The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin
The Dispossessed“What’s the good of an anarchist society that’s afraid of anarchists?” Shevek in The Dispossessed.
Shevek is a temporal physicist whose ideas are beyond anyone else’s on his planet Annares. They are a small society, outcasts from the planet Urras two hundred years earlier. They were started by a group of revolutionaries who stood up against the government on Urras and wanted change. They were given the planet’s moon, Annares, to start their own utopian society.
Life on Annares is spare. No one possesses anything but shares everything. All individuals are allowed to do what they want to help the society grow. Shevek’s mind makes him a physicist, but he can do other things if he prefers. He also takes his share of time in communal work – repairing roads, cleaning around the town, planting or tending crops, as all Annarans do. There is no government and all decisions are made by committee of the people who attend the meetings.
Shevek is also a loner. There is no one who can truly understand or share his ideas of time and space. He is allowed to work at the Institute but even there is different from everyone else. The only physicists who may understand him are on Urras. Annares and Urras only communicate under the strictest rules. Physicist communication is a luxury.
Shevek doesn’t realize he’s a revolutionary. But the more he works on his theories, with his family, and within his society, the more restless he is. What is the best way for utopian society to work? How can a man who studies time and space affect how society is governed?
I had to read over half way through Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed before I finally was pulled in. I didn’t dislike the first half, but it was slow reading. I stuck with it because I kept hearing how good the book is. Then everything started falling together.
The story is told in alternate chapters of Shevek now as he visits Urras and Shevek’s past life on Annares. That didn’t bother me. The link that gets him to Urras doesn’t show up until the end of the book, but at the end of the first chapter Shevek describes himself to the Urrans as an anarchist. The reader knows something is going on. It is easy to follow both story lines.
The reader can’t help but try to dissect Annaran society. What happens to the greedy people or the people who don’t fit in? Can anything be perfect? During a drought on Annares there is much discussion of the good of the many versus the good of the few. When taking supplies to the many, a few are killed when they try to stop the food from leaving on the truck because they themselves are starving.
“…there’s eight hundred people waiting for that grain truck, and how many of them might die if they don’t get it? More than a couple, a lot more. So it looks like he was right [to kill a couple]. But by damn! I can’t add up figures like that. I don’t know if it’s right to count people like you count numbers. But then what do you do? Which ones do you kill?”
The Dispossessed first came out in 1974. That was a period of writing when science fiction writers put the big questions of life into words. (Not that the practice has stopped – that was just a major time of self questioning.) The questions still aren’t answered. LeGuin’s utopia on Annares has its problems as well.
While The Dispossessed isn’t a riveting page turner, it is a book that gets under your skin. A temporal physicist doesn’t appear to be an anarchist. Yet Shevek shakes up two societies with his ideas and actions.
Notice: Suggestive dialogue or situations