The Dispossessed

Ursula Le Guin – The Dispossessed

“You ask questions like a true profiteer,” Shevek said, and not a soul there knew he had insulted Dearri with the most contemptuous word in his vocabulary; indeed Dearri nodded a bit, accepting the compliment with satisfaction.

The Dispossessed is the fifth novel by Ursula Le Guin in what is known as the Hainish Cycle to some, to others as the Ekumen, although it is chronologically the first (slightly before The Word for World is Forest). It was published in 1974, in which year it won the Nebula Award, and in 1975 it also won the Locus and Hugo Awards. Le Guin herself comments on what these awards meant to her in this blog, although it is only one paragraph, quite low down, and this was not the first time she had won them, having previously achieved the Nebula/Hugo double for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. Other blogs by Le Guin are available here, I have read a few of them. The Dispossessed is the thirteenth book I have read by Le Guin, all in the last two-and-a-half years, and it is my joint favourite (with The Tombs of Atuan). This makes it one of my favourite books of all time. I bought it second-hand when I volunteered in the Oxfam bookshop in Aberystwyth in the first half of 2010, so I’ve been waiting a while to read it. I’ve previously written about The Left Hand of Darkness in this blog. While fantastic, I now prefer The Dispossessed.

The Dispossessed is set on the twin worlds of Anarres and Urras, known as Tau Ceti to the Terrans (people of our earth). These planets are populated by a race of human-like creatures which indeed call themselves “human”; the similarity is down to the origins of the human species across the universe in the Hainish Cycle, which is that the Hain colonized the universe, some of which (such as the Gethen in Left Hand) are either probably or certainly the result of genetic engineering. Urras is a world not unlike our own, a patriarchal society with a capitalist economic system. Anarres is the habitable “moon” or twin-planet of Urras, on which lives an anarchist society who chose to leave Urras about two-hundred and fifty years before the time in which The Dispossessed is set. The story revolves around Shevek, a physicist from Anarres, who choses to take up a professorship in a university on Urras when he feels that the society of Anarres is repressing his work.

The subtitle of the book, according to Wikipedia at least, is An Ambiguous Utopia. Anarres is presented as a far from perfect society, oppressed by jealousy and distrust, especially of Urras and the people living there. While there is no ruling system, the foulest insult is to be called a profiteer or propertarian, and egoising is terribly immoral, elements of bureaucracy have sunk into the libertarian structure of Anarres. On Urras, Shevek is presented with the luxury of single rooms, food to waste, and a servant class. He is kept strictly separate from the working classes. But compared to the arid wasteland of Anarres, Urras is beautiful bountiful, and there is plenty to go around. Urras is the most earth-like of all the societies which Le Guin has created,* with its capitalist and socialist societies, the walls which divide them,and the way in which the people of Urras act to one another and to Shevek.

As the novel progresses the perfection of Urras fades and the true freedom and fairness of Anarres becomes clear, I think that Le Guin wishes us to realise how true freedom does lie in the anarchism of Annares. There is an underlying theme that perhaps the Annares are so cut off from Urras, so afraid of someone going there, because they think that, perhaps, it might actually be better. It appears that the people of Annares think this too. Ultimately it appears that the flaw in originally allowing the Anarresti to create their colony, as it has become a symbol to those who might share their ideas – not only on Urras, but to the Hainish and Terran people who have encountered the Cetians as well. And why not? – it is wonderful to think that, somewhere out there in one of the billions of earth-like planets we now know to exist just in this galaxy, one of them has managed to form a working, anarchist society.

He tried to read an elementary economics text; it bored him part endurance, it was like listening to somebody interminably recounting a long and stupid dream.

As I was reading so much of this book this afternoon while invigilating a mock exam, I began to think of exam questions which I could set on The Dispossessed.** The only one which I have come up with is “Which is more important to Ursual Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: physics or politics?” Le Guin makes several interesting comments about physics in the book, such as the limitations Einstein’s earth-based humanity had on his perspective of the universe, compared to the much more substantial Cetian physics (which is more advanced than the space-travelling Hainish and Terrans, somehow…). The structure of the book, which begins with Shevek’s journey to Urras then recounts in alternate chapters his life up to that point and his time on Urras, is based on the principal of simultaneity, questioning the linear perspective which we have on time ourselves (although both times are told, in themselves, in order). I enjoyed both Urras and Anarres, so I was perfectly happy with this structure, but I am not sure that I could take any great meaning out of it. All I will suggest is that Le Guin’s previous use of the Ekumen/Hainish universe has been to create stories based on Taoism, which as far as I can tell had been abandoned in this book.

The politics, however, were of great interest to me. I consider myself to be phenomenally left-wing, identifying as anarchist on my Facebook profile at least, in person I will tend towards socialism. I have never read any socialist or anarchist literature besides fiction.*** I also cannot stand economics. Perhaps it is not for the best that my anarchism is based on Le Guin and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, but when people tell me that V is an “ambiguous” hero, or that Anarres is an “ambiguous” utopia, I have to disagree. V’s only failing is that he kills, Anarres may not have much to support life, but having wealth in abundance has not made Urras a more equal society – has not made earth a more equal society. On Anarres, it takes a famine to lead anyone to starve:

He had fasted sometimes when he was working because he did not want to be bothered with eating, but two full meals a day had always been available: constant as sunrise and sunset. He had never even thought about what it might be like to go without them.

So far, so like my middle-class English life on Earth. But the passage goe on to the very heart of the issue:

Nobody in his society, nobody in the world, had to go without them.

It is an anathema to Anarresti society that anyone should eat while another one starves, and this is a planet with practically nothing. It is not even the famine, but a train derailment which leads Shevek to miss his meals. When he comes to Urras there is plenty to go around – and yet there are people with nothing. When we come to earth there is plenty to go around – so why do some have plenty, and others have nothing?

* In the books which I have read, of course.

** Shevek would surely disapprove: “He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand.”

*** I have been told by left-wing friends that my views seem most akin to anarchism, in that I believe order should be based on mutual consent and respect, that authority should be earned through experience, and my general opposition to government, although this latter is partly down to the lack of a party in this country that I would consider supporting.


4 thoughts on “The Dispossessed

  1. The vulnerability of a society based on anarchy seems to be a main point in the story. I think Anarres is perfectly described as an ambiguous utopia. At the very least I think we can agree that it is an ambiguous anarchy, in the sense that the Anarresti believed it was in fact the perfect society with nowhere further to go. For me, some of the most stirring parts were where Shevek and his cosyndics decry and butt heads with ‘the majority’. If they don’t agree on something, they won’t accomplish anything. But if they do, aren’t they implicitly denying that they are an actual anarchy?

    In this sense I think Taoism shines like a beacon in this book, in the principle of instinctive order in anarchy, as embodied in Shevek. Forget all the good brothers and sisters who toil to ensure that everyone can eat. It’s not a proper anarchy without some dissent.

    What is anarchy?

    The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao;
    The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
    The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.

    And because I think food and famine is very important in The Dispossessed:

    Bedap spoke more gravely: “They can justify it because music isn’t useful. Canal digging is important, you know; music’s mere decoration. The circle has come right back around to the most vile kind of profiteering utilitarianism. The complexity, the vitality, the freedom of invention and initiative that was the center of the Odonian ideal, we’ve thrown it all away. We’ve gone right back to barbarism. If it’s new, run away from it; if you can’t eat it, throw it away!”

    • I’ve been meaning to reply to this, I am sorry that it has taken so long. I admit that my knowledge of Taoism is sketchy, and I will insist that it is more obvious in the other works of Le Guin (for example when Genli Ai draws a Yin-Yang and tells Estevan that it is him/her in Left Hand) so missing it in The Dispossessed is not entirely through my own ignorance, although that is the greater part.

      I disagree that the vulnerability of a society based on anarchism is a main point – the society endures despite the famine and the general inhospitality of Anarres. I do agree that it is an imperfect anarchy, at the point in which The Dispossessed takes place, but there is an element of learning as they go along – they have cut themselves off from the propertierists of Urras and so propertierist elements are growing amongst the society. They believe that their isolation is important and necessary, but it turns out to be quite different – the way the society needs to survive is through permanent revolution (and so they do need that disagreement to endure) and they need the reminder of what they were before.

      I suppose part of the ambiguity is perhaps the impossibility of utopia – that if the non-Anarres is required to remind them of what they have advanced beyond then they have not really been sucessful.

      This hasn’t really been the best response, I’m sorry. I will perhaps say more when I re-read the book, but I can’t promise that that will be particularly soon!

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