The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin book jacket

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 twinned planets of Anarres and Urras). 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 LeGuin 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 LeGuin’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 LeGuin’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…