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The Dispossessed by Ursula K LeGuin

July 20, 2015

13651The Dispossessed is the reason Ursula K. LeGuin became the first person ever to write a book that won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, twice. (Her first twofer was for The Left Hand of Darkness.) She earned it.

The book is circular on a lot of levels. The story deals with a binary system of planets, Urras and Anarres, that orbit the star Tau Ceti. The inhabitants of each planet see the other planet as the moon. Urras is a lush water planet with a capitalist society and a state-socialist society locked in a cold war with each other. (Sound familiar? The book was published in 1974.) Anarres is a desert world inhabited by the descendants of colonists who exiled themselves on the planet to found an anarcho-syndicalist utopia.

I didn’t know anarcho-syndicalism existed until I started reading. It’s sort of like rule by a federation of trade unions. Sort of, but not exactly. The examination of these three societies makes the book a morality play on an epic scale, which shouldn’t work, but it does.

The main character is Shevek, an Anarresti physicist who travels to Urras after the planets have been isolated from each other for 170 years. In alternating chapters the book tells of Shevek’s adventures on Urras and his backstory on Anarres that led to his decision to make the trip. At the end of the book, Shevek returns to Anarres at the same time that he decides to leave Anarres for Urras. Circular.

Often, LeGuin would meet my objections to how Anarresti society would work just after I thought of them.

Me: How does a hermit society like Anarres do physics?

LeGuin: Yes, that’s the problem.

Me: But this isn’t really an anarchy! The government’s just very small and decentralized.

LeGuin: Yes, and it’s getting bigger.

I have some other issues with the text that LeGuin didn’t address. Why don’t Anarresti people work themselves sick, for instance? There’s always too much work to do just to survive in the planet’s harsh climate. Anarresti are taught from childhood that work is the noblest thing a person can do with their time. But it says in the text that they have a six-hour workday. Maybe they don’t take weekends.

Since there’s no central court of justice, rapists and murderers have to face the wrath of their neighbors. Regardless of how comfortable you are with vigilante justice, what if the community is wrong about who did it? What if they are really, truly convinced they have the culprit, and he didn’t do it?

I also don’t think it was entirely sporting of LeGuin to make the capitalist society the worst capitalist society that could possibly exist. A-io is only a few steps away from being a medieval feudal society with spaceships.

But all these are quibbles. The descriptions of place are gorgeous, and this book will make you think. Hard. And that’s the best kind of science fiction.

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