The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

I have loved Ursula le Guin for a long time; I think we read A Wizard of Earthsea for school, and when I discovered there were sequels – many years later – I was very happy indeed. But it wasn’t until many years after that that I discovered she had written a lot of serious, awesome, adult work too. It took me ages to get to The Left Hand of Darkness, which now rates as one of the best SF books ever for me, and I have slowly been getting to her others. Happily, The Dispossessed is the February book for the Women of SF Book Club – a perfect opportunity.

A spoiler-filled, and whimsical, discussion

Narrative

The conceit of calling this post ‘spoilery’ makes me laugh, since the plot itself is so simple – and there’s really nothing to spoil. A man goes from one planet to another; learns some stuff; gets involved in some political stuff; goes home. Has flashbacks about meeting his partner and about his evil boss. That is, Shevek – a highly-regarded physicist – leaves his planet Anarres and goes to its sister-planet Urras to further his research. Anarres was colonised 170 years before by people fleeing Urras, determined to set a society with no property or ownership (a philosophy called Odonianism). In alternating chapters we get his experiences on Urras – learning what it is to be ‘propertarian’ and then getting involved in the beginnings of a revolution – and then his life to that point on Anarres, involving a stick-in-the-mud physicist, meeting his partner Takver, and Shevek coming to terms with his own attitude towards Odonianism. I was a bit sad that it ended with Shevek landing back on Anarres, though; I would have liked to see the reaction to his return. I guess leaving it ambiguous is part of the point.

I would not be surprised to find that a lot of people find this a very boring book, because the plot is indeed quite slow, and straightforward, and really almost nothing happens. But the point, of course, is that this is not a plot-driven book; while the plot itself is actually interesting and I enjoyed it, it’s there – I think – to enable the character-driven and politics-driven book.

I loved the past/future back and forth of the chapters. To see where Shevek ends up, while also seeing how he got there, is a fascinating narrative trick. It almost denies causality, in some way, which ties in very neatly with Shevek’s own thoughts and dealings with time and temporality: we know he got together with Takver before he meets her, we know he becomes an immensely important physicist before he becomes one. On p162 of my copy, he suggests that “The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.” Although Shevek isn’t dead at the start of the book, I think we best appreciate his experiences on Uras by looking from the vantage point of Antarres… and vice versa.

Characters

Shevek is not entirely likeable, but almost always admirable – with one horrendous exception, where he possibly rapes Vea (I think it’s unclear whether he does or not). Interestingly, the fact that all we know of Vea’s behaviour is from Shevek’s point of view – coloured by his naivety – made me quite surprised when it appeared that Vea was not, actually, interested in ‘copulation’ there and then. Anyway, he has those outsider/loner characteristics that so often seem necessary for making an interesting character, even if ultimately he ends up appearing like the most ‘inside’ Odonian politics. Most of the other characters are mere sketches – even his partner Takver. This is not to say that they are caricatures or stereotypes; more, perhaps, that being entirely fleshed out is unnecessary for the story to take place.

Politics

Undoubtedly some readers will see this book as overly polemical. But tying it all in with the science, and some intense personal relationships, tempers the politics in my mind; and besides, when it’s as well-written as this, and as critical, passionate, and searing as this, polemical definitely has its place. I love that this was written in 1975 and it’s a critique – almost a damnation – of both capitalism (called propertarianism) and perhaps the ultimate expression of communism (Odonianism). USSR-type communism comes in for a brief condemnation, too, via a discussion Shevek has with the physicist from Thu, Chifoilisk. At times, both Anarres and Urras appear to be fine places to live: Urras is very familiar, while Anarres comes across as so worthy – or maybe that’s just me and my left-leaning sensibilities (it will be very interesting to see how the American readers in the book club respond…). Then on the other hand, Urras is so stifling, its attitudes towards women so 1950s-esque – and the government’s response to a mass, peaceful, demonstration is so extreme – that I shudder to think Australia could be like that. In turn, Anarres feels so poor, and has its own brand of stifling and unpleasant, that neither appears as a utopia; hence the subtitle given to the book, I guess. I think I would still opt for Anarres, given the opportunity to pick – despite le Guin warning that it too is imperfect, in its application of Odo’s philosophy.

Odonianism as a philosophy

I need to think more about what le Guin is suggesting here, I think. It has aspects of Marxism, especially of its Leninist interpretation; the ‘free love’ aspect (copulation brings no lasting attachment necessarily, has no moral component, sex is not dirty) was advocated to some extent by the Russian Alexandra Kollontai (a Bolshevik) and is also familiar from Brave New World…. Attempting to rid humans of all feelings of ownerships feels like a hopeless task to me, but it’s interesting to see how le Guin imagines it might be undertaken; her point that language itself would have to change is brilliant. On that note, the idea of making the word for work also the word for play is quite revolutionary and truly intriguing. It would have an enormous impact on people’s attitudes.

The science

I haven’t done physics in a very long time. I am sure that a physicist reading this could get frustrated by the vagueness of le Guin’s science if they wanted to, and no doubt pick holes in her ideas of simultaneity etc if they really wanted to. For me, it was techy enough that it gave Shevek and his friends the semblance of true science, without totally losing me. More interestingly, though, as a whole, is the fact that she ties the ideas of physics into ideas of morality and responsibility. How utterly awesome and mind-boggling. Too often ‘pure’ science is seen, and even sees itself, as devoid of political or moral connection. I don’t agree with that, and I’ve never seen it argued so well and passionately in fiction before.

What it made me think

Well, a lot of things, really. The sympathy I feel for Marxism is of course tempered by my knowledge of the USSR, China, etc. But Anarres shows a different way of how things could be. While things are not shown as perfect, by any means, and that the philosophy can be bent, there is still a feeling that it could work – with the will and intention of people who truly hold to Odonian philosophy, working in genuine solidarity. On a more personal level, the idea of working with time, rather than against it, was more provocative than almost anything else, given that I am already a sympathiser of the political ideas.

Overall

I got it from the library. I think I need to own it now. It ought to sit next to Naomi Klein’s No Logo.

5 responses

  1. […] Culture Have we Consumed? Alex: Life, Gwyneth Jones; The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin; Revelation Space, and Chasm City, Alastair Reynolds Tansy: Debris (due Autumn […]

  2. […] strong, doughty female character as the lead. After the first two book club books – Dust and The Dispossessed – I was hoping that this book would be a bit more plot-heavy, a bit more adventure-y, a bit […]

  3. Yes it can feel easy to be attracted to a tall, handsome intellectual.
    I am also wanting to remind the reader about the “dorm mothers” the dormitory living, the little kids who are sent to live in the dorms at a quite young age, of course there are “no consequences” to under age sex,
    and Shevek’s mother has not written to him for a LONG time…
    some Utopia.

  4. No there is no rape by Shevek. re read the scene as I have the book a few times now. He’s so drunk, he ought really not be potent at all: but she remains with her skirt quite defintely on, round the hips and her underwear on. He did get pretty aggressive tho:and I think a point was made about the half clothed fashion being a come on.

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