Although I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series and one or two of her science-fiction novels in high school, I haven’t revisited her work in years. I picked up a copy of The Dispossessed at a used bookstore and was quickly reminded why LeGuin is one of the giants of speculative fiction.
Shevek, a brilliant physicist, lives on Anarres, a moon of the planet Urras that got its start as something of a social experiment. Two hundred years previously, an anarchist movement on Urras became so large that the government granted its members permission to colonize Anarres so that they wouldn’t continue disrupting Urrasian society. LeGuin’s skill at worldbuilding is on full display here—she has clearly thought about how the details of such a society would function and grounds the lives of the characters in that milieu. Various small details, like the use of “profiteering” as an expletive, aid the reader’s immersion in the world she’s created.
The book begins with Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras, where he hopes to complete his work on a theory that will revolutionize physics. As she shows us both worlds through his eyes, LeGuin resists the temptation to paint either civilization as a complete utopia or dystopia. By showing both the virtues and flaws of the conflicting social systems—some immediately apparent, others gradually revealed as the story progresses—she presents strong critiques of both capitalism and socialism. (For all that Anarres’s society is described as being anarchist, it also has notable socialist elements, with the movement’s founder having been very concerned with the well-being of the “social” organism.) Perhaps influenced by real-world events at the time of its writing (1974), the book also makes mention of a proxy war between two superpowers on Urras that bears some resemblances to the Vietnam War.
The book also presents some interesting philosophical thoughts on the relationship between an individual and society, as well as on self-knowledge and self-actualization. While the society of Anarres doesn’t seem to have a religion, some of the ideas presented remind me of a Buddhist outlook, as when Shevek says: “It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self—ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality—the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness—that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.”
The Dispossessed is a very cerebral sci-fi novel. It’s a reminder of why LeGuin is one of the greats in the field, and its ideas will stay with the reader a long time after the book is over.