Book: The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

Dispossessed Cover ImageThe Dispossessed, originally published in 1974, and in print ever since then, is possibly Le Guin’s most intellectually challenging novel.

It is placed far away in the future – a long distance from the earth; yet it is easy to identify with.

It is a book about two societies – one a model egalitarian, anarchist, resource-strapped society (with its flaws) and another a resource-rich, capitalist society with huge inequalities. It is a story about a physicist (also an idealist) who wants to learn from others and share his findings with the whole of humanity. It is about the benefits of community collaboration while celebrating the lonely journey of the creative genius.

The Dispossessed is a timeless tale, with a science fiction setting, but appealing from a literary point of view. It is rooted in the political issues, communal counter-culture, and women’s movement of the late 1960s and early 70s.

It is hard to put down, once you start reading it. I have read it four times over the last 20 years, and I am likely to read it many more times.

The book has been studied and analyzed by scholars and students and is a subject of research.

Title The Dispossessed
Author(s) Ursula K Le Guin
Initially Published In 1974
Publisher Multiple – Orion Publishing Group, Harper Voyager, Easton Press, Harper & Row, Gateway
Formats Available Hardcover, Paperback
Available At Amazon.com, Amazon.in, and Flipkart.com.

“Le Guin’s book, written in her solid, no-nonsense prose, is so persuasive that it ought to put a stop to the writing of prescriptive Utopias for at least 10 years.”

The New York Times 

The World(s)

Far away in the future and far away from the earth, human beings have occupied and thrived on other planetary systems, while the earth has been destroyed (our earth is not the focus in this book).

The Dispossessed is set on Urras (settled long ago) and Anarres (more recently settled) –  the twin inhabited worlds of Tau Ceti star system.

Urras (the planet settled earlier) is divided into several states which are dominated by the two rivals. The state A-Io has a capitalist economy and patriarchal system and the state called Thu is an authoritarian system that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat. In Urras (A-Io is state that is in focus in this novel) there is a large mass of miserable people serving a small set of privileged elite.  Women in Urras play an ornamental role in society.

Urras is resource rich. People in Urras compete all the time – individuals and nations wanting to dominate each other. And of course, there is always some kind of simmering discontent among the have-nots.

Anarres is a twin world of Urras, settled 170 years ago by rebels and revolutionaries from Urras. The people of Anarres consider themselves as being free and independent, having broken off from the political and social influence of Urras. Anarres is also cut-off from humanity at large, though there is some controlled trade with Urras.

In Annares, there are very few laws, no prisons, no law-enforcement entity, etc. People who initially settled were influenced by the teachings of their leader, Odo. Those born later in Anarres are taught to put the interests of the society before themselves, right from the very childhood. Folks of Anarres personally own next to nothing and quickly travel to places where their skill, time and energy is required for the benefit of the society. Even people with special skills (like scientists and engineers) take their turn at low-skilled, unpleasant jobs like public toilet cleaning.

Children are brought up by the society – parents visit them whenever they are in the same town. Anarres is also a harsh, barren world which is not easily habitable (an equivalent of a mining society). Animated intellectual discussions, chatting, singing, reciting poetry, walking with friends are the luxuries people enjoy – and they relish these moments.

The Story

The story of The Dispossessed is set around 2 centuries after Anarres is first settled by the revolutionaries. It traces the life of a brilliant physicist, Shevek and how he makes unprecedented scientific break-through, in the harsh, resource-constrained planet of Anarres.

Shevek’s work is to unite the principles of Sequency (time moves forward in a linear fashion, like an arrow) and Simultaneity (all times are present at once) into a General Temporal Theory. A theory that could make instantaneous communication possible across space.

Eventually he needs to collaborate with scientists who are his equal, and decides to be the first human being to make the reverse journey from Anarres to Urras.

In the novel we get to know about about Shevek’s childhood, his teenage years, his young adulthood, his journey to Urras and the events after he lands in Urras. In this journey, we are exposed to the differences, drawbacks and positives of various social and political models. We also meet other endearing characters like Shevek’s partner Takver and many of his friends.

The story starts with Shevek’s trip from Anarres and Urras. The past and the present and beautifully interwoven across the book.

Worth Reading Multiple Times

The book is so well-written, that it carried me into this make-believe world, long time in the future.

I could clearly visualize the two worlds, and often wished that our society had more similarities to Anarres (the Utopian-anarchist, egalitarian world), while despairing that  it was becoming like Urras (greedy, individualistic, capitalist, with insurmountable inequalities).

Sub-consciously, I got involved in the idealistic discussions (on politics, society, culture, human life, collaboration, governance) between young Shevek and his friends and colleagues, and wished I was present with them to add my views to the debates.

I also completely identified with the young, brilliant, idealistic scientist – Shevek, who is the hero of the book.

Definitely worth reading and having a copy for a re-read. It is available at Amazon.comAmazon.in, and Flipkart.com.

Some Quotes from the Book

Here are some quotes from the book:

  • “My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and fought and gobbled until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first.”
  • “There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
  • “Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it, you cannot use it.”

About the author

Ursula Le Guin (born in 1929) is an American author of novels, children’s books, and short stories. She writes mainly in the genres of fantasy and science fiction, but her work is often also classified as literature.

Le Guin has also written poetry and essays. First published in the 1960s, her work usually explores politics, society, nature, environment, gender, religion, and sexuality in futuristic, alternate and hypothetical worlds.

Le Guin has won the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus Award, and World Fantasy Award, many of them more than once.

Her books include The Left Hand of Darkness, City of Illusions, and The Lathe of Heaven, among many others.

“Her writing is remarkable… Le Guin’s characters are complex and haunting.”

— TIME

“Le Guin, one of modern science fiction’s most acclaimed writers, is also a fantasist of genius.”

— The New York Times

The author’s has a website of her own, here (http://www.ursulakleguin.com/).

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