The Dispossessed is one of LeGuin’s more lauded novels, having won a slew of awards including the Hugo and the Nebula (the two highest awards in science fiction). Indeed, it’s a brilliantly executed novel, with an amazing writing style. The ideas she posits in this novel were relevant at the time, and continue to be relevant now, which is quite the accomplishment. That’s the problem with it, though, at least in my opinion. It’s an idea book.
The story alternates between the past and present per chapter, both timelines centering around Shevek, a brilliant physicist who lives on the planet of Anarres, which is run as an community-centric anarchy. Personal responsibility and the opinion of one’s neighbors (since everyone must work together in order to survive) are the paramount principles of the society, which formed as an autonomous colony of its sister world Urras as a place to send the rebelling Odonians (the anarchist movement lead by a woman named Odo).
Needing the additional resources available on Urras in order to complete his Unified Field Theory in the field of Temporal Physics, Shevek leaves Anarres, rousing the enmity of many of his peers. The story bounces between the events leading up to his departure and his time spent on Urras (a “propertarian society”). From there, the story is largely about the nature of being in an alien society, and the greed of that world. He ultimately completes his theory, and escapes, arranging for it to be broadcast throughout the known universes, so that no government or world can “own” the idea. He then returns home.
There are interesting events that transpire within the book, and the setting is well thought out. The characterizations are well formulated. The book is technically flawless. Something about it rankles with me, however. Taken as an abstract it really feels like a setup; a way to preach about political, economic, and philosophic ideologies, couched inside a fictive universe. It’s the same setup Heinlein used in For Us, the Living, though he didn’t do it as well. The basic structure is the same: thrust an individual into another world (whether through time or space), and let that individual and the other world’s inhabitants have a dialogue about the differences in their cultures.
I don’t really have a problem with “idea books”. They can be a great deal of fun to read, and I tend to enjoy them. Hell, I enjoyed The Dispossessed, don’t get me wrong. I think what makes it sit uneasily for me is that this is LeGuin we’re talking about. She made a point of dunning expositional lumps in her book on writing Steering the Craft, and yet is guilty of writing a book filled with them. It just seems a little hypocritical.
All that said, I’d still recommend the book, but with the warning that it IS an “idea book”. If you are looking for conflict and resolution, this is not the book for you. Still, it’s probably one of the best books I’ve read on the subject of an anarchistic society that might actually work. It reminds me that one of the fundamental roles of science fiction (or speculative fiction, if you want to be more precise) is to push ideas forward, to couch the dangerous or frightening in ways that allow us to face them. To say, “Danger be damned, what if…”
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York: Eos, 2001.