Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
essays

November 1974

Le Guin, “The Dispossessed”

Science-Fiction, Liberty, and “Ambiguous Utopia”

The Dispossessed is a science-fiction tour de force, an ambitious philosophical novel that powerfully presents a heroic vision of life. This is achieved through the story of one man’s journey from his native world to the planet of his ancestors’ origin, his pursuit of personal destiny and his resolve to bring down the walls of ignorance and fear that separate the two worlds.

The speculative context of the story is as follows: ldealists fleeing the governments of the planet Urras settle on nearby Anarres, a barren, arid world, where they build communal anarchism, a society in which moral choice, custom, and mutual aid replace laws and property, and conceived by its people as a permanent revolution serving the one “law” they acknowledge: the law of human evolution. They survive and slowly increase their numbers, but 170 years of always uncertain struggle severely tests their society. Pragmatism erodes the idealism, custom hardens, bureaucracy sets in, and public opinion tyrannizes the individual conscience.

Shevek, a pioneering theorist in the physics of time, comes to a first-hand understanding of the malignant forces that have taken root in his society when he discovers that his own unorthodox work in time theory is being denied publication by professional envy and shunted aside as socially useless. The value of his work is hailed only by scientists on Urras—hated Urras, from which, with few exceptions, Anarres has kept strictly isolated. In response to an invitation from one nation on Urras, Shevek decides to go there, hoping—with the stimulation of peers—to finish a general temporal theory, to discover the truth about Urras, enshrouded by now in legend, and above all, “to shake up things, to stir up, to break some habits, to make people ask questions”—to behave like an anarchist!

Alienated from his own society, he is going as an alien to a nation of government and property that he has been taught all his life embodies the antithesis of his own society—a nation, moreover, that he has been warned is eager only to acquire his theories for its particular uses. But this is the risk he chooses to take for the idea and for his right to pursue it where necessary and to share it with everyone. As the story unfolds, the challenge to his ability to understand the world to which he has taken his quest resolves into a challenge to the integrity of the quest itself—to Shevek’s integrity.

The communal anarchism on Anarres is vividly realized through the attitudes and behavior of its people. The ideas they discuss are felt by them as being central to their identities as anarchists; thus the story avoids propagandizing. And they make mistakes, there is vigorous disagreement among them, as befits their society. But it is in key relationships—of man to woman, adult to child, teacher to student—and in the very fluidity of relationships, the directness of speech and atmosphere of trust, the unspoken knowledge that each one is free and responsible, that the central ideas of mutual aid and moral choice come alive. The practicality of their syndicalist economy is questionable, but they embody the authentic spirit of libertarianism. And when Shevek’s journey brings him to Urras, his experience of that society becomes a telling critique of our own, especially the consumer culture assented to by many libertarians today.

The dramatic drive of the novel, however, originates in Shevek’s quest for a theory of time that will integrate sequence and simultaneity—causality and the simultaneous presence of all possibility. Time is the grand theme that informs every other issue raised in the story—time in relation to ethics, choice, human relationships, psychological stability, happiness, aesthetics, and the evolution of humanity on all its far-flung worlds.

The Dispossessed is subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia.” For in the society of Anarres the classic idea of utopia—a static condition of social-political perfection—combines with its antithesis—dynamic change—to achieve permanent revolution. And Shevek—the anarchist, the idealist who regards the pursuit of his destiny and the transformation of society as one complex act—is the dramatization of utopian life. Reviewed by Richard Evers / Science Fiction (341 pages) / LR Price $7.95