The Dispossessed Review

23:49 Thu 30 Apr 2009. Updated: 12:38 21 May 2009
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Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed won the Nebula in 1974, and the Hugo and Locus in 1975. It’s a classic of science fiction, but represents a clear break from the three preceding triple-crown winners. It’s much “softer” science fiction, with less focus on technology (even though, in a sense, a technological breakthrough is at the core of the plot) and more focus on social and political issues.

There are really two key stories in it, both of which focus on a collectivist anarchist society on a poor, relatively inhospitable planet, Anarres. This society was founded by political exiles from the richer sister planet, Urras. The narrative, which is split into a contemporary stream and a flashback stream, is about a phycisist from Anarres, Shevek, his life, and his journey to Urras as the first person from Anarres to visit Urras since the exiles founded their society.

As an exploration of what it means to be human, examined in the light of vastly different circumstances, it is a tour de force. LeGuin does an excellent job of illustrating the impact of social differences on individuals, and her characters are compelling and realistic. Further, the societies themselves seem realistic, and perhaps the most radical aspect of the novel is not the story of the founding of Anarres, coming out of industrial capitalism on Urras, but the demonstration of the need for a kind of revolution on Anarres itself, one hundred and seventy years later.

As an anarchist, I’m probably predisposed to like the book, but I think that it’s an excellent inquiry into the nature of freedom itself, and into the question of what it is, and how it relates to community, safety, custom, law, and money.

I now want to read “To Read The Dispossessed“, Samuel R. Delany’s critique of the novel, to see what Delany felt its weaknesses were. It certainly has some, and I do think that stylistic issues are why I had trouble getting into it when I first read it in 1999. I’m sure that there are many significant arguments to be made against its vision of how Anarresti society would work, and exploring those would be fruitful. Nevertheless, it’s an important and powerful portrait of a society built entirely on the notion of individual freedom, a modern industrial society deliberately engineered to be without a state, and in its examination of the problems such a society might face, it raises issues that are relevant to the key question of “how do we get there from here?”

It’s my favorite, by quite a margin, of the triple-crown winners I’ve read so far this year (Ringworld, The Gods Themselves, Rendezvous with Rama), which I wouldn’t necessarily have thought before reading it this month, and I highly recommend it.

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