The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread

The Dispossessed, Part I: A Woman in Every Table Top

A biweekly series, The Ursula K. Le Guin Reread explores anew the transformative writing, exciting worlds, and radical stories that changed countless lives. This week we’ll be covering The Dispossessed, first published by Harper & Row in 1974. My edition is Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2014, and this installment of the reread covers pages 1 to 191 (out of a total of 387 pages)

In the popular imagination, Ursula Le Guin is best remembered as a feminist science fiction writer, always mentioned in the same breath as Margaret Atwood or Joanna Russ. People also really like her quote about capitalism and the divine right of kings, which ruffled feathers during her 2014 National Book Award acceptance speech. Anyone who’s shared one of the many meme-ings of that quote (paired with an image of Le Guin or an inspiring mountain landscape) is probably unsurprised to discover that Le Guin is just as well known for her anti-capitalist utopianism and—dare I say—her anarchism. In fact, if The Left Hand of Darkness (LHoD) marked Le Guin at the end of the 1960s as a leading voice of mainstream feminist science fiction—despite not being a self-identified feminist until more than a decade later—The Dispossessed reinvigorated utopian writing after more than half-a-century of quiessence and furthered Le Guin’s recognition as a literary master of SF.

Many readers enjoy or even love The Dispossessed, but two groups of people (with occasional overlap) really love or at least love talking about the novel: leftists and academics. The reasons are probably obvious. It’s anticapitalist and, as Netflix’s genre algorithms would have it, “cerebral.” The Dispossessed is neither an easy read nor a particularly thrilling one, at least insofar as the pursuit of adventure and excitement go. Certainly there is nothing like the flight over the ice of LHoD or the scouring of the darkness in The Tombs of Atuan. There are emotional highs and scenes of tense action, as well as a minor revolutionary plot, but on the whole The Dispossessed is a slow burn, a novel that chews its intellectual cud and makes you stop, slow down, and think (there’s no antacid on Anarres, you propertarian!). For this reason, and because of the novel’s importance to the post-1968 utopian tradition, The Dispossessed is the Le Guin novel academics have engaged with the most. It’s one of the few SF novels to which an entire collection of essays has been devoted and its use of political theory is the subject of a (rather engaging) 300-page book by a political scientist.

All that said, I don’t particularly enjoy reading The Dispossessed, which always feels a bit like homework. I can say so in all fairness because I actually first read the novel as homework in a master’s level course on SF and postcolonial politics. Later, a twenty-pager I wrote on sex, gender, and the “libidinal economy” in The Dispossessed got me into PhD programs, where I then learned to make a living(-ish) writing things like this and pretending I know what “libidinal economy” means or who Jean-François Lyotard is. But the “work” of reading The Dispossessed is part of the pleasure of the novel—at least for me—and is integral to what good political writing (by which I mean writing about power) does. It makes you think beyond lefty taglines like “capitalism is bad!” “eat the rich!” or “viva la revolución!” (poorly pronounced by that one guy in the inevitable Che shirt)—all of which I’ve said and/or Tweeted—and instead challenges us to dig into what revolution and radical change mean.

The Dispossessed envisions one outcome of a political revolution against the state and capitalism, but it is a revolution that is always incomplete. As we’ll see throughout this Le Guin reread, The Dispossessed is not alone in pushing us to think beyond commonplace understandings of political possibility. And like her later utopian work (especially Always Coming Home), The Dispossessed is not complacent work, lending itself to singular interpretations; it calls out to be read again and again, it is not a circle but to be squared, but an organism alive and mutating with each turn of the page. And so I return to it again. 

As I did with LHoD, I’m going to put off talking about what seems like the most obvious thing: the novel as an “ambiguous utopia” (the original subtitle, rarely reprinted as such), what that might mean, why it might matter. Instead, what strikes me as the more interesting thing to talk about and as a theme absolutely integral to Le Guin’s vision of political revolution in this novel (building on LHoD), is how The Dispossessed deals with gender. Or maybe it’s better to say how Shevek and the anarchists deal with it.

The Dispossessed has a surprising lot in common with LHoD: a human people roughly similar to “us” in the middle of the twentieth century, a “free” society at odds with a state-socialist one, intervening Hains and Terrans, and a POV character who serves as our guide. Only, this time, the novel is third-person and doesn’t switch character perspective but does shift between past and present. Shevek isn’t the ethnographer from the Ekumen here to learn about all-Cetian society, but is an Anarresti physicist, somewhat ostracized by his people for his desire to broach the nearly two-century separation between his society and the Urrasti’s. Shevek is a pseudo-outsider among his own people, not able to fully fit in with the social organism, and a definite outsider among the “propertarian” (read: capitalist, owning, greedy, etc.) folk of Urras. He is, moreover, an absolute genius who by the end of the novel supplies the equation for the creation of the ansible device that allows Ekumen representatives to send messages across space with no time-delay (a device that makes Genly’s work possible in LHoD).

In the first half of the novel, Le Guin alternates between the early days of Shevek’s groundbreaking voyage to Urras and his time as a guest of the physics department of Ieu Eun University in A-Io (one of two major Urrasti nations, the other being the state-socialist Thu). As I’ll discuss next time, whereas most utopian novels before Le Guin sent an outsider into the utopian society, tracing their voyage through the social, economic, and political structures of the “better” worlds offered by Gilman’s Herland or Bellamy’s United States, Le Guin cut the narrative in half, shuffled the deck, and used Shevek’s awkward social positioning on Anarres and Urras alike to explore the meanings of her version of utopia from the inside out.

We begin with Shevek boarding a rocket to Urras, mobbed by Anarresti mad or confused or simply curious about his decision, and once he’s safely there and has been pulled through the intoxicating first night with propertarians, we are whisked back to his childhood to watch Shevek grow up as an outsider: first for making a joke of Zeno’s Paradox among schoolchildren and later for excelling academically in a way that seems to threaten the integrity of the non-egoist society envisioned by good ole Odo. Le Guin cuts between Shevek’s past in the unaesthetic domiciles of Annares and his present in the luxury of Urras, and throughout it what I find most fascinating is how the growing boy, then teen, and now man interacts with women—emotionally and physically—and how he perceives the Urrasti’s vision of gender.

In short, we see a Shevek who is utterly shocked by the casual and obvious sexism of Urras. This is brought to the fore in a conversation about the absence of women in the sciences on Urras shortly after his arrival, when his hosts, all men, laugh at the idea that women might have the capacity for higher intellect. The one concession they are willing to make is that women could probably work as lab assistants or secretaries attending to the menial drudgery of scientific progress that frees up men for the important intellectual discoveries only they are capable of making. When the lofty Ieu Eun physicists discover that fully half of Anarresti scientists are women, and moreover that the respected physicist Gvarab is a woman, they balk, chock it up to cultural differences, and change the subject.

The ridiculousness of the physicists’ sentiments seems a bit too on-the-nose. Maybe it’s simply dated, the kind of thing an SNL skit set in the 1950s or 1960s might play for an easy laugh, or maybe it’s how Le Guin contrasts the physicists’ dismissal of women to cool-headed Shevek’s assertion of women as equally capable to men. But Le Guin isn’t really caricaturing American society, even of the early 1970s; she’s simply describing it. It’s this exact kind of thinking that led women to become the first literal computers and is the background behind a film like Hidden Figures (2016) or Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut books, where women’s only acceptable presence in science is as bean counters, wives, and mothers.

Shevek’s society is on the surface fully gender neutral, even down to the most basic senses of what “we” think of as having to do with men and women’s roles under patriarchy: children and sex. Childrearing is communal and one person doesn’t fuck another (a person doing a thing to another), they copulate together (two or more people engaging in a mutual act). Yet, Anarres is not a perfect utopia. We need only glimpse conversations between young Shevek and his friends about women, where they conclude among other things that women are natural propertarians because they have a biological drive to possess by virtue of their ability to “have” children (Anarresti don’t really use possession in their language, but Le Guin can be allowed this slip-up by analogy, since the concept of “having” children is undeniably powerful in English). And why do they say these things? Because they are horny, frustrated teens resentful of the “oppressive” presence of women in their lives; if their dicks are hard and their collars hot, someone has to be blamed, even on Anarres.

Moreover, Shevek’s early adult sexual experiences are fraught with questions of possession: does he possess Beshun in the dusty fields, does she possess him, or do they co-possess each other in the throes of ecstasy? Shevek’s relationships to women remain bound up with questions of possession and property, even with his life-partner Takver. No doubt the enlightened pseudo-feminist who defends women’s capabilities to the physicists on Urras is a better person, ethically, than those Urrasti men where gender and sexism are concerned, but Le Guin goes a long way to give us detailed glimpses at the gender psychology of Shevek. Whether we can generalize that to all Anarresti is another question… But that sexism still pervades society in some way after the revolution is fascinating and lies at the heart of the ambiguous-utopia vision Le Guin puts forward. In other words, political economy isn’t everything, where social change is concerned (niche joke: pay attention, Walter Benn Michaels!), but more on that in a fortnight.

I can’t talk about gender and sex in this novel without mentioning two things; one we haven’t gotten to yet—a sexual assault—but the other is right there from the begining. Shevek comes from an aesthetically dreary world. Everything is rudimentary, sharp-edged, functional. This is partly a product of Odonian anarchism (shaped by Le Guin’s brand of Taoism) and partly a necessity of environment: Anarres is resource-poor. Urras, however, is a lush world of greenery, of temperate climate, of forests abounding with trees whose leaves are so broad and many that to Shevek their thriving organic presence is overwhelming, extravagant, and an easy analogy to the capitalist indulgence in luxury that defines Urras. 

And the Urrasti are themselves lush beings! Where on Anarres clothes are rough-spun and plain, and dessert is a rare treat, on Urras people wear layers of lavish clothings and eat whenever and whatever they please. Indulgence is social law, and what’s more it’s gendered: women shave their heads to meet beauty standards, don very little clothing, oil their skin until it shines provocatively, and adorn themselves with glittering navel jewels that suggest treasures further south.

These aesthetic differences, gendered as they are on Urras, manifest in the way Le Guin’s two societies treat sex and sexuality. Where on Anarres sex is normative, people are unshy about it, and it is a joyous merging of two beings in a wonderful metaphor for the social-economic organism that Odonian anarchism attempts to produce through its communitarian way of life, on Urras (as it’s still very much in the U.S. today) sex is naughty. It’s exciting, it’s desirable, it’s everywhere in advertisements and movies and drives a huge porn industry, yet it is all these things because it is so taboo, so behind-closed-doors. It is that which still embarrasses us; we don’t want to hear that our parents fucked and we don’t want them to know we do too!

Urras is hardly different in its treatment of sex and Le Guin brilliantly captures this through Shevek’s exploration of the simple objects of everyday Urrasti life, first on the ship between worlds and later in his private bathroom at the university. Everything from the softness of his first Urrasti bed to a blow dryer to the smooth curves of chairs are to him “faintly, pervasively erotic.” So much so that Shevek questions his own sexual sanity, a point Le Guin vividly puts: “He knew himself well enough to be sure that a few days without Takver, even under great stress, should not get him so worked up that he felt a woman in every table top.” And yet he does.

Calling out the artistic drives of celibate Urrasti craftsmen, Le Guin distills an essential aspect of patriarchy: the objectification of women through means literal, linguistic, and metaphorical. Shevek (and other Anarresti men) may participate in sexist discussions but their sexism is not intertwined with the sexualization of women insofar as sexualization ends up implicating a larger set of socio-economic forces that establish power inequities between men and women. Yeah, sexism exists on Anarres but is largely relegated to the realm of teenage angst and asshattery, and has hardly had a major effect on the Odonian project of decentralizing power. On Urras, however, among the erotic luxuries of daily life, where even the word “Urrasti” has something vaguelly sexual about it, capital and desire and flesh and sex and object fuse together, limbs lost in the orgy of self-conscious profiteering. After all, sex sells.

Before we part ways, ammar, I have to ask: Is this your first time with The Dispossessed? Are you also returning and wrestling anew with Anarres and Urras? Let me know what grabbed you in the first half of the novel, what you noticed, what phrases stuck in your brain—how have the anarchists poisoned you? 

I look forward to reading your responses and will see you here in two weeks’ time on Wednesday, March 18, for the second half of The Dispossessed.

EDIT: Due to new demands on my time caused by the need to simultaneously work from home and look after my second-grader, the second half of The Dispossessed reread has been pushed back a week to Wednesday, March 25. Apologies for the inconsistency.

Sean Guynes is a critic, writer, and editor currently working on a book about how the Korean War changed American science fiction, and co-writing a book on whiteness for the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series. For politics, publishing, and SFF content, follow him on Twitter @saguynes.

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