For Ursula K Le Guin, science fiction is a battle of ideas. Through her long career she has used science fiction and fantasy as a platform to explore alternative world views, different states, new way of looking at the world.
Ever uncompromising, Le Guin is a true artist. She even received a mention from the Nobel Prize Committee on their announcement that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. She would have been a worthy winner of the award herself.
The Dispossessed is one of her masterpieces. The set-up is a staple of Sci-fi. Two planets, joined in history and mutual antipathy glare at each other across the abyss, each considering the other to be its moon.
On the one side is Anarres, a desiccated world where fanatical colonists scratch out a living from the unforgiving earth. On the other is Urras, green and fertile, but ruled by a capitalist elite who oppress and exploit their citizenry.
Shevek, a citizen of Anarres, must leave his home planet to publish a great theory which would allow simultaneous communication across space. Held back by the communistic hierarchy of his homeworld, his ideas have failed to be published by his jealous superiors, so he decides to escape to the more open society of Urras.
Alas, he is soon appalled by what he finds on the twin planet. Shevek was brought up in a commune which claims to be free but stifles individuality at every turn. On Urras, he discovers that though the rich enjoy perfect liberty, many other people are mere servants, poor, desperate, denied basic human rights such as food or healthcare. Faced with the grim reality, he feels trapped, unable to publish his theory at home but unwilling to hand it over to the ‘propetarians’ who are now his hosts.
The Dispossessed is a novel in the tradition of Brave New World, exploring what a truly planned society would be like. It also examines how our ideas and behaviour are dictated by culture, education and tradition. In the case of the people of Anarres, their actions are dominated by the teachings of their messiah-like founder Odo:
For the first time in his life, he comprehended that Odo, whose face he had known since infancy, whose ideas were central and abiding in his mind and the mind of everyone he knew, that Odo had never set foot on Anarres: that she had lived, and died, and was buried, in the shadow of green-leaved trees, in unimaginable cities, among people speaking alien languages, on another world. Odo was an alien: an exile.
Shevek, like most people on Anarres, is brainwashed into believing that the ideal society of Anarres requires sacrifice to the extent that people don’t even see their self-abnegation as a form of suffering. Odo and her followers have even created an artificial language for the people to use, one which doesn’t include words for concepts which are contrary to her teachings.
Though Anarres is a miserable place by our standards, its people seem mostly content, except for outsiders like Shevek:
none of them at the Institute knew how wretched he was. They hadn’t been posted, just as they were beginning independent research, to a damned tree-planting project. Their central function wasn’t being wasted. They were working: doing what they wanted to do. He was not working. He was being worked.
The only downside to the novel is that it is now quite dated. The obvious Cold War parallel of the two planets glowering at each other behind various forms of walls is one thing. Women wandering around bare-breasted in debauched cocktail parties is quite another. It feels weird that a female author would also fall back on the male fantasies that permeate 1970s Sc-Fi (unless she is satirising them, in which case she does so pretty unsuccessfully here).
Although just as heavy and uncompromising as The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed is enjoyable as a novel of ideas, and brilliant ideas at that. Almost every chapter has a moment which forces the reader to pause and look with new eyes at the things that we ‘choose’ to do.