THE DISPOSSESSED – Ursula Le Guin (1974)

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed is a famous book: it won the Hugo, the Nebula and the Locus awards, and it tackles a tricky subject: politics. It is set in the Hainish universe, on two twin planets. On Anaress, a group of dissidents founded an anarchist syndicalist society that has been going for about 2 centuries when the book starts. The other planet, Urras, has three states, of which the most important ones are modeled on the USA and the Soviet Union.

The book follows Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anaress who, in a gesture of dissent, travels to Urras, hoping to be able to finish his revolutionary theory about time there.


Theodore Sturgeon praised The Dispossessed, saying “it performs one of [science fiction’s] prime functions, which is to create another kind of social system to see how it would work. Or if it would work.” I don’t fully agree, as I didn’t feel I was transported to another world: the cold war politics alert sign was constantly flashing.

That is my main problem with the novel: it is so obvious, and so obviously about Earth, I always felt Le Guin’s intentions, instead of feeling a story. It is no secret Le Guin has leftist sympathies, and also in this book it is clear where her heart lies: sure, Anaress has its problems, but it is liberal about sex, it is pro-gay, feminist, and people don’t eat meat. There are only two big problems on the planet: it’s arid and doesn’t easily grow food; and the anarchy syndicalist system of the Odonian society slowly evolved into a bureaucracy, with stagnating power structures popping up.

The fact that this book is praised so much seems to me the result of a couple of things, that at the same time explain why The Dispossessed didn’t fully work for me.

The first factor has to do with the book itself: Le Guin tries to be nuanced. While her sympathies are clear, it is not naive propaganda, blind to the problems anarchism could face in practice. Still, I don’t feel she adds a lot to the discussions. The book’s allegories don’t transform the subject nor show things in a different light: it’s basically about 2 ideologically different states on 2 different planets. Those planets could have been different continents on Earth just as well. The SF metaphors are thin, not structural.

The main lesson The Dispossessed offers is a warning about bureaucracy and stagnation. By the time she wrote the novel, this was well understood, and clear from how things had fared in the Soviet Union. The Soviets didn’t claim anarchism as their model, but the mechanisms are similar, and  Animal Farm (1947) already dealt with the most important factor: people being unconsciously power-hungry. As such, capitalist readers will experience the pleasure of being proven right by reading Le Guin’s book: an alternative is naive and won’t work. The downsides of the capitalist Urras state don’t seem that large: some poverty, some war. These things we know and live with already, and are considered collateral damage by most conservative thinkers.

I’d rather had Le Guin envision a true post-scarcity non-capitalist society. That is possible, and wouldn’t have played into the hands of right-wing economics.

The other important factor for success is context: time and place. The Dispossessed is clearly a book from its time. Contemporary leftist political thinking, and thinking about morality in general, has evolved beyond what she tried to do in these mere 319 pages. The book is nuanced, yes, but also quite superficial, and not free of stereotype either. As I said before, it’s glaringly obvious, so even as an allegory it doesn’t work for me: there’s no joy of discovering what the book actually is about, as that’s clear from the start. Luckily, it is never preachy, and Le Guin can’t be praised enough for that.

I can also imagine the impact of The Dispossessed might be different for most Americans than it is for most Europeans or Canadians. The welfare state in the USA is less developed, and ‘socialism’ is still equated with ‘state communism’ in mainstream media – the success of Bernie Sanders notwithstanding. As such, the old continent has a less paranoid attitude towards progressive and leftist economical thinking. Reading The Dispossessed as a European in 2016 I often thought: is this it? I expected more. I expected to learn something, and I didn’t.


So, what’s left to say? Le Guin’s prose is good, beautiful at times. The characters are quite alright, but it’s not as emotional a story as The Left Hand Of Darkness. And scattered throughout the book are a few paragraphs of interesting stuff on things like time and the nature of science…

But when Shevek took her metaphor and recast it in his terms, explaining that, unless the past and the future were made part of the present by memory and intention, there was, in human terms, no road, nowhere to go, she nodded before he was half done.

&

But was not a theory of which all the elements were provably true a simple tautology?

I’m not done with Ursula K. Le Guin: I’ll read A Wizard Of Earthsea next, as I have the feeling Le Guin’s true and timeless strength lies in stories that are not political. TLHOD was great because it was an emotional and adventurous novel. The Lathe of Heaven on the contrary was a disaster to me, and while The Dispossessed was a fairly enjoyable read, I don’t think I’ll ever revisit it, as it was politics first and characters & story second.

Should you read it? Depends on how much time you have. If you’re short on it, I’d rather recommend Richard D. Wolff’s Democracy At Work: A Cure For Capitalism, and Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason And The Gap Between Us And Them.

“The saint is never busy,” she had said, perhaps wistfully.

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20 responses to “THE DISPOSSESSED – Ursula Le Guin (1974)

  1. Your reviews sometimes perplex me. Firstly, the political commentary, is, as you admit, part of the time. But is not part of your enjoyment seeing how an author responded to a particular time by creating a particular view of the future? If the answer is no, then why read old SF at all? I read books from the 60s/70s BECAUSE they are from the 60s/70s not because they are somehow “timeless.”

    The reason I bring this up again is that the statement “as I have the feeling Le Guin’s true and timeless strength lies in stories that are not political” is odd as you just said that The Left Hand of Darkness was “an emotional and adventurous novel” yet you ignore its major feminist underpinnings, but, it too has a major political message! As forceful as The Dispossessed!

    (I too am in the boat of preferring The Left Hand of Darkness but I would never detach it from its very political and context-dependant message).

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    • I read old SF in search for books that also transcend their times. While I can admire The Dispossessed using my historical eye-mode, I didn’t fully enjoy it because of the reasons listed.

      I don’t feel my statement about TLHOD to be odd or contradictory, since I have the feeling that that book did transcend its time, as it focussed more on story/characters than The Dispossessed.

      I’m not sure why you say I ignore TLHOD’s feminist/political message. In my review of TLHOD I devote a full paragraph to it, but I didn’t feel the need to repeat those thoughts in this review.

      I have noting against a book having political underpinnings, but in fiction I do need to be entertained and/or emotionally moved too (and/or awed and/or puzzled). There’s lots of (old) novels with explicit political underpinnings I enjoy a lot, and even consider favorites: Slaughterhouse-Five, the Culture novels by Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, Dune, The Water Knife.

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      • I’m not talking about your Left Hand review but rather how you categorize the novel here as an “adventure” story in this review in comparison to The Dispossessed.

        You were not emotionally involved with Shevek? He’s trapped between two systems, he belongs in neither, he was a profoundly emotional character. I felt for him.

        The Water Knife is almost brand new…. 2015.

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      • Yes, okay. I categorized it as such since I felt that to be the main difference with The Dispossessed, and the main reason why I liked Left Hand a lot more than Dispossessed. It was not my intention to downplay the political content of Left Hand, I just feel it was more balanced, as the politics didn’t stare me in the face the entire time.

        Near the end of the book, and as the relationship with his wife became more clear, I was a bit involved with Shevek, but not enough. I also had problems with his seemingly casual abandonment of his wife & children. When he first sees her again after years, his main response is an erection. Somehow, all that didn’t feel real. A father would react differently – maybe not an Odonian dad, but still.

        I never felt him to be belonging to 2 systems, he clearly remains Odonian at heart, but just disagrees with how parts of them evolved.

        The Water Knife is new indeed, that’s why I put old between brackets. I included it as a good contemporary illustration of a book being political and entertaining at the same time.

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    • Btw, I’m jealous of the fact that you are able to enjoy novels because of seeing how an author responded to a particular time: as a result, you have more to love.

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      • Yes, I am a historian. One of the major appeals is what an author’s purpose was. Ultimately, I care most about craft, and I found The Dispossessed to be beautiful (as you point out). If the novel (and I’m not talking about only narrative, it could be highly experimental in form) is well crafted + has a political message, that’s fine! 🙂

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  2. “I also had problems with his seemingly casual abandonment of his wife & children” — fathers do this all the time. Again, Le Guin is showing her radical leanings by having characters who are not solely good and moral. He is a very grey character for sure…

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    • Yes indeed, true. I should rephrase what I wrote to something like: “since he was detached from his family, I had problems attaching myself to him.” Because he doesn’t show emotions himself often it makes it harder for me to identify with.

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    • And also rephrase to: “fathers I like would react differently.” 🙂

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  3. I’ve quite recently read Le Guin’s later collection The Birthday of the World, and it struck me that her “anthropological” or “political” works, including The Dispossessed, strike a neat balance: they mostly portray quite Utopia-like micro-worlds that are obviously meant as thought-experiments, but because they avoid praching or info-dumping, the reader’s (this particular reader’s, anyway) first response is not intellectual and ideological engagement, but a realization that these worlds feel real and lived-in. They might not stand up to further scrutiny when it kicks in, but just conveying how normal other lives and other cultures can feel from the inside is no mean feat, even acknowledging that it is no invention of Le Guin’s, but one of the main pleasures of literature at large. I think it is, to a great extent, her language that enables Le Guin to achieve this: no-nonsense, clear, almost too plain in higher doses.

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    • (Which, come to think of it, is an interesting contrast to the likes of theoreticians like Deleuze or Butler, who choose the way of attacking, undermining, torturing conventional language.)

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      • You feel that was their intention? I haven’t read enough of either, but I sometimes have the feeling Delouse & his ilk chose their register as a way to self legitimize. Or, as Rorty could have said, they just wrote experimental literature too, under the false banner of theory. (This doesn’t go for Butler I think.)

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      • I’m no expert either, and I deleted my convoluted attempt at an answer to say this: yes, I also feel the likes of Deleuze veer closer to experimental literature. They would probably claim the texts are there to create or awaken “intensities” and “flow” that conventional writing style can obstruct, but whether that works and constitutes something worthwhile is probably up to each reader to decide.
        (I personally find such texts interesting in reasonable doses, but their application and immitation in LitCrit and elsewhere hit-and-miss at best, mostly outright ridiculous.)

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      • I overdosed a bit on them during my studies, so steer away from it nowadays. I think Foucault has the most interesting things to say, but even there one could shout Keep It Simple Stupid. As it is, most of their words fall on barren ground, so to say. Not a lot is awakened, and the practical effect for mankind is limited to a lot of papers at universities by people that were liberals to begin with.

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    • Maybe my problem with The Dispossessed was mainly due to preexisting expectations. I already knew it to be mainly about anarchism/communism/capitalism, and as such my intellectual/ideological engagement was already triggered from the start. I agree she portrays a world that was real & lived-in, but for me it at the same time never lost the obvious links to Earth.

      I guess Le Guin’s avoidance of preaching and info-dumping you point out are just as important as her language skills. Or in a way they are the same: preaching is nonsense.

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    • Also, how does that collection compare to her work from the 60/70s? I should read something more recent from Le Guin myself.

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      • The only older short story of hers I’ve read is Omelas, and of the novels, only The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, so I don’t know whether I can really draw comparisons – but most of the stories in BotW feel like a distillation of of her preoccupation with gender/sexuality. Elegant, measured, clearly and reasonably not meant to raise controversy or go for cheap emotional impact. But also definitely just minor works, simple variations on a theme.

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  4. I need to give this a reread before I can fully comment, but I also preferred ‘Left Hand’. They are both beautifully written stories, but I remember enjoying ‘Left Hand’ much more than ‘The Dispossessed’. The overly political nature of ‘The Dispossessed’ left me a bit cold. Also what Joachim said about the “greyness” of Shevek. I didn’t care for him as a character. Nice to read an interesting discussion!

    I loved ‘A Wizard Of Earthsea’ when I read it a few years ago, so I recommend it. I also liked the second book, ‘The Tomb of Atuan’, despite it being a very different story. (That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed it!) I read Book 3, ‘The Farthest Shore’ but can’t remember being particularly impressed by it.

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