This is the first Le Guin that I’ve read cover to cover– I tried The Left Hand of Darkness but couldn’t get into it. Here, however, I was hooked from page one.
The Dispossessed tells the story Shevek, a physicist from an anarchist planet, Anarres, and his journey to a wealthier “archist” planet as he seeks to expand the horizons of his self-limited society. But he soon discovers there were very good reasons why his ancestors left the rich world of Urras behind.
I found the anarchist world of Anarres more convincing and interesting than the capitalist society Shevek explores on Urras. Because the country he lives in on Urras is basically an exaggerated version of our own capitalist society (this was written in the seventies, the era of Nixon, Vietnam, and Kent State), it was simultaneously less new and exciting and harder to believe. At the really bad parts (when the government turns helicopter gunships on strikers), I could tell myself, “But we’d never do that!” rather than taking the whole society as it is presented. Anarres, on the other hand, was totally different from anything I’ve ever experienced, and absolutely fascinating. It’s not a perfect society; in fact it’s stagnating and becoming conformist. This just makes it more convincing. I did wonder why the rebels in Anarres always were pure anarchists trying to go back to the original ideology–we didn’t see anyone having a completely different ideology, only contrasting takes on the same ideas–but this made for a more complex exploration of anarchism in its different forms.
One small section that I thought was very well-observed was when the Anarresti children, having just learned that other societies have prisons, play at prisoners and guards and end up going too far. This section really got to the heart of power exchange games and dynamics, while also being convincing as the actions of children.
The interactions between men and women were very odd from my 21st century perspective. There was a lot of emphasis on sexual difference and the frisson this leads to, which perhaps as a bisexual, I cannot understand.
The physics, which works differently from our physics, was nonetheless both convincing and easy to follow. Shevek’s theories of simultaneity and sequency were mirrored in the nonlinear structure of the book, which alternates between Shevek’s past on Anarres and his present on Urras, each chapter following an internal sequence while happening, from the reader’s perspective, simultaneously with the other narrative.
The quotations within the book from the fictional anarchist leader Odo were beautifully written, though the prose of the rest of the book alternated between lovely and overly plain and direct. However, as I was reading another book at the same time which was very densely written, the directness was a bit of a relief. Anyway, I now want to read the short story focusing on Odo, “The Day Before the Revolution.”