Book review: The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed book coverI picked this up as part of the haul I grabbed from my local library on National Libraries Day. I was looking for some good sci-fi, and had heard lots of good things about The Dispossessed, so decided to give it a try. I’d only read one of Ursula Le Guin’s books before (Fisherman of the Inland Sea), but had been meaning to read more – she’s often listed as one of the greats of modern sci-fi, and The Dispossessed is part of the SF Masterworks series, so I figured I couldn’t go far wrong here!

The Dispossessed follows the story of Shevek, a scientist from the anarchist world of Anarres. Frustrated by jealous colleagues and stifled progress on his home world, he travels to Anarres’ sister planet Urras – the capitalist world that the rebellious settlers of Anarres fled 150 years previously. He is the first person to travel from Anarres to Urras for all this time, and is considered a traitor by most of his people for doing so. He travels not only to spread his ideas – his Principle of Simultaneity, which will make possible instantaneous communication throughout the universe – but also to break down the barriers between the people of the two worlds. However, while he first finds freedom on Urras, he quickly discovers that he is being used as a pawn in a political game outside of his comprehension.

This is without a doubt some of the best sci-fi I’ve read in a long time. I was completely gripped from the first page. Le Guin does a masterful job of introducing the societies and political systems of the two worlds gradually, without resorting to heavy-handed exposition. When it comes to sci-fi I’m always more interested in the people and society presented than the technology – I don’t really like tech-heavy sci-fi, as I feel it often overshadows the story.The Dispossessed is a shining example of sci-fi at its best: using an alien society with advanced technology as both a vehicle to explore political and social ideas, and as an absorbing fictional world in its own right.

As a feminist, I also loved the exploration of the two worlds’ attitudes to women. On anarchist Anarres, men and women are treated equally – indeed, Shevek is baffled to find that this isn’t the case on Urras:

“Where are other women?”

“Oh, no difficulty at all there, sir,” Pae said promptly. “Just tell us your preferences, and nothing could be simpler to provide.”

…Shevek had no idea what they were talking about. He scratched his head. “Are all scientists here men then?”

Scientists?” Oiie asked, incredulous.

Pae coughed. “Scientists. Oh, yes, certainly, they’re all men. There are some female teachers in the girls’ schools, of course. But they never get past Certificate level… Cant do the maths; no head for abstract thought; don’t belong. You know how it is, what women call thinking is done with the uterus! Of course, there’s always a few exceptions, God-awful brainy women with vaginal atrophy.”

…Shevek saw that he had touched an impersonal animosity in these men which went very deep… They knew no relation but possession. They were possessed.

The exploration of the social ideals of the two societies, as seen through Shevek’s eyes, was fascinating. The story alternated chapters between Shevek’s history on Anarres leading up to the time of his journey, and his time on Urras. Shevek is equal parts disillusioned with his own society and proud of it; disgusted with the excesses on Urras and jealous of their intellectual freedom. What I liked about the book is that although Anarres, as Shevek’s home world, gets the more sympathetic treatment (and one suspects this is where Le Guin’s sympathies lie), neither world was presented as perfect. For all of Anarres’ idealism and equality, there is an undercurrent of repression and censorship running through it. One passage, in which a friend of Shevek’s tells him of a mutual friend who has effectively been imprisoned for criticising the Anarresti society – something which should be logically impossible in a society which has no laws and no system of prisons or punishment – was a striking way to illustrate how the human tendency to seek and consolidate power can even corrupt a society as high-minded as Anarres:

“Tirin wrote a play and put it on… It was funny-crazy-you know his kind of thing…It could seem anti-Odonian, if you were stupid. A lot of people are stupid. There was a fuss. He got reprimanded. Public reprimand. I never saw one before. Everyone comes to your syndicate meeting and tells you off. It used to be how they cut a bossy gang-foreman or manager down to size. Now they only use it to tell an individual to stop thinking for himself… He wrote me several times, and each time he’d been reposted. Always to physical labour, in little outpost communities… He stopped writing. I traced him through the Abbenay Labour Files, finally. They sent me his card, and the last entry was just ‘Therapy. Segvina Island.’ Therapy! Did Tirin murder somebody? Did he rape somebody? What do you do to get sent to the Asylum for, beside that?”

“You don’t get sent to the Asylum at all. You request posting to it.”

“Don’t feed me that crap,” Bedap said with sudden rage. “He never asked to be sent there! They drove him crazy and then sent him there.”

Equally, although Urras is initially presented as a paradise of free thought, it isn’t long before Shevek sees the inevitable consequences of a property-owning society – despite his hosts’ best efforts to keep him from seeing the poverty outside of their sheltered societies:

Maedda nodded. “A demonstration’s been announced for three days from now. Against the draft, war taxes, the rise in food prices. There’s four hundred unemployed in Nio Esseia, and they jack up taxes and prices… Do you know what your society has meant, here, to us, these last hundred and fifty years? Do you know that when people here want to wish each other luck they say, ‘May you get reborn on Anarres!’ – To know that it exists – to know that there is a society without government, without police, without economic exploitation, that they can never say again that it’s just a mirage, an idealist’s dream!”

This is one of those rare books that’s kept me thinking, long after I’ve finished reading it. In fact, having got this book out of the library, I am actually going to buy a copy – I can see it’s one I will want to re-read later on. I will also be avidly reading more of Ursula Le Guin’s work!

Verdict: 5/5

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  1. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of her book The Left Hand of Darkness

  2. One of my favourite books of all time.

    With respect to attitudes towards women, there’s a section where Shevek asks Vea why women let the men control everything on Urras. She responds that women are doing what they like. They don’t have to get their hands dirty, and that they “run” the men. But she doesn’t really understand that’s not any actual power. As your quote points out, women on Urras are just possessions.

    • Yes, I remember that bit – actually had that marked up in my copy (with a post-it note obviously, I am not such a heathen that I would write in a library book! 😉 ) as something to refer to in my review, but I ran out of space to discuss it in the end. I really loved that moment: Vea illustrated really well how the oppressed can collude in their own oppression, seeing whatever small power she is allowed by the ruling male elite as evidence that she is really in charge when of course she isn’t.

  3. This is actually my favourite book of all time. I don’t say this lightly but it really did change my life, shape my political views, etc.

    While the Left Hand of Darkness is definitely worth a read, don’t be put off by its, er, impenetrability… it’s a great story too but certainly not as accessible as many of her other works! Not one to read first if someone’s new to Le Guin anyway, ha ha.

    She also has some amazing short stories – even if, like me, you don’t tend to read short stories much. Ditto kids’ books. Zomg, the Earthsea Quartet, FTW. I read it on holiday, which was a bit of a mistake cos i ended up so engrossed i didn’t really see much of the country i was in! I’m an idiot!

    • Lol, will have to pick up the Earthsea Quartet then – although maybe not when I have sightseeing planned! 🙂

  4. If you love the Dispossessed, I would recommend picking up the Wind’s Twelve Quarters, a short story collection. One of the stories, The Day Before the Revolution, is about Odo. Another one, The ones who walk away from Omelas, is tangentially related, and one of the most powerful shorts I have ever read.


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