There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared; an adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
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.
I’m doing a lot of re-reading this year and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was high on my list of books to revisit. I first read it a few years ago and thought then that it was one of the best works of science fiction that I’d encountered.
The story begins when Shevek, a physicist from the arid, anarchist colony of Anarres, leaves his world branded a traitor and travels to the planet of Urras, where the people of Anarres originated over 100 years previously. Shevek’s story and that of Anarres and Urras unfolds slowly through alternating chapters which move us between the two worlds.
The people of Anarres left Urras in the hope of establishing a utopian society based on the theories of an anarchist philosopher named Laia Odo. The Odonian society on Anarres functions without social classes, money, property, states, borders, laws or prisons. It is unified by the individual’s sense of responsibility to the society as a whole, and the society’s sense of responsibility to the individual’s right to self-determination. Compromises between individual and society have to made, but they are supposed to be made with consent and respect. Wealthy Urras, meanwhile, remains much closer to the kind of westernised capitalist state we can easily recognise, with a consumer society divided along the lines of economic status, social classes, nationality, and gender.
Shevek, a theoretical physicist, is working on a unified theory of temporal physics that will enable instantaneous communication between different planets. On Anarres he finds that, although his society lacks the apparatus of state control, subtler forms of bullying have developed over time and his ideas are being suppressed by people who crave power. He realises to his horror that ideas are suppressed not by state laws, but rather by people ignoring the ideas and refusing to change. He leaves Anarres in the hope that on Urras he will find a society more welcoming to his work, but he soon finds himself treated as something to be bought and sold and realises that he can’t give his work to anyone because, if he does, it will only be used against someone else. On Urras his theory only has value as property, an investment or as a weapon. Shevek concludes that his only viable option is to give his theory to everyone freely at the same time, but just how is he going to achieve that?
The Dispossessed is an unapologetic allegory about our own world. The brilliance of Le Guin’s analysis lies in her using Shevek’s point of view, as someone who has never experienced it, to defamiliarise capitalism and question whether we need the things we think we need in order for a society to function. As always with Le Guin, the strength is in the world-building, her ability to combine anthropology and literature and make different societies believable.
Odo theorised that a healthy society should let every individual exercise his or her ‘optimum function’ freely, that is enable them to do the work they can do best and therefore offer their best contribution to society (it’s disturbing to think how far we are from living in a society that enables anything close to this ideal). Although his society hasn’t quite lived up to its ideals, Shevek remains thoroughly Odonian and his time on Urras brings him to an even stronger appreciation of life on Anarres with all its flaws. Ultimately you feel that Le Guin can’t help but side with Anarres against Urras, although she does allow a character from Earth to question the view that Shevek’s has reached of Urras as utterly irredeemable.
From a feminist perspective, the most important aspect of The Dispossessed is Le Guin’s attempt to imagine Anarres as a world in which women are not the ‘sex class’ and have equal status with men. She explores this through Shevek’s moving relationship with his partner Takver (again, it’s not an easy thing to imagine, being as our world is still so very far away from such a possibility). She presents the lives of women on Urras as unremittingly degrading and objectifying, but you don’t feel these women have anything that’s worth being equal to, really, because the men’s situation there is hardly enviable either. She’s asking some pretty radical questions here – when we talk about women being ‘equal’ to men, what exactly are we wanting to be equal to?
The Left Hand of Darkness remains my favourite book by Le Guin, but The Dispossessed is a great work full of ideas that gets better with re-reading.