Placing this book in the ‘science-fiction’ category probably deters many people from reading it. Yes, it’s a story set on an imaginary world (the paired planet of Urras and its moon Anarres). Yes, there’s something arguably scientific in the form of ‘the Principle of Simultaneity’, the life work of the central character Shevek. Beyond that, The Dispossessed is a poetically beautiful novel that is as political as any non science-fiction book you could name.
I adore nearly everything that Ursula Le Guin has written. Her style of writing has a compelling clarity, a directness and a deliberateness that help propel her fiction forward. It is also a style that is spot-on for describing unfamiliar places and cultures. You know that there’s something different in what she’s describing and can rely on her explaining that difference in due course. But first, there’s our curiosity to be fed.
I’ve read The Dispossessed four times. Once as intended, front to back. A second time, taking first the alternate chapters on Anarres, then the ones on Urras. A third time, swapping the Urras and Anarres running order; then a fourth time once again as written. Each time, I discovered something new, so complete and satisfying is Le Guin’s creation.
Shevek is a physicist from the break-away society that settled on Anarres (think Pilgrim Fathers in spaceships). He seeks wider recognition for his Principle of Simultaneity by breaking with tradition and travelling to polluted and dangerous Urras. His abandonment of friends in pursuit of intellectual recognition, and the danger he consequently puts himself in, brings sharp and tragic drama.
Where Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy left readers spell-bound with wizards and mages, The Dispossessed appeals to more adult themes: authoritarianism, intellectual property, personal and group loyalty, environmental destruction. But standing above all of these – for me – is a style of writing that lifts these ideas into a workable whole.
What better way to set out the dislocation between two societies than to start on page 1 by describing the wall around the launch zone that Shevek will eventually enter on his journey from Anarres?
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared: an adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than the wall.
Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended on which side of it you were…
I plan to re-read The Dispossessed a fifth time and report back …
The wall with which Le Guin begins The Dispossessed is part of a carefully-crafted, opening scene to the book, and re-reading the book (yes, for the fifth time) serves to confirm this. It begins as a wall around the spaceport of Anarres, separating the Odonian revolutionary colonists of that small moon from the freight arriving there from the corrupt, ‘propertarian’ society on the planet Urras from which they fled some 160 years ago. It functions as a symbolic division. As the narrative develops, Shevek finds himself “in the bad hour, in the dark at the foot of the wall”, wants all walls down in pursuit of human solidarity, “come(s) up against the wall for good”, his creative energies spent, finds that “he had let a wall be built around him” and didn’t know how to break it down, in an uncharacteristic outburst accuses his Urrasti hosts of living in a prison such that all he can see in their eyes is “the wall, the wall”, and returning to creative form in his work on his Principles of Simultaneity feels that “the wall was down … the vision was clear and whole”. These crafted details help give The Dispossessed nuance and depth.
A related motif is that of a rock, first seen hurled at Shevek as he runs to the spaceship in Anarres port, perhaps taken from the very wall that surrounds the space-port, thrown in anger at his perceived treachery in travelling to Urras to finish and then share his work as a physicist. The two-pound flint missed Shevek but killed one of the defence crew accompanying him. Shevek mysteriously muses that “the rock will never hit”, something that doesn’t make sense until we later see the child Shevek teasing his classmates with a joke about a thrown rock that can never reach its intended target. It baffled them and distanced him from his peers. But the rock stands both for the possibility of a theoretical rock being poorly aimed and for a theory of time where events are superimposed upon themselves. At one point, Shevek teases out the contrast between Sequency and Simultaneity:
But Sequency thinking has its own dilemma. It is like this, to make a foolish little picture — you are throwing a rock at a tree, and if you are a Simultanist the rock has already hit the tree, and if you are a Sequencist it never can. So which do you choose? Maybe you prefer to throw rocks without thinking about it, no choice. I prefer to make things difficult, and choose both.
Le Guin resolves this at the end of the book when the returning Shevek looks through the Terran ship’s view-port:
But the ship turned, and the stars came into sight, and Anarres among them like a round bright rock: moving yet not moving, thrown by what hand, timelessly circling, creating time.
These symbols nestle into the surface of Le Guin’s narrative with clear deliberation and are no accidental embellishment to help move things along. The book is dense with detail, with players in the narrative, with tension, rivalry and the bonds of friendship. The contrast between Shevek’s home moon of Anarres where all property is public property and the possessive pronoun is unknown, and Urras where ‘propertarian’ wealth is Earth-like and familiar is sharply drawn. As are the ecological differences between the two: an alien and desert Annares, prone to drought and famine, and a Urras seemingly gifted with a lush abundance of flora and fauna. Yet as Shevek gradually learns, both have scientific communities where his brilliance as a scientific fore-runner cannot protect him from exploitation. On his home moon, his senior wishes to claim credit for Shevek’s own work (which shouldn’t matter in a collective society). On Urras, the Urrasti scientists into whose care Shevek is entrusted have been tasked with acquiring his theories so that their government can gain technical and military advantage over their rivals.
Le Guin has these power plays ebb and flow throughout the narrative. The cross-currents of personal and public loyalty intertwine and collide, coming to a head in the person of the awkward, socially-clumsy scientist that is Shevek. A sub-theme of the book concerns how a person matures from childhood through teenage years to adulthood, finding their balanced role within society. It’s a theme that Le Guin seems to weave with passion, with her writing craft reaching its clearest and most rooted. The stoic and humane Shevek seems to derive as much fulfilment from being a partner to Takver and a parent to his two daughters as to anything else and reaches for as much just before his departure for Urras:
Fulfilment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety seeking of the spectator, the thrill hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.
Outside the locked room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings.
It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act. Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.
Many of these strands of thought seem to stem from the Taoist philosophy that so captivated and inspired Le Guin — and propelled much of her fiction into greatness. (Indeed, one could almost be reading from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which had Taoism as one of its sources of inspiration, as in “the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back” of The Dry Salvages.) The “journey and return” that Shevek speaks of is what he is attempting in leaving his home moon of Anarres, potently empty-handed, travelling to Urras and then hoping that he may be able to return. It is the never-ending cycle, a Taoist eternal return of the natural world. This also positions The Dispossessed in the tradition of literary quest tales where Shevek’s pursuit of a general temporal theory has its counterpoint in his search for meaning — meaning, one might say, on an existential plane. As a journey has myriads of steps, so Shevek in one of these, whilst viewing the fish tanks that his partner Takver is tasked with managing (as a fish geneticist), is observed:
… submitting his physicist’s arrogance to those small strange lives, to the existence of beings to whom the present is eternal, beings which do not explain themselves and need not ever justify their ways to man.
On Shevek’s godless moon, the Miltonian world where there was a need to “justify the ways of God to men” can be co-opted by Le Guin to serve as embellishment of her protagonist’s more nuanced depiction.
In The Dispossessed Le Guin found a mechanism for grounding some of these beliefs, specifically in having a questing fictional scientist working on temporal theory. There’s a point in Shevek’s stay on Urras where he is forced to hold court and explain himself:
So then time has two aspects. There is the arrow, the running river, without which there is no change, no progress, or direction, or creation. And there is the circle or the cycle, without which there is chaos, meaningless succession of instants, a world without clocks or seasons or promises.
Shevek’s theory of transilience — the instantaneous transfer of matter across space — is a fusing of the linear and cyclical models of time that Le Guin has him express. It also allows him some of the Buddhist perspectives that Le Guin felt essential to the narrative. The book’s chapter sequence underscores this. Book-ended by two short chapters on the paired planet and moon, there is an alternating sequence of six chapters actioned on Shevek’s home moon of Anarres and five chapters actioned on Urras. Interleaved with each other they cover Shevek’s life from birth right through to his attempted return to Anarres at the end of the book. Le Guin is therefore able to overlay Shevek’s early years with his arrival on Urras as a brilliant physicist, counterpointing each stage of his life with various twists and turns of Urrasti deception. (See above for my tests at varying this sequence and rest assured that I am now convinced that Le Guin’s sequence as published is the one to go for.)
Tellingly, at the exact mid-point of the novel, as Shevek and Takver are starting their partnership, Shevek muses on the Urrasti planet that shines its light on them, reasoning that the whole of its beauty must also contains things decidedly unbeautiful and that, by extension, one would need to see Anarres from Urras, as their moon, before fully appreciating its beauty. Le Guin has Shevek say, “You need distance — interval”. Through the chapter structure that Le Guin has given the book we know that Shevek has already experienced that distance, even as we read about his never having known anything but Anarres.
Perhaps inevitably in such a multi-layered novel, Shevek does indeed discover some of the ‘ugliness’ that exists on Urras when he later escapes from the clutches of his university ‘captors’ into the Old Town of Urras’s main city Nio. There he finds poverty that had been kept hidden from him. Street lights were broken, windows shuttered, shop fronts gutted by fire; grey-faced, haggard people shuffled about in the shadows. In just a few pages of dense, carefully-worked text, Le Guin depicts the under-belly of an otherwise dazzling society. Nothing like it existed on Shevek’s Anarres. One forcibly recalls Winston Smith illicitly seeing the ‘prole quarters’ in George Orwell’s dystopian 1984, which Le Guin would have known well. After all, she named the protagonist of an earlier book of hers, City of Illusions, George Orr. This interwoven sequencing is thus a literary device that runs two parts of the central character’s life in parallel whilst nodding towards the sort of enfolding of time in which that same character is heavily invested as a physicist.
Le Guin has made sure that Shevek, the physicist, has read his Einstein, known to him as Ainsetain of Terra, with the added irony that he had previously believed Terrans to be ‘wall builders’. Shevek, however, is not modelled on Einstein; Le Guin wrote that she had Robert Oppenheimer in mind, having known him long as a family friend. Oppenheimer’s quoting from the Bhagavad Gita after the first nuclear bomb tests of “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” is worth recalling in this context. Shevek is dusted with some of these complexities, and clearly develops as so much more than a two-dimensional character in this majestic novel.
In leaving us this alternate science-fiction reality, Le Guin has also gifted us something else, something that has gained bitter poignancy through time since the book was first published in 1975. At the very end, hounded by the Urrasti authorities who fear Shevek’s grand theory is slipping out of their grasp, Shevek seeks refuge in the Terran embassy, Terra, of course, being the planet Earth. Under their protection, the ambassador tells Shevek what he could never have known on Anarres: that Earth, which used to support nine billion souls, can now support but half a billion. The planet, she tells him, is:
a ruin, spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, is it always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable — but not as this world is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert … You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do — they never adapt either.
In spite of this — or even because of this — it is to the Terrans that Shevek gifts his completed Principles theory, a final irony that Le Guin poses for us concerning the nature of worthiness or unworthiness. Some editions of The Dispossessed were subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia in reference to the imperfect nature of the Odonian revolution that unfolded on Shevek’s Anarres. It is an epithet that could apply equally to the planets Urras and Terra.
As an example of ‘science-fiction’, The Dispossessed is an ideal vehicle with which to gain distance from the immediacy of our present world in order to turn back and see details that proximity often obscures. It offers a vantage point from where we can challenge our own values. Fine literature does this and The Dispossessed does this magnificently. With a central character who develops as his journey evolves, we witness relativities unconstrained by any particular ‘science’. That the novel also illuminates social, political and environmental aspects of imagined and possible worlds, ones in which we see aspects of our own — and does so within recognised literary genres — is enough for me to recommend it to you as one of the greats of twentieth century literature.
[This review was first posted in February 2014 and was updated in January 2020.]