Review of "The Dispossessed" by Ursula LeGuin
Review of "The Dispossessed" by Ursula LeGuin
By Ray Cunningham /

THE DISPOSSESSED is a classic of science fiction, and also one of the few novels, of any description, which deals honestly and openly with anarchist ideas, and, for this reason, is one of the most oft-cited influences on anarchists today. To be honest, I wouldn't bother reading this review, if I were you, I'd just read the book now.

Some seventy years before the start of 'The Dispossessed', an anarchist revolution swept the world of Urras. Revolution and counter-revolution being almost equally balanced, the anarchists were deported/took themselves into exile on the planet's moon, which they named Anarres. On this barely habitable world, they set about creating their utopia, an anarchist society based on the ideals of freedom and equality, and the two worlds sealed themselves off.

The novel starts at the only wall on the world of Anarres, a low stone wall which separates the now disused spaceport from the rest of the planet, or as they put it, "it enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free". For the first time since the revolution, someone is going to go back to Urras. Shevek, a leading physicist on Anarres, wishes to end their isolation, and resume dialogue with the rest of humanity.

From here on, the book splits into two parts. On one side, it takes us through Shevek's life on Anarres, showing us what lead up to this decision. Alternating with this is the story of his experiences in the capitalist society of Urras, and the effect his return has on each society.

What makes 'The Dispossessed' so much better than most utopian novels, or dystopias like 'Brave New World', is that this is a novel. The characters, and their societies, are real and complex - they're not just cardboard cut-outs, moving across a painted set, spouting political theories at each other. Shevek is driven by the personal - his research, his friendships, his loves - his anarchism is implicit.

'An Ambiguous Utopia'

Another difference with conventional utopias is that LeGuin is not afraid to show flaws in the society she describes. Anarres is a barely habitable world, and its inhabitants must work hard to produce even the necessities of life. This is not given as an excuse for the problems that arise in the society, instead it throws them into sharper focus.

A continuing theme in the book is weighing the demands of the individual against the needs of society. An example of this comes early in the book, during a large-scale forestation project, when one of the characters complains that hard work and asceticism have gone beyond necessity, and are becoming virtues. Shevek's work as a physicist is not obviously useful, less so the work of his artist friends, and there are those who do not work at all.

Obviously, in a society with limited resources some work has to be recognised as more important than others, and there must be a trade-off between those things you must earn and what you should receive as a right. The critical question is who makes that decision? As the revolution fades into the past, it no longer seems necessary to assert the principles that founded Anarres, or worse, the principles become dead dogma. Power starts to collect in the hands of a few, because people have started to forget to exercise it themselves.

Part of the reason why Shevek goes to Urras is that he is tired of being a revolutionary, in a society where most think there is nothing to rebel against. He wishes to devote himself again to science, and a university offers him study without distraction, an ivory tower in which to seclude himself. For a time, everything seems to be going well - Urras is a rich world, and has all the facilities he could need, and he no longer has to divide his time between physics and 'normal' work as he would on Anarres. In the university his anarchism is just a harmless eccentricity, and, as such, ignored, while on his trips to the outside world he is surrounded by guides and diplomats, isolated and quarantined.

It is not until Shevek starts to become friends with some of his fellow lecturers, and his anarchism can no longer be laughed off, that he begins to appreciate how great the gulf is between the two societies. Property, which he had laughed at, now frightens him, as he sees that he is no longer his own man, but has been bought by his 'hosts'. But he is not as isolated as he fears - his arrival has sparked another wave of rebellion on Urras, and he finds himself once more a revolutionary.

'The Dispossessed' is a book you'll come back to again and again, and discover something new on each re-reading. Whether you agree with LeGuin's depiction of an anarchist society (and some might find it pessimistic), the power of her writing, the sympathetic characters, and the basic optimism of her vision, make it an inspiring read.

Read The Dispossessed online for free here.

0.0 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
F*ck That: A Guided Meditation for the Realities of Today's World
2 min · 10,366 views today · Just acknowledge that all that sh*t is f*cking b*llshit — you're here now, in this place, with your inner stillness. Take in a deep breath ... now breathe out. Just feel the...
Free Trade Explained In An Excellent Comic
Michael Goodwin, Illustrated by Dan E. Burr · 7,308 views today · The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) are the latest in a long line...
Inside the Invisible Government: John Pilger on War, Propaganda, Clinton and Trump
John Pilger · 6,823 views today · The American journalist, Edward Bernays, is often described as the man who invented modern propaganda. The nephew of Sigmund Freud, the pioneer of psycho-analysis, it was...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 5,342 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 4,930 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Democracy in the Digital Era
Birgitta Jonsdottir · 3,854 views today · Our current democratic models are crumbling and outdated. We need to make something more real and meaningful. Activist and politician Birgitta Jónsdóttir points to how it might...
Open Up - Have the Difficult But Important Conversations With Loved Ones
5 min · 3,403 views today · “The biggest casualty of humanity is the lack of communication, it’s the thing that breaks most relationships. It just feels so much better to talk and get it out.” There is...
Who I'm Voting For...
3 min · 3,282 views today · Prince Ea announces who he's voting for. It's probably not who you think.
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 2,264 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,482 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
25 Mind-Twisting Optical Illusion Paintings by Rob Gonsalves
Dovas · 1,130 views today · The beautiful and mind-bending illusions in Canadian artist Robert Gonsalves’ paintings have a fun way of twisting your perception and causing you to question what in his...
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
3 min · 1,072 views today · In addition to her well-known autobiographies, Maya Angelou has steadily written poetry over the years. In this video Professor Angelou recites her poem, "And Still I Rise,"...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 1,024 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change (2015)
11 min · 851 views today · Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday; or that chopping...
#Hypernormalisation - Why Heathrow Plan Is Proof We Exist in a Catastrophic Fantasyland
Matthew Adams · 791 views today · The British government recently gave the green light for Heathrow airport’s third runway. It was heralded by its supporters as a vital boost for jobs and growth – and proof...
'Maritime Graveyard': 2016 Deadliest Year Ever for Refugees Crossing Mediterranean
Deirdre Fulton · 785 views today · "From one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiraled to one in 88," says UNHCR spokesman
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 721 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
The Empire Vs. The People - Police Attack and Arrest Peaceful Protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline
6 min · 582 views today · On October 22, just before dawn, hundreds of people, including many families, gathered and prepared to march toward the Dakota Access pipeline construction site near Standing...
Ode to Lesvos
5 min · 485 views today · An inspiring story of a few remarkable heroes on the Island of Lesvos who helped almost half a million refugees in 2015 has been documented in a new short film called Ode to...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 420 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Review of "The Dispossessed" by Ursula LeGuin