The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin

Book # 326a

Reviewer: Kara


TD

This classic novel of science fiction is the story of Shevek, a physicist from a 150-year-old socialist-anarchist experimental utopia on a moon. He has begun to see cracks in his society, and a return to the ways that the founders left their home planet to escape. He travels to that home planet, with the ultimate goal of “tearing down walls.”

Written in 1974, the novel was an instant hit and won both the Nebula and Hugo awards. The primary theme of the novel is an illustration of the merits and dangers of anarchy and socialism. These ideas, while interesting, do read a little bit like a product of their time.

What makes the novel a must-read to this day are the other universal and complex themes it also tackles, including gender equality, the nature of time, and what it really means to be free.

The discussion of freedom occurs at two levels: the freedom of the individual and the freedom of ideas. The novel clearly advocates for personal freedom and glorifies an individual’s right to determine what s/he does for a living and for pleasure, who s/he loves, how s/he lives, etc., without any caveats. The implication here is that people are genuinely good and genuinely care about each other and about contributing something positive to the world.

This freedom was so important to the founders of the society where Shevek lives that they see even having possessions or, in many cases, committed relationships, as a prison. Children are named randomly by a computer and raised in group dormitory settings. Few people have monogamous partnerships and sexual relations happen easily and often. People own little more than a set of clothes or two and go to cafeterias for food. As Shevek says to the people on the home planet when he visits:

“Because our men and women are free–possessing nothing, they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns.”

The freedom of ideas is central to the novel, and is central to Shevek’s quest: he has discovered a physics formula of great importance and wants to share it with everyone in all societies on all planets. The importance of shared ideas is stated most clearly in this passage:

“It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”

The plot moves very slowly overall, and I was more than halfway through the book before it really picked up speed. Part of this is due to the necessity of world-building, part of this is due to the non-linear structure, and part of this is due to the frequent asides on physics, philosophy, relationships, and political systems. The slow pace didn’t bother me much, but if you prefer adventure or galactic battles in your sci-fi, this isn’t going to hit the spot for you.

If, however, you’re curious what a society where freedom is the ultimate (and only) collective value might look like, this novel is fascinating. And if you’re looking for thought-provoking discussion and the occasional beautifully-written sentence (somewhat rare in science fiction!) look no further. Case in point:

“‘If you can see a thing whole,’ he said, ‘it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives … But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.'”

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