The 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.