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

0.0 ·
0
Trending Today
How Comedy Can Disarm Bullies
3 min · 4,296 views today · As long as you're funny, it can get you out of almost anything - even getting mugged, as co-founder of Between Two Ferns Scott Aukerman recounts. Unfortunately, not everyone...
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 3,352 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
Immigrants For Sale (2015)
33 min · 2,868 views today · The detention of migrants has become a multi-billion dollar industry in which immigrants are sold to the highest bidder and traded like mere products. The Corrections...
Globalization Makes No Sense
Chris Agnos · 2,029 views today · When I lived in San Francisco, I often would marvel at the movement of goods through the ports across the bay in Oakland. Full container ships would enter the bay one after...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 1,751 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...
Proof of Evolution That You Can Find on Your Body
4 min · 1,558 views today · Vestigial structures are evolution's leftovers — body parts that, through inheritance, have outlived the context in which they arose. Some of the most delightful reminders of...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,160 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 983 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...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 831 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
Compassion, the Antidote
Martin Doblmeier · 633 views today · Thich Nhat Hanh has published nearly 100 books and is one of the best-known teachers of Zen Buddhism in the world today. In the early 1960s his practice of what he termed...
Without Saying a Word This 6 Minute Clip From Samsara Will Make You Speechless
6 min · 630 views today · Can you put this video into words? It's a clip from the phenomenal documentary Samsara, directed by Ron Fricke, who also made Baraka.  If you're interested in watching...
How Wolves Change Rivers
4 min · 612 views today · When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable "trophic cascade" occurred. What is a...
Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men Of Touch
Mark Greene · 589 views today · Homophobic prohibitions against male touch are hurting straight men as well.
Stunning Small Homes Form Part of a Communal Compound for Best Friends
Lighter Side · 529 views today · If you’re lucky enough to have longtime friends even as an adult, then you know probably already know how much it means to be able to spend time together. Maybe you even have a...
Where the Term "Redneck" Came From
15 min · 459 views today · If you don't know this story, you'll never look at the word the same again.  This is just a window into the sometimes shocking, subversive and untold history of the United...
The Foiled Bomb Plot in Kansas That Didn't Make Trump's Terror List
5 min · 381 views today · When a plot by a pro-white militia to bomb a Somali mosque in Kansas was foiled by the FBI last October, the aborted conspiracy received little national coverage - nor did it...
Those That Did Not Seek Revenge
Dr. Ann Russo · 331 views today · Dr. Ann Russo on violence, healing, and transforming justice.
10 Words Every Girl Should Learn
Soraya Chemaly · 288 views today · "Stop interrupting me."  "I just said that." "No explanation needed." In fifth grade, I won the school courtesy prize. In other words, I won an award for being polite. My...
DAPL Opponents Vow to 'Rise' From Ashes of Oceti Sakowin and Keep Fighting
Lauren McCauley · 264 views today · 'They cannot extinguish the fire that Standing Rock started,' Dallas Goldtooth declared
How to Be a Great Listener
5 min · 260 views today · There’s so much talking going on in the world with everyone trying to get their opinions and stories heard, but not a whole lot of listening. Yet, when we listen, we learn and...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
Review of "The Dispossessed" by Ursula LeGuin