Book Review: The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed was the first book I read in 2022 – and what a way to start the year!

Although in terms of review, it poses quite a challenge. It’s so grand in scope, so sweeping in its message and so deep in its portrayal of both the largest and most intimate of human experiences that a 1,000-odd words about why it’s a ‘good book’ seems like a grand understatement. It’d be like describing Machu Picchu as a nice bit of town planning.

The full power of science fiction on show

The Dispossessed is a perfect showcase of the validity of science fiction as a genre. Ursula Le Guin deftly uses all the tools at her disposal to explore big questions about the human experience, in a novel both sweeping in its revelations and intimate in its execution.

This is what science fiction is for: using the salve of fiction to ease the discomfort that comes from asking big, difficult questions about the common struggles that bind us to each other.

The novel is so layered that I imagine every review will claim the book is about something different. That’s the power of great art.

The power of ideas

For me, The Dispossessed is about the power of ideas. Our main character is Shevek. His home world of Anarres exists because hundreds of years before the novel is set, a revolutionary on Urras set out her ideas for an new society, one free from the competition of capitalism, where every citizen was treated equally and the pursuit of the common good was both the occupation and reward of every member of the community.

Shevek himself is forced to leave Anarres because of his own ideas, the science of which is at odds with the ideas of Anarres; his theories could make faster-than-light travel and communication a reality – not something a bunch of desert-dwellers with no interest in leaving their home world or exchanging messages with the likes of Urras have any use for.

Shevek’s drive to fulfil his purpose borders on egotism as far as the Anaresti are concerned. His efforts to pursue his science, and even establish lines of communication with scientists on Urras is viewed as traitorous.

But on Urras, Shevek represents dangerous ideas as well. He is a member of the anarchists, who left on what many had believed to be a doomed experiment in communist living.

His presence, and the very survival of Anarres over several generations, threatens the balance of a society that thought it had excavated that seam of discontent and unrest and shipped it off to another world hundreds of years ago.

Making space for the reader

Le Guin is telling stories about powerful ideas, but the novel is delivered with an impressively uncritical eye. The book doles out piercing and illuminating insights into human nature with the kind of excess enjoyed by the capitalist denizens of the planet Urras, yet for the most part the narrator makes no attempt to guide you towards the idea that one is ‘right’ and one is ‘wrong’.

In fact, my only negative comment about this book would be that, towards the end, part of Shevek’s journey does take a pretty extreme turn after the gentle and subtle unfolding of the plot up until this point, with a few developments that I felt did go too far towards influencing the reader’s perception of Urras in an unnecessary spelling out – a solidification of an idea that better served the book when it remained only a question, or a possibility.

With the worlds of Urras and Anarres, Le Guin presents us with two different ways of building a human society. Urras is a capitalist world, filled with excess and inequality in (ironically) equal measure.

Staying in a university in one of its cities after his space voyage, Shevek experiences luxury he’d never even imagined back on Anarres.

His home world, Anarres – Urras’ desert moon – is a communist world supposedly free of power structures.

The terrain is unforgiving and life can be harsh, but people are sustained by the selflessness of others and their dedication to the common good.

While on Urras women are property and to be kept out of pursuits such as academia, on Anarres the sexes are equal and what matters is a person’s skills, not their biology.

Both worlds are deeply distrustful of each other, the only contact they have with each other being the eight freighters per year that bring supplies and messages to Anarres and return to Urras with the metals mined from its moon.

And Le Guin is content to stand back and offer up a broad spectrum of experiences for both systems of governance and economy, presenting the facts of life and leaving it up to the reader to decide which community pays the greater price for its existence. In fact, when the book was first published it featured the tagline: ‘The magnificent epic of an ambiguous utopia!

Just scratching the surface of this extraordinary story

And yet we still are only just beginning to dive into all that this book holds! Perhaps it is a mistake on my part to try and summarise and explain it, and my thoughts and reaction to it, after just one read through.

I feel as though I should set a recurring appointment with this book, reading it perhaps once per year and, maybe, after a decade or more I could unpack and unpick it more thoroughly.

I haven’t yet mentioned, for instance, Shevek’s character, and how he manages to retain such agency in the story despite being withdrawn, quiet and at many times amicable. How his is a quiet revolution.

And on, and on. There is much more to say, no doubt. But really what matters is not the specifics. What matters is this book is deep, layered, nuanced, and profound.

It is science fiction at its best. I haven’t read enough Ursula Le Guin books to know if it’s her at her best, but if not, well…