by Ursula Le Guin
‘Kimoe stared at him, shocked out of politeness. “But the loss of — of everything feminine — of delicacy — and the loss of masculine self-respect — You can’t pretend, surely, in your work, that women are your equals? In physics, in mathematics, in the intellect? You can’t pretend to lower yourself constantly to their level?” ‘
The Dispossessed tells the story of Shevek, a brilliant physicist whose specialty is the science of instantaneous communication.
Urras and Anarres are twin planets, each the ‘moon’ of the other. The former is highly developed, civilised even, but here men dominate. Women are for show and sexual gratification. The latter is a dull, grey, arid world, colonized from the first, and here there is equality of the sexes. It is anarchic, there is no such thing as property, no prisons, no wars, no money. However, neither planet is quite what it seems. Both build walls, not necessarily the physical sort of stone and cement.
‘There were no rules of parliamentary procedure at meetings of PDC . . .The process, compared to a well-managed executive conference, was a slab of raw beef compared to a wiring diagram. Raw beef, however, functions better than a wiring diagram would in its place – inside a living animal.’
Shevek has grown up on Anarres. However, he is individualistic and an outcast of his society, misunderstood and resented by his fellow citizens. Exiled to Urras, he finds himself out of his comfort zone both socially and culturally. Nevertheless, he is respected and feted for his brilliance in solving the Principle of Simultaneity. Shevek’s research will revolutionise interstellar travel for his species. However, his willingness to share makes him a traitor to his own people. Not that Anarres is in the least interested in space travel! The walls they have built are of two kinds: a physical one that serves as a frontier between most of the planet and the space port, where occasional freighters from Urras come to trade; the other, invisible, unwritten convention, forbids an Urrasti from entering and any Anarresti from leaving the planet.
Shevek soon discovers that Urras has walls too as he begins to suspect the true Urrasti agenda. Underneath the beauty of the planet and its veneer of civilisation lurks poverty, insecurity and incipient revolution. Other forces are at work here and Shevek becomes a tool in a political game.
‘He had accepted shelter like a propertarian. He had been co-opted . . . But he did not know how to break down the wall. And if he did, where would he go? The panic closed in on him tighter. To whom could he turn? He was surrounded on all sides by the smiles o the rich.’
The Dispossessed is told in two different time lines, and the chapters alternate between Shevek’s ‘present’ on Urras and his ‘past’ on Anarres. From the latter, we learn how his dedication to his science and his individualism have led to his exile. In the former, we see how the pleasures (and pains) of Urras reshape his thinking and lead to an unforeseen crisis in his life. Can he hope ever to get back to Takver, his wife, and their two children?
Readers of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness will recognise in The Dispossessed the same universe, a relativistic one. Space ships come and go from other star systems but are restrained by the speed of light. As well as Cetians, we briefly meet Terrans and Hainish, the last named the most ancient and advanced of all the known species in the cosmos.
The Dispossessed, published in 1974, is undoubtedly space opera but, though marketed as sci-fi, it is also a political novel, verging on satire. Le Guin, as she so often does, draws and dissects her creation with great skill and insight into the (sometimes) unsustainable pettiness of Earthly political systems. The anarchy of Anarres and the class system of Urras are like nothing on our planet but the parallels are there for the reader to see. I suspect too that, here, Ursula Le Guin uses her novelistic talents to promote an underlying feminist agenda. And I see absolutely nothing wrong with that!
I didn’t enjoy The Dispossessed as much as The Left Hand of Darkness, which I have read twice and was written five years earlier in 1969. It is a little slow at the beginning but really picks up intensity as it goes on. Le Guin’s prose is clean and very fine, and the book certainly merits the Hugo and Nebulas awards it received.