Ursula K. Le Guin. 1974
A physicist becomes a pawn in interplanetary politics in this philosophical sci-fi novel by a master of the genre.
As always with Le Guin’s work this is an adventure of ideas, filled with simmering drama which includes droughts, demonstrations, deaths, a murder, attempted rape and childbirth.
Plus there’s a great deal of deliberately frustrating bureaucracy which may have inspired the films of Terry Gilliam such as his 1985 masterpiece, Brazil.
And as with all great sci-fi, Le Guin is reflecting and commenting on the realities of contemporary Earth, not of the far flung future planet of her story’s setting. And starships and space travel are as far as the trappings of sci-fi go.
Imagining new technologies are not Le Guin’s focus. Computers exist but their description suggests advanced room-sized mainframe models familiar to our films of the late 1960’s, and of course there’s no concept of the internet or online presence.
Telephones and written letters are how communication occurs over distances, and in Le Guin’s view communication is a resource more important than any other as it allows for the freedom and spread of ideas.
It’s the ownership of the means of communication that drives the plot featuring a physicist named Shevek. He’s formulated a potentially lucrative theory for making instantaneous interplanetary communication possible, and for his groundbreaking brilliance he’s drawn into espionage and adventure.
Anticipating and possibly even influencing the actions of the real life Tim Berners-Lee who bequeathed the world the internet, Shevek wants his theory and thus the means of communication between worlds, to be owned and accessed by all.
But Shevek’s ideas and the free communication they represent are a threat to the established hierarchies he encounters.
As is typical from Le Guin, Shevek is a wonderfully complex figure. The tunnel-visioned and likeable scientist travels from his anarchist communal vegetarian home world of Anarres, to its nearby twin world, Urras, a prosperous industrial carnivorous colonial capitalist society.
Far from being a re-run of an old Star trek episode, The Dispossessed is far more interesting than a simple analogy for the Cold War, of western capitalism versus eastern communism, as both are presented as advantageous and deeply flawed.
The depth and richness of Le Guin’s world building is quite astonishing, and almost daunting on a first time read. by is always driven by purpose. Her societies are a springboard to explore her frequent occupations of the nature and purpose of belief systems, economics, the environment, and social systems and how they impact on individuals.
And how small differences in beliefs can result in enormous barriers, not physical ones such as cosmic distances, or intellectual ones, such as language, but intangible ones, such as fear and superstition.
As in Le Guin’s 1969 award winning novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, her protagonist is an ambassador of sorts, a traveller, an individual who sees themselves apart, and who learns happiness is other people.
If that sounds trite and Disney-like, don’t be mistaken, this is as rigorous, fearless and demanding as any sci-fi in the canon, and must be celebrated as such.
Le Guin expertly draws out the drama as her planets differing social systems rub up against each other, and she uses the differences between the worlds to highlight social and gender inequality.
The Dispossessed feels more overtly political than Le Guin’s other books, and I’ve seen this described as a utopian novel, but that seems erroneous.
At first The Dispossessed seems a throwback to late 19th century sci-fi such as Mary E. Bradley Lane’s 1880’s novel, Mizora. In those books a character, often female, who would visit an advanced utopian society.
Yet if utopia exists at all within the pages ot The Dispossessed it’s never Shevek’s situation but in his ideals.
And unlike in those pioneering earlier works, where women were firmly in charge, here they are second class citizens, with little or no power in society.
On the arid hardscrabble worlds of Anarres where our hero hails from, women are equal, but Le Guin suggests that is only because human existence is under threat, and all hands are required at the metaphorical pump.
Whereas on the verdant planet of Urras, women are not required to work for survival and so endure a lower status even if they are part of the social elite.
On Urras the shaving of women’s heads is described with a knowing wink to the reader as, ‘fashion’, even as we read it as a dehumanising means of control of men over women.
Fittingly for a story concerned with the freedom to express oneself, this is also a book about writing. Shevek’s philosophical mission is to combine the contrasting theories of ‘Sequency’ and ‘Simultaneity’, and so to allow for instantaneous human travel in time and space.
This reflects how Le Guin constructs her novel with parallel and converging timelines, allowing for speculation on how we experience time. One passage anticipates a scene in Alan Moore’s 1986 graphic novel masterpiece, Watchmen, where the character Dr Manhattan contemplates time and space.
And it’s worth noting how often Le Guin’s stories often feature characters whose great failing is to struggle to live in the moment. This in itself is a comment on the process of writing.
The Dispossessed is a warning against the drive to fascism, and an essay on the nature of love. Le Guin thrills to the complexities of human interactions and pondering the perils of our self-imposed systems of organisation.
Le Guin’s enthusiasm is infectious and her work will keep you engaged and entertained for hours. And at its heart you’ll find optimism, understanding, and empathy.
You may put the book down but there’s no escaping The Dispossessed’s emotional and thought-provoking gravity, which will drag you back time and again.