Synopsis The Dispossessed follows genius physicist Shevek on his journey through two twin planets: Capitalistic lush world Urras, and Anarres, Urras’ harsh and arid moon, a utopia in danger. A short story describes the The Day Before the Revolution (my review), when an anarchist revolution led to the founding of an utopist society on Anarres. Those idealists believe that the only just society is one based upon communal sharing, mutual tolerance, and voluntary cooperation: No laws, property, government, money, or prisons.
Shevek came to maturity on Anarres, where he finds principles as important as Einstein’s relativistic laws. But he can’t complete his work in the environment of Anarres which is falling toward a structured government, which doesn’t welcome his radical new ideas. He needs the stimulation of physicists on other worlds, but interplanetary travel is strictly limited.
On Urras he is highly welcomed, learns slowly to interpret the strange civilization based on capitalism. He soon finds out that you have to pay a price for everything in capitalism. Especially when you want to break down the wall dividing two worlds.
Review The Dispossessed is a kind of inverse Utopia, where the protagonist doesn’t travel to the ideal society but is a citizen from utopia. Le Guin finds interesting aspects in each society form which enables us to reflect on our matter of course.
The novel isn’t a political handbook like Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which details how colonial moon might win an independence war. It focuses more on main protagonist Shevek in his roles as “physisicist, social reformer, son, partner, father” and all those walls that he encounters: “Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.” It brings back memories of the 80s with the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain where Germany was divided and formed two different societies.
Like the two planets Urras and Anarres circling each other, Le Guin doesn’t narrate Shevek’s journey chronologically, but alternates between the two worlds. That way, his first 38 years on Anarres and his one year on Urras circle each other, contrasting and integrating, gaining unity out of fragmentation. It also reflects Shevek’s main physical theory of sequency and simultaneity in a literary experiment using the metaphors of walls and cycles supporting those ideas. Shevek builds a wall by leaving his personal and social life. Before he returns to them, both have changed in the meantime, and Shevek brings change to his home in the form of the first offworld visitor and his general temporary theory. This theory is important for the following Hainish novels because it is the basis for interstellar communication using an “ansible”.
The novel isn’t easy reading. It has Le Guin’s typical slow, subtle but dense style, nearly void of any action. Shevek’s character is sometimes distant and at other times too near.
Like Shevek, the novel doesn’t provide answers but the right questions.
It is one of only a handful of novels that I re-read, and highly recommended.