“The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Over the next few weeks, Mythgard is running a free online course on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I’m rereading Le Guin’s Hainish books in order to prepare. 

On its surface, The Dispossessed is a story about a physicist, Shevek, who struggles to conduct his research in the face of political and social opposition. Shevek flees his homeworld, Anarres, for the neighboring moon Urras. However, The Dispossessed is really Ursula K. Le Guin’s way of exploring the limits of “utopia.” Anarres society practices a non-Leninist form of communism, whereas Urras permits a thriving if unequal capitalist economy. Shevek finds that he cannot adjust to either society.

The chapters alternate between Shevek’s youth on Anarres and his exile on Urras, allowing Le Guin to directly compare and contrast the two systems. On Anarres, Shevek is resented for “egoizing,” placing his needs before the collective by pursuing his physics research. Shevek is periodically distracted from his research because society demands that he contribute to physical labor projects. On Urras, Shevek can pursue his research, but soon learns that the government hopes to appropriate it. Shevek’s presence also challenges the planet’s class and gender boundaries, which soon leads to widespread discontent.

Other reviewers have accused Le Guin of being too heavy-handed in her description of capitalism and communism in The Dispossessed. This is true… to an extent. Le Guin portrays extreme versions of capitalism and communism, almost polar opposites of each other. Urras not only has free markets, but also gender discrimination and racism. Shevek is the only point of view character, so the narrative often has to tell rather than show us the differences between the two planets through Shevek’s dialogue and thoughts. For example, a servant tells Shevek about the dilapidated state of Urrasti hospitals, but we never actually see the plight of the underclass firsthand. At times, this narrative technique does make the novel feel didactic.

That said, The Dispossessed isn’t engaged in advocacy. The book does not promote Anarresti communism as a utopian ideal (as some reviewers seem to believe). Le Guin’s analysis of each economic system is surprisingly subtle. The problems on Urras are probably more familiar to contemporary readers as they are the problems we face in our own capitalist societies. However, Urras is no utopia; through Shevek, the novel makes clear the failures of both planets. Anarres experiences a famine, whereas Urras seems able – if not willing – to feed its own people. Urras places a higher value on individual achievement and education, whereas the faculty on Anarres come across as lazy and unoriginal.

This guy isn't in the novel...
This guy isn’t in the novel…

I found Le Guin’s depiction of Anarresti society particularly intriguing. The Dispossessed provides a relatively convincing example of a true communist – as opposed to Leninist or Maoist – society. It’s communism without the oppressive state, more like a large-scale commune. Despite this, Anarresti are not completely free to pursue their dreams. In fact, society provides much of the oppressive force that government would have. Le Guin recognizes that, for the Anarresti system to work, somebody must compel people to work for the collective good. Individuals who deviate from the norm are criticized or ostracized. The Anarresti clearly haven’t overcome human nature. It’s probably one of the more convincing depictions of communism in science fiction, even if it’s not true to the historical reality of communism.

Ultimately, Shevek learns that utopia is relative (after all, the subtitle for the book is “An Ambiguous Utopia”). Anarres might be normatively superior to Urras, but it is far from perfect. The book even presents a third contrast near the end of the novel, suggesting that other planets view Urras as a relatively attractive socioeconomic model. Unfortunately, Le Guin does not make this latter point strongly enough, again having a character tell Shevek – and, in turn, the reader – rather than show the appeal of Urras. Perhaps if we knew more about the other planets in Le Guin’s Hainish universe the contrast would have been more apparent.

The Dispossessed works as a thought experiment in comparative politics. It’s less effective as a science fiction story. I enjoyed reading about Shevek’s struggles to integrate into each society, but ultimately felt he was an imperfect vehicle through which to explore the societies. As a physics professor, he’s a relatively isolated, introverted character. His research, which should have been at the core of the character, seems secondary (aside from the ansible, a communications device he invents near the end of the novel). Shevek could have been an English professor or even an artist and I suspect that much of the story would have remained the same.

I doubt most adult readers will learn anything new about capitalism or communism by reading The Dispossessed. Especially after the Cold War, the problems of both economic systems have become quite clear. The novel probably spoke more to readers in the mid-1970s, when public faith in capitalism seemed to wane and communism seemed ascendant. However, The Dispossessed does explain the problems of communism more effectively and on a more personal level than George Orwell’s far more famous Animal Farm. Ultimately, I highly recommend The Dispossessed for readers interested in understanding how science fiction can engage with social and economic issues.

 Next week, I will look at Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, which arguably inspired the movie Avatar…

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