The Dispossessed: Not simply an anarchist utopia/capitalist dystopia

Ursula Le Guin The DispossessedThe Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed is a perfectly achieved thought experiment, perhaps Ursula K. Le Guin’s greatest achievement, but there is little I can say that hasn’t been said more eloquently, forcefully, thoroughly, or knowledgeably by other reviewers. It transcends genre as a Novel of Ideas. It explores with great intelligence anarchism-socialism vs capitalism; freedom/slavery in terms of politics, economics, society, intellectual endeavor, and personal relationships; the struggle to perfect a scientific theory that unifies time and space; whether human nature inevitably corrupts all political ideals; whether political utopias can ever be achieved to a meaningful degree; whether only hardship and privation can support socialist sentiment; and whether we must therefore settle for capitalism and the pursuit of possessions, money, and power.

Having just read all the many insightful reviews of this towering novel, which remains humble, grounded, and refuses to provide easy answers where there are none, I don’t think I have much to add to the body of discussion and analysis The Dispossessed has generated in the almost half-century since its publication. Rather, I think it has achieved its goal of perfectly integrating a story of Big Ideas with the profoundly-moving story of physicist Shevek in his struggle to pursue his theories in the arid anarchist society of Annares and later in the capitalist societies of the more abundant Urras. It is also a surprisingly powerful love story about Shevek and his partner Takver, as they try to navigate the difficulty of living their ideals within a less-than-perfect anarchist society in which the needs of the group take precedence over those of the individual.

What is really impressive about this book is that is remains gripping and thought-provoking despite a lack of almost any kinetic action or intricacies of plot. It truly rewards the patient reader who wishes to contemplate the ideas presented and examine them in terms of their own life experiences, compare them with their understanding of the political systems that govern their own society, and what aspects could realistically be changed for the better. After all, considering what happened in the disastrous US election in 2016, I don’t think anyone out there could for a moment claim that the US political system is the pinnacle of human achievement.

Having said that, without any viable anarchist social experiments to point to beyond kibbutzes in the desert, it’s hard to say whether that model could ever exist on a large scale in the real world. And that is exactly what The Dispossessed sets out to do — depict a realistic, non-idealized anarchist society that functions with the full participation of its members maintaining continuous revolution on a daily basis. And by showing the flaws and inevitable creep toward bureaucracy, conformism, and petty power struggles, Le Guin is willing to put her anarchist society under stress tests that raise legitimate questions of its viability.

In the end, it’s quite easy for us to see the flaws of capitalism given that it relies on greed, self-interest, consumption, private possessions, and competition between social classes, but it is another thing entirely to create a fictional anarchist utopia and put it through the ringer within the context of a compelling story of real people with complex motivations and ideals. It would be easy to dismiss such a thought experiment as hopelessly idealistic or irrelevant, but I think that would be to miss the point of this book. Le Guin’s book is not a call to arms to discard our corrupt capitalist systems and form anarchist or socialist communities with The Dispossessed as our Little Red Book. Instead, she wants us to examine our own lives and political structures and think about what ideals really should drive society, and then what aspects of our political and social systems should or can be improved upon, since we can all agree they are far from perfect.

Sadly, even when such a hypothetical society is composed of people dedicated to such political ideals as Annares is, it still struggles to hold together over time. It is this willingness to accept the fallibility of all political systems that is Le Guin’s most mature sentiment, one sorely lacking among demagogues or jingo-chanting nationalists. It is the refusal to simplify things that makes The Dispossessed both intellectually-stimulating and politically-unsatisfying, since it is unlikely to galvanize us to action, but rather pushes us to reflect on our own assumptions about ourselves and our societies. It is a masterpiece in the genre and a great book by any measure, one of my all-time favorites.

~Stuart Starosta


Ursula Le Guin The DispossessedThe late 1960’s and early ‘70s was a magnificently productive time in Ursula LeGuin’s career.  Though she continued writing award-winning, successful novels, nothing matches the quality and quantity of her output in this time. The first three novels in the EARTHSEA CYCLE, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, and The Lathe of Heaven were all written then, each winning one if not more awards and flying off shop shelves. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, published in the middle of this stretch, rounds out the triumphant group and is considered by some her greatest achievement.

The Dispossessed is at heart the tale of Shevek and his struggle to acquire and disseminate knowledge in two different socio-economic systems. A minor physicist, Shevek’s research into the effects of time on space is interrupted and downgraded by the orthodox, or exploited by ambitious colleagues. His home planet is essentially a desert wasteland, so basic habitation is also a struggle. Shevek and others, including his partner Takver, spend a great portion of their lives dealing with food shortages and the difficult circumstances arising from their planet’s geological conditions and weather patterns. Feeling his work holds more value than what it is appreciated for, Shevek sets aside his life’s problems and takes drastic steps to change the quality of his research. The surprising result is that the push leads him places he least expected. The grass is not always greener on the other side, and it is the manner in which Shevek compromises the situation that the novel makes its point.

One of literature’s greatest realizations of an anarchic society, The Dispossessed is a thought experiment through and through. LeGuin imagined a planet and its inhabitable moon, placed a system analogous to capitalism on the former and anarchy on the desiccated latter, and named them Anarres and Urras. Not a Che Guevara or Sex Pistols-esque style of anarchy glorifying non-government, LeGuin handles the subject with maturity; the lives of the people on Urras are anything but utopic despite their lack of authority. The social problems they face, while in a context potentially difficult readers to relate to but related clearly by LeGuin, adheres to the nature of an anarchic system — for better and worse. Human vice being what it is, the oft idyllic nature of anarchic theory does not prevent LeGuin from exposing its vulnerable side. The capitalist system being more well-known, she portrays the Anarrens with equal aplomb, and the resulting ideological clashes between the two planets serve up the tension in the novel, not to mention being amongst the greatest social commentary sci-fi has produced.

The Dispossessed’s narrative structure alternates between the two planets, Anarres and Urras, with a chapter at a time devoted to each. Innate to this structure is also an oscillating timeline: the concluding events of the Anarres timeline correspond to opening events of Urras’ to form a satisfying whole. This structure, while breaking from the linear to make the text more engaging for the reader, likewise forms an analogy to the ultimate outcome of Shevek’s research. This symbolism, both in the narrative and in denouement, is rich.

In the end, The Dispossessed is a peak of anthropological science fiction and one of the top twenty-five science fiction books ever written. LeGuin’s voice is neither lavish nor expansive; she writes in effective prose, sensitive to the causes and effects of the social concerns raised. Shevek, those he encounters, and social systems they are a part of are dealt with in a realistic fashion that further confirms LeGuin’s maturity. Both answering and raising an equal number of profound questions, this book is for the ages.

~Jesse Hudson

The Dispossessed — (1974) Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. he will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Anarres, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.

The Hainish Cycle — (1966-2000) From Wikipedia: The Hainish Cycle consists of a number of science fiction novels and stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is set in an alternate history/future history in which civilizations of human beings on a number of nearby stars, including Terra (Earth), are contacting each other for the first time and establishing diplomatic relations, setting up a confederacy under the guidance of the oldest of the human worlds, peaceful Hain. In this history, human beings did not evolve on Earth but were the result of interstellar colonies planted by Hain long ago, which was followed by a long period when interstellar travel ceased. Some of the races have new genetic traits, a result of ancient Hainish experiments in genetic engineering, including a people who can dream while awake, and a world of androgynous people who only come into active sexuality once a month, and can choose their gender. In keeping with Le Guin’s soft science fiction style, the setting is used primarily to explore anthropological and sociological ideas. The Hainish novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed have won literary awards, as have the novella The Word for World Is Forest and the short story The Day Before the Revolution. Le Guin herself has discounted the idea of a “Hainish Cycle”, writing on her website that “The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones.”

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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7 comments

  1. Absolutely wonderful review, Jesse! You summarize the brilliance of this novel’s themes and structure with precision. The book is driven by ideas, not action, and despite this I was completely entranced by it in high school, though I knew I must be missing deeper levels of meaning. This one is long overdue for another read, this time as an adult, along with The Left Hand of Darkness.

  2. Great review. I read The Dispossessed perhaps 15 years ago and I’m still haunted by some of the scenes–Shevek’s experiences are incredibly powerful.

    I just reread Left Hand of Darkness this past fall and was blown away by the structural genius of it (something that had gone right over my head when I read it long ago, when I was in high school).

    • To be direct, when I read most of the fiction Le Guin published after The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness, I’m left wondering: why couldn’t she have continued producing fully mature science fiction. This is not to say that her later fiction is bad, only that is has a certain simplicity, sometimes ham-fistedness to it when compared with those two novels. The Telling and Four Ways to Forgiveness, for example, both have great, worthwhile themes that makes the books readable on that premise alone. But at a story level, they outright lack the sophistication of Left Hand and Dispossessed…

      And Stuart, good review!

    • Yes, I consider The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness to be two of the most intelligent and literate SF masterpieces in the genre. I wish she had continued to produce more SF books in the same vein, but her artistic interests seem to have changed after that.

  3. I still don’t understand why USA in their presidential election doesn’t decide it by popular vote and instead uses dated system

  4. Jesse, I do wonder why Le Guin changed the direction of her writing after her Hainish Cycle peak period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its hardly uncommon for artists to reinvent themselves and change their themes and style and I don’t begrudge that at all, but I do regret that she decided not to produce more intellectual SF masterpieces like The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. To be honest, I haven’t read much of her later output like Always Coming Home, Annals of the Western Shore, Lavinia, The Telling, The Other Wind, Four Ways to Forgiveness, etc, so I really can’t say much about it. I will be listening to Four Ways to Forgiveness soon since the stories are contained in the audiobooks of The Unreal and Real and The Found and Lost. Just like David Bowie or Madonna or Robert De Niro, many dedicated artists are not satisfied to retread the same ground, which invariably will alienate some fans but create new ones at the same time. I would imagine the most dedicated fans of Ursula K. Le Guin will have read everything she’s produced, so I will definitely try to broaden my reading of her later work.

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