Aug 11 2008 8:36pm

Clearsighted utopia: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was the first grown-up science fiction novel I ever read. I was twelve, and I had read everything in the children’s section of the library. I figured I wouldn’t get into too much trouble if I borrowed books from the adult section that were written by people who had also written children's books, so out I went with The Dispossessed and Peter Dickinson’s King and Joker. I took them to the country park, where I sat on a stone in the middle of the river where Ursula Le Guin proceeded to blow me away to the point where I almost missed dinner.

Re-reading it now, it's not so new, but it's still that good.

The Dispossessed has the subtitle “an ambiguous utopia” and I think its strength lies in Le Guin’s clear-eyed acknowledgment of that ambiguity.

There are twin planets that are each other’s moon, as if our moon had a barely-good-enough atmosphere. A hundred and fifty years before the time of the story, the revolutionaries and malcontents of rich capitalist Urras went to the moon, Anarres, to found their own anarchist society. Anarres could so easily be irritatingly perfect, but it isn’t. There are droughts and famines, petty bureaucrats and growing centralisation of power. The book follows Shevek, a brilliant physicist, as he grows up on Anarres and later travels to Urras and back.

The chapters alternate between planets and time periods. This was almost too much for me at twelve; I re-read it instantly in chronological order. Now I regard it as masterly—the way the tensions in the two storylines wrap and reinforce each other thematically is phenomenal. Shevek grows and changes as a character, he goes from planet to planet with his hands empty but invents the ansible that allows FTL communication. The themes reinforce each other, and Shevek’s true journey is at once unique and universal.

I have met people online who thought that Anarres was a dystopia, and intended that way. At twelve, I put the book down and said to myself “Things don't have to be this way. They could be that way.” I wanted to live on Anarres. The flaws made it real. I’m not so sure I’d like to live there now, but I am sure that I still want to read books that shake the walls of the world that way.

Pablo Defendini
1. pablodefendini
The Dispossessed is one of my all-time favourites. I discovered it at a slightly older age than you did (late teens, early twenties), just as I was embarking on a head-first dive into ultra-lefty politics.
The dystopic aspects of Anarres rankled me at the time, since they went contrary to what I really, truly, and desperately wanted to believe: another world is possible, and all that. But in hindsight, it served to help hammer home one of the best lessons I've ever learned: nothing in life is perfect. All we can do is strive to make it the best we can make it, while staying true to our convictions.
Gregory Lawrence
2. pouk-ledden
I wanted to live on Anarres. The flaws made it real. I’m not so sure I’d like to live there now, but I am sure that I still want to read books that shake the walls of the world that way.

Yes, yes, yes!

Thank you, Jo, for saying so well what I've always thought of this book. In fact, what you say pretty much sums up my relationship with Le Guin's writing! She has such an ability to point to the best in humanity without putting on the rose-tinted glasses.
JS Bangs
3. jaspax
Man, what a fantastic book. And its classic aspect lies precisely in this tension: Anarres can be read as dystopian or utopian, and will be different things to different people. Conversely, Urras is not a dystopian nightmare. And LeGuin doesn't avoid black-and-white by making everything a dull, boring gray. Rather, both societies are painted in vibrant colors, full of somber blues and brilliant reds.

Me, I don't know which planet I want to live on. I'm glad I got to visit both of them.
Bruce Cohen
4. SpeakerToManagers
Yes, a great book*. I didn't take it quite as literally, first because I was about 30 when I first read it**, and second because (whether it was around the same time or not, which I can't just now recall), it's become connected in my mind with The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, which isn't about how a good society should be run, it's about how we have to make choices of how much ungood we're willing to tolerate in the society we give allegiance to. The political themes of The Dispossessed are presented matter-of-factly, as a natural result of the historical development of society, though that development took place on a world far from our own, and very different. But LeGuin handles that distance differently from the anthropological viewpoint she brought to Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness; it's as if she's writing from within the cultural and political environment of Urras and Anarres.

I loved the way the threads were woven together, too; as if in a demonstration of Shevek's theory of time. I think that was the first time I'd ever read a novel whose structure was mathematically elegant.

* King and Joker isn't chopped liver either. Dickinson is my very favorite mystery writer of all time.
** And had been raised as progressive socialist from an early age, so reading the book was more like reading about a place I'd been hearing about for years rather than finding it for the first time.
Debbie Moorhouse
5. GUDsqrl
I love this book. The lesson I took from it is that a revolution isn't enough; you have to keep having that same revolution every day, or things will creep back to "normal".

For sure I'd rather be poor on Anarres than on Urras.
La Tlönista
6. tlonista
Yes! I, too, want to live on Anarres. But when you live on Urras, all you can do is make little pockets of Anarres.

I've always been a straight-up socialist but The Dispossessed fuels my timid halfhearted unrequited love affair with anarchism.

The structure is brilliant -- prefiguration and a funny kind of reverse-foreshadowing wrapped up in one.
Marshall Vandegrift
7. llasram
The Dispossessed is probably my favorite SF novel ever. I love the bit where Shevek is teaching at the university on Urras and doesn't understand why his students want to be coerced via grading into studying the material if they aren't interested in it for itself. I'm going to have to dig up a copy and read it again now.
Christina Harcar
8. spotgloss
I encountered The Dispossessed in the library for the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, where I worked during college. It was one of only five novels in the whole place (the other notables being Going After Cacchiato and The Golden Notebook) and I spent many happy hours reading and rereading The Dispossessed.

I admire how prescient LeGuin was, especially in her details (exaggerated at the time but now coming true): as llasram points out, she was an early identifier of grade-grubbing. The women on Urras were obssessed with extreme grooming -- shades of the current popular media debates about waxing and botoxing. You just know people will start implanting magnets next to hold jewelry without clasps (and really, is that so different from our piercing trend?)

Sad truth: as much as I'd like to shed all of my belongings and live on Anarres, it's the details of Urras that still fascinate me. Brilliant book.
Debbie Moorhouse
9. GUDsqrl
Not sure that noting extreme grooming is prescient--you only have to look at C19th women who tied themselves so tightly into their corsets that they created ridges in their internal (nearly wrote eternal there) organs to see that.
Fragano Ledgister
10. Fledgist
I was twenty when I read The Dispossessed. I'd recently read both George Woodcock's The Anarchists and Kropotkin's Mutual Aid, and I'd read Paul Goodman as a teenager, so I understood the tradition to which it belonged. I really wished I lived on Anarres, flaws, shortages, corruption, and all.
Jane Carnall
11. Jane Carnall
I was 8 when I first read The Dispossessed. I wanted to live on Anarres then: not so sure I do now, since I somehow doubt that either novel-writing or novel-reading is supported there (too isolated as activities).

But I never did understand why Anarres is supposed to be the dystopia: Urras (or at least A-Io) is depicted as the place where women aren't permitted equal educational or economic opportunities, and this is legal.
Jane Carnall
12. Doug M.
Jo, have you read Samuel R. Delany's review of the book? It's... very annoying, and also very very perceptive, and well worth your time.

You can find it in _The Jewel-Hinged Jaw_, which is OOP but easily available secondhand from the usual sources. (The rest of the book is worth a look, too.)

Doug M.
Jane Carnall
13. Doug M.s
Oh, and: this book has held up remarkably well. You can still hand it to a new SF reader (or a not-so-new one) without worrying about obsolete technology, outdated social attitudes, or just plain anachronism. Not too many other SF novels from ~1970 still read so well today.

Doug M.
Jane Carnall
14. Sam C
Jane Carnall: I don't think Anarres is a dystopia. Both Anarres and Urras are ambiguous utopias. Anarres is an anarchist utopia troubled by some deep-rooted tensions in human ambition; Urras is a gilded authoritarian utopia. Who are the dispossessed? The inhabitants of both Anarres and Urras lack things which we might think vital for a good life: on Anarres, beauty and the chance to express genius; on Urras, freedom.
Bruce Cohen
15. SpeakerToManagers
Doug M. @ 12

"very annoying, and also very very perceptive" is an accurate description of my feelings about that review. There's some really insightful reading of subtext*, spotting things that I didn't see at all on first reading of The Dispossessed, but IMHO he makes way too much of some things that I think are at most side-issues to the main themes of the book.

That's my usual reaction to Delany. There are things he does in his writing that make me want to go up on top of a mountain somewhere and establish a temple to worship him, and then (sometimes in the next sentence) there'll be something that makes me want to scream and curse at him. Keeps me engaged, that's for sure.

As for living on Anarres; when I first read about it (half a lifetime ago) I seriously liked the idea, if we're talking about the place as described in the book. My experience with radicals and anarchists is that it wouldn't be like that at all if humans from Earth set it up**. Nowadays, I'd mostly be concerned that if I lived there they might not let me keep my dogs.

* By someone who ostensibly doesn't believe that an author's subtext is necessarily relevant to the reader.
** Ever been caught in an argument between a bunch of anarchist socialists and a pack of social justice leftists? Picture a mouth spewing arguments into a human face, forever.
Jane Carnall
16. JaniceG
I first read The Dispossessed shortly after returning from living for two years in Israel. I think I would have liked it anyway but it made an especially strong impression on me because I was going through a similar reaction to coming back to the US from Israel as Shevek has on going to Urras from Anarres. (Seeing all the different car models on the road and an entire supermarket aisle filled with nothing but breakfast cereals of different shapes, flavors, and colors really struck me as conspicuous excess.) It's definitely one of my "desert island" books.
Vicki Rosenzweig
17. vicki

Urras as a whole is not a "gilded authoritarian utopia." Yes, some upper-class men in A-Io are living that well, and Shevek doesn't see the poorer parts of that nation until he's been on Urras a while. But his well-to-do academic hosts make dismissive remarks about, for example, newspapers read by the poor from quite early. (Yes, some of the upper-class women seem content to accept economic comfort at the cost of freedom, or see no way to do better given the constraints they're in.)

You don't get the sort of socialist revolution that produced the Odonian society on Anarres and the socialist state whose ambassador Shevek meets in an environment where everyone is economically comfortable.
Debbie Moorhouse
18. GUDsqrl
"...and nobody was really poor, at least nobody who mattered...."
Jo Walton
19. bluejo
Doug M: Yes, I have read it. Like you, I think some of Delany's comments are absolutely spot on and others weirdly at an angle to the text.

I think there's a way in which one gets to say "Look, she put a gay guy in the novel, in 1975, and he was a positive character" and another way in which Delany gets to say "But the main character didn't like having sex with him much, and he's shown as sad without children" to which the only response is "It was 1975!"

Except that Delany's real response to _The Dispossessed_ wasn't that essay, it was _Triton_. I guess I should do a post about _Triton_.
Sandi Kallas
20. Sandikal
This is one of those books I've been meaning to read, but haven't. I need to move it up on my list.
Jane Carnall
21. Karen Young
Notice the name of the language is Pravic just like Pravda the Russian newspaper, translates as Truth. Not a name from a computer.
Interesting name for a made up language.

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