how did it take me this long to read this book?
this is what science fiction should be: richly imaginative, narratively tight and self-propelling, character-driven, linguistically and structurally particular to the themes of the story, inquisitive, with something to say about the world we live in. THE DISPOSSESSED is a tour de force for ursula k. le guin. (small wonder it won both the hugo and locus awards in 1975.)
i am caught in a tough spot here. i want to say enough to get you interested and excited but not so much as to rob you of the joy of discovering this book page by page. because i really want you to read this book.
BACK STORY AND PREMISE
THE DISPOSSESSED is set on a planet (urras) and satellite (anarres) orbiting tau ceti. both are habitable, so they operate like a binary planetary system, with each appearing as a large moon in the other’s sky. humans evolved on urras, then settled anarres about 150 years before the story starts. urras is earth-like in terms of flora and fauna, with rich and diverse ecosystems. anarres, on the other hand, is cold, harsh, and inhospitable, and has only very simple indigenous life forms.
so why bother settling anarres?
it was political. there was an anarchist socialist rebellion on urras, and the resolution was that the anarchists were granted dominion over anarres in exchange for getting out of the capitalists’ hair. you could also read it as an exile.
THE DISPOSSESSED tells the story of shevek, an anarres-born physicist. shevek runs up against the limitations of his own society, and ends up traveling back to urras, the first person to do so since settlement.
le guin tells shevek’s story along two parallel narrative tracks. one follows shevek from the day he leaves anarres for urras forward. the other follows him from his childhood up to the day he leaves for urras.
SHEVEK GOES TO URRAS
by taking shevek, who has never known anything but life on anarres, to urras, le guin is able to explore late capitalist society through the naked eyes of one without any of the assumptions or biases that we might have. from gender, to labor, to war, to governance, to education, to just about everything else, le guin takes shevek on a tour of urras and lets us see and experience what he does.
what makes le guin’s examination of earth-like urras so brilliant is that, by having shevek act as our proxy, she is able to show that there is absolutely nothing natural or given about the basic ideas about how things do and should work that most of us as readers take for granted.
anarres has its own language, deliberately developed by the first settlers to reflect their values and worldview. for instance, it has no way to describe capitalist ideas of ownership and possession. even saying something as simple as ‘my mother’ is simply but radically different—’the mother’. peep how le guin uses this linguistic framework to examine sex and gender relations:
the language shevek spoke, the only one he knew, lacked any proprietary idioms for the sexual act…it made no sense for a man to say that he had ‘had’ a woman. the word which came closest in meaning to ‘fuck,’ and had a similar secondary usage as a curse, was specific: it meant rape. the usual verb, taking only a plural subject, can be translated only by a neutral word like copulate. it meant something two people did, not something one person did, or had. this frame of words could not contain the totality of experience any more than any other, and shevek was aware of the area left out, though he wasn’t quite sure what it was.
in a similar way, le guin is able to present many facets of late capitalism as new and interesting or beautiful or horrifying or absurd, all because they differ from the shevek’s experience.
as to any further particulars of shevek’s encounter with urras, i leave that for you to discover.
SHEVEK COMES OF AGE ON ANARRES
meanwhile, back on anarres, le guin presents a version of what a developed anarchist socialism might be like. this is where she gets to do some original world building, something she is particularly good at. i don’t want to caricature her rich and fascinating world, so i’ll just raise some of the questions she explores about anarchism:
- how is work organized? who does what? who does the work no one particularly WANTS to do?
- how are gender and sexuality constructed and lived?
- how is governance organized?
- how do individuals relate to the collective, or collectives?
- how do collectives emerge, develop, stabilize, decay?
- how does anarres negotiate the tension between the need to administrate (one of the functions of the state) and its societal antipathy for institutionalized power (one of the features of the state)?
- how are ‘criminal’ behaviors regulated?
- how are homes assigned/divided?
- how are children raised?
- how are economic transactions mediated? (e.g., through money? barter? something else?)
- how is education organized? scientific and academic research and development?
- how are art and culture created and consumed/experienced?
don’t you want to know the answers? don’t you want to know what other questions she explores?
as with urras, le guin explores both the beauty and the ugliness of anarres. it is a tribute to her skill as a writer that her explorations of these questions feels both fair and willing to take a position.
MASTER OF HER CRAFT
these are interesting questions about a potentially fascinating world, but they wouldn’t mean much if le guin didn’t have a strong story to tell within that world, and if she weren’t able to tell it well.
luckily, she is a master of her craft. true story: while reading THE DISPOSSESSED, i was copying and texting long portions just about every day to various people i thought would be interested in whichever question le guin was exploring on that page. her prose is so engaging, her framing of the questions so succinct, her take so original and well expressed, that i had to share it. it was only through admirable (yes, i’m admiring myself) self-restraint that i didn’t text the entire book to people across the country.
and the structure le guin chooses—two parallel tracks, running in alternating chapters, divided from one another by a single point in time (shevek’s departure for urras)—provides a metaphoric and narrative exploration of the advanced physics questions that preoccupies shevek professionally: what is the nature of time? how do we reconcile sequency (the fact that time happens in a sequence, moving in only one direction) with simultaneity (all of time exists at once, and it is we who are moving)? i don’t want to say more about this narrative device, just to flag it for you to track as you’re reading this book (which you should start doing right now).
GO READ. NOW.
that’s what i have to say about THE DISPOSSESSED this morning. now go read it. if you like, come back and share your thoughts. i’d love to hear them.
How have I never even heard of this book? This review’s got me drooling.
then i’ve done my job!
did you ever read it?
about time i believe i told you about this book five years ago
greata\ and thoughtfull analysis
thanks, richard! i don’t remember the recommendation, but it’s just one more reason to kick myself for not discovering the book sooner. a truly great novel.