Book review: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

February 7, 2014

Pages: 341
Rating: 3.5/5

This is a science fiction novel about the twin planets of Anarres and Urras, both of which see the other as a moon. Anarres is an inhospitable planet that has been settled by revolutionaries from Urras who left behind the exploitative capitalist life on their home planet to found a new communist utopian (these words are never used by Le Guin) society on the moon.

Consequently, all the people on Anarres follow an extreme form of communism where everything is shared and nothing is owned individually. Urras, on the other hand, is a world that resembles our own – a male dominated capitalist society where women have absolutely no official role in politics, science or education.

Urras and Anarres have very little contact between each other beyond the rocket ships that export minerals from Anarres. Visitors from Urras are forbidden from crossing beyond the walls of the rocket port.

The hero of the novel is the physicist Shevek who visits Urras as a sort of unofficial ambassador with an agenda to bring about increased co-operation and communication between the two worlds. This theme of two drastically contrasting cultures intentionally isolated from each other reminds me of Arthur C. Carke’s The City and the Stars where Alvin escapes from a immortal pleasure-filled life in the city of Diaspar.

Both of these novels involve a man returning back to his ‘home’ society in an attempt to reconcile the philosophies of ‘home’ and ‘colony’ to solve the problems of both. The teachings of these novels is clear – fleeing and isolating oneself from a corrupted society is not a solution. I wouldn’t pursue the comparison very far though; the novels are too different for that.

The story is told from the point of view of Shevek and alternates between two timelines; one starting when he flees from Anarres under a cloud of disapproval from his fellow citizens who taunt him as a ‘profiteer’ and the other starting from his childhood and moving toward the point when he leaves Anarres.

The first narrative, based almost entirely on Urras, is driven forward by our curiosity about when (and if) Shevek makes it back home and under what circumstances. The second storyline, which is based on Anarres is interesting because although we know that Shevek made it off Anarres we are not told how he managed it and what happened to his family.

Some of the conversations and speeches on the Anarresti brand of communism are surprisingly deep and made me think of Ayn Rand’s philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged. Funny, because communism was anathema to Rand and entirely at odds with her philosophy of Objectivism. Thankfully, the longest speech in this book is a couple of paragraphs compared to the many-page mostly boring marathon speech made by John Galt in Rand’s novel.

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