Wed
Dec 7 2011 12:00pm
Reaching Out: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed (1974) is a novel about which one can say a great deal. It’s a Hugo and Nebula award winning novel. It’s an undisputed SF classic, despite the fact that some people hate it. It’s a portrait of a working scientist as a creative person, which is unusual, and it is about the discovery of a theory of physics that leads to a method of faster than light communication, which is an oddly standard SF trope. It’s an examination of anarchy as a method of political organization. It’s about two societies that are each other’s moon and which mirror each other.

When I was twelve, it was the second best book I had ever read. It was the first adult science fiction novel I read, and the amazing thing is that it was such a good one. I didn’t hit on it by chance, of course, I came to it because I had read the Earthsea books. I read it, and I immediately read it again, this time reading it in chronological order, because I was twelve and I’d never before read a book where the events happened out of order and I wasn’t sure I liked it. I spent a long time thinking about why Le Guin used this helical structure for the novel, and over time it has come to be one of the things I like best about it.

What I want to talk about today is the structure and the style.

The Dispossessed is the story of one man who bridges two worlds, the physicist Shevek who grows up on the anarchist world of Anarres and travels to the propertarian world of Urras, which his ancestors fled two hundred years ago. It is in many ways his biography, and stylistically in the way it explains context it more closely resembles historical biographies than most other SF. This is a story focused on Shevek, and yet one that remains resolutely a little outside him, in the omniscient point of view. We sometimes get a glimpse of his thoughts and feelings, but more often we are drawn away and given context for him.

Le Guin begins on Anarres, with Shevek leaving for Urras, with no context as to who Shevek is and why he is leaving. The book then goes back to his childhood, and we alternate chapters of his life on Anarres leading to his decision to leave for Urras, and his life on Urras culminating in his eventual return home. We’re being shown the societies and their contrasts, and the chapters echo thematically. We’re being shown Shevek from all around, and his motivations and intentions. We’re seeing his Life, on both planets, his loves, his work, his politics. Structurally, this is a helix, with the action running towards and away from Shevek’s decision, in the penultimate chapter, to go to Urras, and then on beyond that to his return. (“True journey is return.”) It’s an escalating spiral.

This spiral structure isn’t unknown in SF — Iain Banks used it in Use of Weapons and Ken MacLeod used it in The Stone Canal. But both of those are nineties books, and The Dispossessed is 1974. It isn’t a commonplace structure even now and it was very unusual when Le Guin chose it. Outside SF I can think of more examples, but mostly when there’s a present day thread and a past thread, it concerns a mystery in the past, not the wholeness of a life.

Shevek’s work is physics, and specifically he is attempting to reconcile the theories of Sequence and Simultaneity to come up with an overarching theory of space and time. His theories are extensively discussed and are a major part of the plot, though we never get any details or equations. Le Guin cleverly creates the illusion that we understand the theories, or at least the problems, by use of analogy and by talking about a lot of things around them. She references the Terran physicist “Ainsetain” and makes us realise ourselves as aliens for a moment.

It’s interesting that she specifically uses Einstein. This is a book about two worlds and their relationship. The Hainish and the Terrans are mentioned from time to time, but we don’t see them and their promise of the wider universe until the very end.

The really clever thing about the structure is that by structuring the book as a spiral with events running the way they do, the structure of the book itself, the experience of reading it serves as an illustration of the cycles and spirals and sequences of time and space, and of Shevek’s theories. In the end when Shevek gives his theory to everyone, to all the worlds, and can therefore return to his own flawed utopia, he has widened the pattern, taken it out a step, it’s not just Urras and Anarres in their tidal dance, it’s the rest of the universe as well, and Shevek’s ansible will allow instant communication across the distances light crawls. He is freed to go home and to go on, and the book is freed to end with an opening out of possibilities.

And that’s the kind of book I never get tired of.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

6 comments
Rob T.
1. Rob T.
One genre precedent for the spiral structure of The Dispossessed is Algis Budrys's 1958 novel Who?. I'm pretty sure Budrys chose the structure for roughly the same reason you cite for non-genre novelists, to preserve a sense of mystery in the present-day thread.

While I don't know whether Le Guin was familiar with the Budrys novel, I did once ask Budrys himself (I think in 1998) about his use of the spiral structure, and when I mentioned The Dispossessed in this connection he said he hadn't read it but "now I may have to" (or words to that effect).
Rob T.
2. Tehanu
Something that really resonates for me in this story is the bit where Shevek is thinking about how the Anarresti of his own generation are making their founder Odo's anarchist ideals into a rigid set of rules, or a kind of semi-sacred scripture, that they think no one should be allowed to question -- which of course is the exact opposite of what Odo wanted. It's obviously what's happened in this country. We were founded on the idea of political freedom, but too many people think that means we are beyond criticism -- that freedom doesn't include the freedom to disagree or to suggest improvements, or even to say that we haven't always lived up to our ideals. And it's truer now, unfortunately, than it was in 1974.
Rob T.
3. Daavid Gillette
Does the book still work if it's read chronologically? Or perhaps I should say, did it work for you when you were twelve? Also, what was the best book you'd ever read at that point?

The Dispossessed is a really beautiful book. It also frustrates me. If an author is going to make up physics, I like specifics, so I can identify points-of-departure with the real world (or will be able to do so, in fifty years' time when new discoveries are made). Here, the science struck me as overly metaphysical. That wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but in a book that's subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia," I kind of expect everything to feed back into the utopian theme. The Dispossessed makes anarchism seem a bit more mystical than I'm comfortable with, purely because its main proponent spends the book busily tying his politics into his work. But that's criticizing the book as propaganda: I wanted it to be more convincing, more like the Fall Revolution books.

I wonder what people who strongly oppose anarcho-communism think of the novel as such? . . . not to get all political. It strikes me I probably haven't really read the book, having been to busy thinking about politics to pay proper attention to character and structure &c.

Also, I really hate the term "propertarian." I mean, a lot. It just sounds so incredibly out-of-place amid the graceful Le Guin prose.
Rob T.
4. Raskos
LeGuin was quite explicit elsewhere about the anarchism that she was writing about having some of its roots in Eastern mysticism, specifically early Taoism - can't give you a citation but I remember being struck by this when I read it. On the other hand Odo herself seemed like a real Emma Goldberg figure in Not Long Before the Revolution, not very mystical at all. However, I'm not sure that the physics wasn't quite a sophisticated way of bringing the time-binding nature of human morality into the story - as I recall, Shevek pointed out that human beings can make and keep promises, which no creature which lived solely in the present could do. I wonder if this is why the streeet argot of A-Io mashed all of its tenses together into a sort of universal present tense - living at the bottom of a hierarchy of inequality, the Nioti could know nothing of promises made with the intent of fulfillment, and were forced to live in the present.

"Propertarian" might sound ugly, but I seem to recall that Shevek's native language had a single word which translated as "to coat continuously and thickly with excrement", so prehaps we got off lightly here.
Ashe Armstrong
5. AsheSaoirse
I had to read this book at school in the spring and it was, without a doubt, my favorite of the Utopia/Dystopia books we read for World Lit 2. I adore it in every way you can and I fully plan on reading it again and taking it in more since I won't be reading it for school.
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Daavid: Yes, it worked chronologically when I was twelve, but I had just read it the proper way anyway -- to really know if it worked, somebody would have to read it cold that way. And the best book I had ever read at that point is still in fact the best book I have ever read: The Lord of the Rings. Number one book on my personal list for four decades already, even though I have read some really good other books in those decades.

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