24 July 2012

The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
1975 Hugo Award Winner (Plus just about every other award possible!)
Got it from: Public Library
319 Pages

Urras and Annares are twin inhabited planets within the same universe as that of her first Hugo winner, The Left Hand of Darkness.  Here Shevek, a physics prodigy with a philosophical bent, is working to develop an engine that will enable faster-than-light travel.  At the same time, he is forced to negotiate hard famine and the politics of academia in a less-than-perfect anarchist state.  The journey confronts him with the endless walls societies build to keep each other out, but end up caging themselves in, in the process.

An Ambiguous Utopia
I wish I had read this as a teenager.  At that time in our lives, so many, especially myself, are searching for, hoping for that utopia in which the world always makes sense and offers a “completeness of being”.  Had I read Shevek's exploration for the same and Le Guin’s notion of the imperfect utopia at that time in my life, it would have been absolutely earth-shattering.  At the same time, it is also probably a good thing that I didn’t read it as a teenager, because there is just so much depth that I’m not sure I would have appreciated it, or if I could I might have drowned in it.

Once again, Le Guin creates an intensely rich universe.  Neither Annaresti nor Urrasti society or culture live up to their ideals, and nor do they devolve to the evil they predict of each other.  The result is a dark philosophy of pragmatism and responsibility.  It is so subtle as to knock down the cultural walls we build against each other, but rather than leaving us in a vacuum, there is a bittersweet fulfillment in its place.  It is a story of love and collective responsibility which offers an intensely and intellectually satisfying response to both the absurdism and multitudinous dystopias drowning SF to that point.

Le Guin’s Intellectualism
To say The Dispossessed is intellectually challenging would be inappropriately understated.  As with The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed embodies so many aspects of feminism at the time.  It is a work of political and cultural theory, semiotics, physics and ethics which seeks to not only make sense of who we are, but also to explore more satisfying human relationships.  To read this book is to think long and hard.  The negative here may be that more so even than TLHoD, The Dispossessed does at times, tend to lecture and patronize and leaves characters a little stiff for relying on a scientific and academic approach to storytelling, but Le Guin is again able to back that up with real substance, chewy and interwoven philosophies…heavenly bliss for the academic and philosophically minded.

I started this book a little worried that Le Guin might fall into the Heinleinesque “ultra-preachyness” that I find so deplorable.  That concern didn’t last long though and I ended the book with a feeling of satisfaction that I can’t begin to compare to any other reading experience I’ve ever had.  Well maybe a couple…but the point is that with The Dispossessed, Le Guin established herself as the eternal scholar and intellectual savior of the genre.


Universe 5/5
Social/Political Climate 5/5 (I could have given this a 6!)
Dialogue 5/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5 (The Principles of Simultaneity get high marks here!)
Characters 5/5

Overall 25/25

The roll of the die…
This week’s book is The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

Next week’s book is Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke.


  1. One of my favorite books ever. Glad you liked it too.

  2. great review. this is a fantastic read. I like your observation that "Le Guin established herself as the eternal scholar and intellectual savior of the genre." She is often noted for being a strong female writer in the genre, but there is more to importance in the genre and you hit that nail right on the head.


  3. I love this book as well. I actually read it for my science fiction lit class back in undergrad, and we spent a long time discussing all the topics Le Guin addressed. It's such a complex and fascinating novel.

  4. Thanks everyone. And Allie, I can definitely see taking forever in a discussion for this one. I gave myself extra time on The Left Hand of Darkness for the same reason. I really wanted to take a week to write this one...

  5. Yip, finally a decent HEP score ;)

    This is certainly an all-time favourite, a first-rate political meditation that uses SF to explore theories of what would make an ideal society. Shevek is a great character and he asks really tough questions - the narrative offers no easy answers. Which world is the true utopia? I guess it is a reminder to carefully consider the eternal question of the grass always appearing greener on the other side ;)

    1. Oh man Emil, you're killing me with the HEP scores! I guess I deserve it though :)

  6. This is actually my favourite sci-fi novel ever. I think you're exactly right in describing your "feeling of satisfaction" after reading it. That's the way I've been describing it to my friends for a few months now, and I'm glad to see I'm not alone.

    While I loved so many aspects of this book, I particularly loved Shevek. Rarely has a book's protagonist ever drawn me in as completely as he did. He's both brilliant and naive. He's aloof yet he loves deeply. And, he is the true Odonian revolutionary, something we know from the start but which he doesn't figure out until after the riots on Urras. I can't say enough about him, or this book. The best ever, as far as I'm concerned.

    1. That's high praise! And one of only a few perfect scores from me too.


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