The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin is a highly acclaimed classic science fiction novel. The story alternates between the twin planets of Anarres and Urras. It is a detailed and thoughtful examination of culture, both of the alien cultures that the author has fashioned and, indirectly, of our own human cultures.
Anarres is an anarchistic society. Its inhabitants call themselves Odonians after the founder of their movement. The main character is Shevek, an Odonian physicist who is working on a type of Grand Unification Theory that seems to be symbolic of some of the book’s themes. The narrative concerns Shevek’s groundbreaking visit to Urras. Shevek is the first citizen of Anarres to visit Urras in centuries.
In comparing anarchist Anarres to traditional human societies, Le Guin has fashioned a complex and nuanced novel that digs deeply into human society, economics, poverty, violence, gender and more.
The society of Anarres is anarchist, but unlike the libertarian visions so popular these days, it is extremely community orientated. Social pressure keeps most people from harming others and prompts them to contribute to society in the form of work, creativity, etc. As envisioned by its founder,
“There was to be no controlling center, no capital, no establishment for the self-perpetuating machinery of bureaucracy and the dominance drive of individuals seeking to become captains, bosses, chiefs of state”
Anarres is very flawed. Nevertheless, based on both the novel’s narrative and on the commentary by Le Guin herself, it is clearly meant to represent a culture superior to traditional human ones.
Urras is composed of multiple nations, and it is roughly parallel to the situation that prevailed on Earth in the 1970s, with two power blocs, a capitalist and a communist, in opposition. There are also third-world nations, rich nations, revolutions, etc.
Le Guin effectively uses the nations of Urras as a counterpoint to the anarchist society of Anarres.
The chapters of the book alternate between a narrative of Shevek’s life on Anarres and his historic stay on Urras. Over the course of the story, we are given a close look at the inner workings of the societies on both planets.
Based upon history and economics, I do not believe the Odonian society would actually work. Le Guin does convincingly portray how social pressure to work and to not harm others can be at times very influential. However, I think that in a society without an effective government or monetary rewards for work, more and more people will act in anti-social ways, or at least choose not to contribute to society through work. Eventually, things would fall apart. With that, Le Guin portrays a nuanced, well thought out system that is, at the very least, plausible.
Shevek’s characterization is also fairly strong. He is somewhat of a loner and an outsider in a society that values community above all else. At times, he rebels against his culture’s rules; at other times, it is illustrated that these rules are a part of who he is. He is shown to be a multifaceted person. He is thus described,
“The social conscience, the opinion of others, was the most powerful moral force motivating the behavior of most Anarresti, but it was a little less powerful in him than in most of them. “
This book is really suburb. Those interested in the examination of society will likely get a lot out of it. One does not have to agree with the principles of the anarchist society that Le Guin has fashioned in order to appreciate this insightful critique of humanity.
In one or more future posts, I will be delving a little deeper into the ideas and social criticism contained in this novel.