Book Review: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
The basic premise is fairly simple. The Tau Ceti star system is home to two twin planets, Urras and Anarres. Urras is a verdant, hospitable world that has been inhabited by humanoid life for millennia. Anarres, on the other hand, is a sparsely populated desert world that was settled two hundred years ago by revolutionary anarchists. Aside from a single freighter that periodically makes the trip, the two worlds — archist Urras and anarchist Anarres — are completely isolated from each other. The story starts with the first person traveling from Anarres to Urras since the revolution that lead to the settlement of Anarres.
What makes The Dispossessed a remarkable work of literature is the ease with which it explores a wide range of fascinating and important themes and topics through the lens of a compelling plot and cast of characters. Many books have one or more of these elements — compelling characters, compelling plot, interesting political ideas, interesting scientific ideas, interesting philosophical ideas, etc. The Dispossessed combines all of the above into an impressively cohesive and compelling narrative.
The main obvious theme is the role of government in human societies. The simplest explanation of the plot is that it’s a utopian tale exploring what it would be like if an anarchist (specifically anarcho-syndicalist) society had an entire world on which to develop its own social institutions and culture. This is contrasted with the realities of the archist (a.k.a. statist) world. Urras is dominated by two nation-states — the capitalist (“propertarian”) A-Io and the communist Thu. These two nation-states are drawn into a proxy war that serves as a fairly transparent (but creatively executed) analogy for the real-world conflict in Vietnam and the Cold War generally.
There are, however, many additional nuances to the setting and story that go beyond the role of government. Gender, sex, and sexuality are explored at some length, contrasting the patriarchy and possessive of A-Io with the gender equality and sexual liberation of Anarres. Physics and philosophy are also discussed at great length because the main character, Shevek, is a theoretical physicist and philosopher who is searching for a unified theory of time and space similar to the one that real-world physicists are searching for.
Part of what makes The Dispossessed such an exceptional novel is its utopian realism. The dichotomy between Urras and Anarres initially seems quite simple — the dystopian “propertarians” versus the utopian anarchists. As the novel progresses, however, the narrative explores the strengths and weaknesses of both worlds in a complex and realistic manner. Anarres clearly has the more liberatory society, but its emphasis on mutual aid ironically leads to an overemphasis on social approval and acceptance which can discourage innovation and independent thinking. Urras is clearly a troubled propertarian society, but their world has so much more material wealth and abundance of living creatures. Shevek has many interesting and rewarding experiences on Urras, even though A-Io’s institutions and culture are ultimately contrary to his values.
The Dispossessed offers an exciting exploration of life’s nature and purpose. The depth and thoughtfulness of this exploration is rare both in fiction and reality. It’s an exciting (and at times harrowing) journey through many questions about life, love, the world, the cosmos, and everything in between. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone. I’m also glad to see that others have already developed curricula related to The Dispossessed. This is a book that should be taught in literature, philosophy, and other classes right along with other great classics of utopian and dystopian fiction.