What I’m Reading: Ursula K. Le Guin – The Dispossessed

While The Dispossessed is not quite the consensus novel Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is – mainly due to its purposely controversial subject matter which I imagine will not go down well with many people, and likely was not intended to – I think that even those having issues with the novel will agree that it is one of the seminal works of Science Fiction and like few others shows what the genre at its best is capable of.

The basic premise seems simple enough – two planets, two societies with diametrically opposed politico-economical systems (Anarres is an anarchy, Urras has a variety of states and political systems, but has a pervasive capitalist economy), and a protagonist who crosses from one into the other, thus giving the reader a perspective on both. This also pretty much describes the basic plot of the novel, of which there isn’t a lot – The Dispossessed is very emphatically a novel of ideas, and any reader who cannot get passionate about them will likely be left cold by it. There is a bare minimum of plot (tbe story of Shevek’s life on Anarres, his attempt to reconcile the two planets without being instrumentalized on Urras), but in the main the narrative consists either of people talking about concepts or of people thinking about concepts. The astonishing achievement of The Dispossessed is that despite of this, the novel does not come across as dry and abstract at all, and this is because LeGuin gives the concepts a firm foundation in her characters. The ideas discussed here are not simply decreed by the author and then argued over by sock puppets, but they arise out of who and what the characters are, their specific personalities and their individual histories. In consequence, the many discussions in this novel are very far from being a dry recital of arguments but instead take the form of debates full of life because they are informed by human passions, and are accordingly more enjoyable to read.

Geometrical figures play a big part in this novel – there is the circle that is the symbol for Odonianism, the theory Anarres’ society is based on and which turns up again and again during the course of the novel in a huge variety of contexts. Life on Urras, on the other hand, is generally characterized by straight lines, more often than not forming borders, walls or prison cells; the novel’s second chapter, for example, begins with the image of the moon surrounded by the square of the window it is seen through – Anarres held in check by Urras, capitalism limiting anarchy. On first sight, this might seem like a clear-cut dichotomy, but of course circles are excluding as well as inclusive, and a straight line is something that leads forward, implies change, rather than always returning to the same point as a circle does. In the end, Shevek returns to Anares, ending his voyage by closing a circle, but at the same time he has moved forward through his life, and has (or so one hopes) initiated some progress on both worlds he has dwelled on. Last but not least, there is Shevek’s Unified Theory of Time which precisely aims to combine a cyclical with a linear concept of time.Everything is densely interwoven, the whole novel supported by a network of images whose metaphorical impetus is closely connected to the ideas The Dispossessed discusses, giving their abstractions imaginative depth and texture.

Right from the first sentence of the novel there is a juxtaposition of the neatness of the abstract and the messiness of the concrete, of theory and practice, the ideal and the real. And contrary to what one might expect, this is no dichotomy, no simple favouring of one over the other, the imagery of the crumbling wall already implies that the borders are blurry at best, and that the view from either side has its justification even as its unable to lay claim to being the only and absolute truth. While Le Guin leaves no doubt that  her sympathies lie with the anarchists of Anarres who carve their frugal living out of the harsh surroundings of the moon they live on, she also shows the inherent tendency towards stagnation and bureaucracy in that society, while on the other hand the world of Urras, even as its political system is unfair, keeping a few rich and in power while the masses are poor and oppressed, still has an ease of living and an appreciation of the finer things of life – beauty, art, pure science – that is lacking on Anarres.

That impartiality is also marked by Le Guin’s use of an omniscient narrator, a rather unusual choice of a narrative perspective that appeared somewhat old-fashioned even back when the novel was written, but which suits The Dispossessed perfectly, broadening the novel’s scope beyond the merely personal and opening a wider perspective that embraces multiple worlds and systems. Even almost forty years after its first release, this remains one of the most thought-provoking novels in Science Fiction – and also one of its most beautifully written. Le Guin’s style does not attract much attention to itself, but here she gives us some of the most hauntingly beautiful descriptions of alien landscapes, and her gorgeous prose brings the arid secenery of Anarres to life like the passion of her characters vivifies the dry subject matter of their debates.

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4 comments

  1. I’m gradually working my way through your blog and dipping in as my eye gets caught by various things 🙂 This sounds like a fascinating book, so that’s another to add to the ‘to read’ pile. I read The Left Hand of Darkness about a year ago (must post on it at some point) and found it absolutely captivating, so I’ve been looking out for other recommendations by Le Guin. She is so good at dealing with ideas – and I’m acutely conscious I haven’t read enough of her books. I remember reading Earthsea when I was a child and I’d like to go back to that, but it seems to have been the realm of sci-fi in which she really excelled – in the sense of creating really complex, compelling, thought-provoking worlds…

  2. Another one of hers you might particularly enjoy is Lavinia as that is a historical novel – sort of, at least, as it’s a retelling of the Aeneid. It’s another one I have not read myself yet but heard a lot of good things about, it might well be one of her best.

  3. Ooh, interesting. Thank you! 🙂

    P.S. I have tried to change the thumbnail on these comments but it won’t take. I’m not really green and grumpy, I promise…!

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