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.


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