, he's caught up in a revolution and, after its brutal suppression, escapes to the Terran embassy. Here, he chats with the Terran ambassador, who responds to his suggestion that Urras is Hell by suggesting that, to her, it's a paradise.

This scene makes it clear that there's good and bad on both Urras and Anarres, but their fundamentally different takes on society prompt wildly different perspectives. That these two philosophies can be so opposed, while carrying both good and bad, shockingly reminds of the America I live in today, even though this book was published in 1974 when I was only three years old.

Another example of this in microcosm is the way that Anarres treats names. Whenever a child is born, they're automatically assigned a name by computer. A character is horrified at this because it's so unemotional and unrepresentative, but another points out that names come from a central pool which ensures that every name in use is unique. Only after someone dies is that name made available again. Thus, Shevet isn't the first Shevet on Anarres but, while he lives, Shevet is him and him alone, making the name special. It's all about perspective.

This is my first time reading The Dispossessed, but already it's clear to me that there's a heck of a lot in this book in which nothing much seems to happen. I'm sure that it's going to stay with me and I can see myself coming back to it in the future to see how it feels on a return trip, an appropriate choice of phrase because everything here is cyclical, tied up in Shevet's theories of time. The book itself feels like it's written according to those theories, even though we're never entirely sure what they are, catching them only in simplified form where time is a circle rather than a straight line.

Readers of Le Guin's Hainish Cycle at large will find that it's the first in the series chronologically, though far from the first written. It's here that Shevet's theories find the practical application that his sponsors in A-Io want, even if it's not the instantaneous travel they hope for. Instead it's the ansible, used in other books but soon to be created here after Shevet's physics makes it possible.

The Dispossessed, a title which has multiple meanings here, didn't just win the Hugo in 1975 but most of the rest of the awards that the genre had to offer at the time, including the Nebula and the Locus. It's clearly a great work, but I think it'll take a couple of returns to quantify just how great. At this point, after my first time through, it feels like it may be the best Hugo winner since The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.


Next up: the 1976 winner, The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman, which I believe I've read before but long ago.




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Last update: 30th September, 2020