By Ray Cunningham
Dec 9, 2014
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.