Reading Challenge #78: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin

I’m still a bit behind posting these challenge entries. I’ve been reading them faster than I’ve been writing my reviews. This entry is The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin, first published in 1974.

I suspect this book is pretty polarizing. It is a utopia, and it pokes very hard at some sore spots regarding personal liberty, capitalism, and gender equality, among others. It feels extremely topical. I imagine it must have seemed completely revolutionary at the time it was released.

The story largely takes place on a planet called Anarres, with some interludes on its sister planet Urras. Anarres is essentially an isolationist colony established by anarchist revolutionaries from Urras. The social structure and values feel somewhat reminiscent of the communes of the 60’s and 70’s. People are encouraged to pursue what they like in life, while also strongly valuing sharing, and providing service to the greater community. There is no concept of property or ownership. Everything is communal, and while life can still be hard at times, overall people can expect that their basic needs will be met.

The main character is Shevek, a physicist who is developing a type of grand unifying theory of spacetime. The plot bounces around in time, but covers his life from his childhood onward. He’s driven to work on his theory his whole life, even when he’s assigned to do other work at times. He believes that it should be shared with their sister planet and with the other known aliens, for the benefit of all. When he realizes that his work is being stifled on Anarres, in spite of their supposed freedoms, he decides to travel to Urras.

Le Guin very cleverly avoids the major issue of utopia stories, namely that they are too perfect and either boring or unrealistic. Anarres is shown to have plenty of faults. The society gets strained because life is difficult on the harsh planet and poor weather leads to famine and suffering. Also, for a society that supposedly values freedom, there are a lot of systems and power structure in place that constrain people’s actions. Still, this is all shown against the backdrop of their sister world, which is much more similar to our own. The capitalist, misogynist, militaristic culture is often baffling to Shevek. In that light, Anarres shines very brightly even with its flaws. This isn’t one of those stories that looks like a utopia but turns into a dystopia. I was left feeling more optimistic than not.

I think perhaps my biggest problem with this book is that it left me wanting more. I was excited and anxious to see what happened when Shevek got back home. Instead, the book ends just shy of that and I wasn’t expecting it. I wanted more! In retrospect it is a perfectly reasonable place to stop, and it forced me to look back over the events of the story and really think about what might happen instead of spelling things out for me. Overall it was a great read that challenged me and made me think.

TL;DR: A well-constructed sci-fi utopia that gave a lot of great food for thought about our priorities as a society and how we could do better.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4/5 stars

Next up: The Kushiel’s Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey

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