Tag Archives: Hainish Cycle

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.

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THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS – Ursula Le Guin (1969)

The Left Hand Of DarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness is the first book I’ve read of Le Guin, and it is great. Although it surely is SF, big parts of it read more like a fantasy adventure novel about friendship, set on a barren world – so don’t expect laser guns, giant AI-cores or wormholes. It combines a sense of wonder with some original ideas, an emotional ending, and, at times, beautiful prose.

The book very much has its own voice, but I don’t feel it to be extraordinary. It could have been so, had Le Guin fixed 3 quibbles…

First, it could have explored in more detail the consequences of living and evolving on an arctic world. Le Guin manages to do so to a certain extent, but I have the feeling there could have been a lot more.

Secondly, Le Guin should have been able to truly write about the gender neutral inhabitants of Gethen as really gender neutral. As the novel is, they come across too much as just men without a sex drive 4/5th of the time. Their feminine and neutral sides aren’t explored that much, or even stereotypical – like the fact that they see no shame in crying. A couple of times it is simply stated that this or that in their society is a result of them not being “men” (there is no war), but that isn’t really felt in most of their actions (there is murder due to political rivalry), nor in the structures of the societies Le Guin created. As such, this is not the important gender book some claim it to be, not even seen in its historical context, but I can understand why it would seem that way from a superficial point of view. On the other hand, I guess I’m sure the book may have had some effects back in the days, opening up some readers to other ways of thinking, and as such contributed to the discussions society was having, and is still having right now.

Finally, some of the characters could have been fleshed out a whole lot more, such as the king, Tibi and Obsle. This would have enhanced the emotional impact of the book even more.

Had Le Guin invested a bit more in the characters and the world-building, and put some more thought and research in the links between climate, biology, gender and society, she could have pulled of a book that would have been extraordinary, and at the same time 50, 100 or even 200% longer – more good stuff to indulge in as a reader. If she had done so, TLHOD would have been the true Arctic brother of the first book of Dune.

After 150 pages in, I kind of settled on ‘this as a good book’, but the emotions I felt at the end convinced me that it is actually excellent. TLHOD is a highly enjoyable, intriguing read, and very much recommended. A classic indeed, and one that has aged very well.

originally written on the 19th of January, 2015