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4.3 out of 5 stars
The Dispossessed: A Novel (Hainish Cycle)
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209 of 214 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2003
"The Dispossessed" is a utopian/dystopian novel along the lines of "Brave New World" or "The Handmaid's Tale." Although Le Guin creates an atmosphere of tension, there's not a lot of action (at least for the first three quarters of the book)--so readers expecting more "traditional" science fiction or surprising plot twists will certainly be dissatisfied. This unashamedly political novel portrays one character torn between two worlds with disparate political and economic systems, and it focuses on the highlights and the inadequacies of both those worlds.

Shevek, an unappreciated scientist from Anarres, travels to Urras, whose inhabitants seem to value better his discoveries in physics. Annares, the home of the "Dispossessed," is a 175-year-old rebel outpost of anarchists who have established "an experiment in nonauthoritarian communism" that emphasizes community and cooperation and who must make the most of the limited resources on their desert planet to avert the constant threat of starvation. Anarres's mother planet, Urras, boasts a triumvirate of strong and repressive governments, the most important of which is the capitalist government of A-Io with its impressive wealth, cultural accomplishments, and scientific achievements.

But all is not what it seems on either world. Le Guin alternates chapters detailing Shevek's early years of disenchantment on his lawless but peaceful native planet with chapters describing his growing realization that Urras has a significant "dispossessed" population as well. The novel is, of course, deeply informed by the Cold War--it was published in 1974--and each world features its own "ambiguous utopia" (the book's subtitle). The anarchists of Anarres have diluted their revolutionary vision with mindless and dogmatic conformism, discouragement of artistic pursuits and dissenting ideas, and an entrenched and uncaring bureaucracy that acts like a government in all but name. The capitalists of Urras, meanwhile, have traded libertarianism and meritocracy for a repressive oligarchy and the armed reinforcement of widespread economic disparities. As the novel progresses, Shevek appreciates that there is much to be learned from both (or rather, all) worlds.

Some readers and critics have suggested that Le Guin is "promoting" anarchism/communism; this is too simplistic, since the book is far too subtle and tentative to work as propaganda. Instead, she posits an attractive and idealistic society, contrasts it with a world with an appealing facade and an unattractive underclass, and shows how human nature tends to corrupt even the most well-meaning of civilizations. A book of ideas rather than of advocacy, "The Dispossessed" challenges readers to envision humankind's limitless possibilities.
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72 of 72 people found the following review helpful
A group of revolutionaries settles the dry desert moon of a rich, Earthlike planet. Their founding philosophy is based on the writings of Odo, a woman who never sees the moon colony created on her ideas, which are based loosely on pure Communism. Odonianism tries to change human nature, by inculcating the principle of sharing and non-possesiveness, with the interesting twist of removing the possessive word "mine, ours" from language and substituting "the one I use." The Odonians create a somewhat impoverished but vigorous society on the moon Anarres and for two centuries have been isolated from their Urras roots except for trade contact at the spaceport. In fact, Anarres is a mining colony for Urras and is left alone as long as valuable minerals are shipped back to the mother planet.
The Anarresti use a language created by a computer and using their philosophical beliefs. People when born are given a two syllable name from the computer. The society is free, all sexual activity is allowed as long as the partners agree. Marriage is not uncommon, but not the norm either. Children are raised communally, a bit like the first kibbutzim in Israel. Work is assigned from a labor pool with a computerized system of allocating assignments wherever they are needed. But anyone can choose any occupation that suits them, and is free to refuse a posting, or even work at all. Once in every ten days, an Anarresti participates in volunteer labor that's needed by the community. Only a sense of responsibility, taught from birth, a conscience, keeps everyone working for everyone else and free from "propertarianism" or the desire to accumulate possessions and wealth. People are free to move around, choose their work, choose partners and do what they want as long as it doesn't hurt others.
This Utopia has seeds of destruction, however. Individuals are quashed by "syndicates" or groups controlling various occupations. New ideas are "egoistic" and suppressed. The main character in The Dispossessed, a brilliant physicist named Shevek, has suffered this isolation and discouragement from childhood on. His brilliance is fostered however, by two special teachers, one of whom is another such isolated and unappreciated brilliant mind. When he goes to Abbenay, the capital, to work at the central institute, he becomes aware of the jealousy, conservatism and backbiting that are undermining their utopia. He also embarks on a major discovery in physics, that is rejected by the institute, but greatly coveted by the physicists and industrialists on Urras. He's invited to finish his work on Urras and to accept a prize equivalent to a Nobel. No one from Anarres has gone to Urras in two centuries and a conflict of huge proportions erupts, against the backdrop of a heartbreaking drought and famine on Anarres.
How the conflict is ultimately solved, and how the Utopia is forever changed makes for some exciting reading. The book is a good examination of the question whether it is possible to set up a completely unselfish society and what the eventual outcome might be based on human nature. This is one of Le Guin's best books, and written in spare, beautiful language that describes the people, the landscape and the drama in a most memorable way.
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110 of 116 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 2003
Quick -- name three SF literary portraits of functional societies founded on principles of anarchism.
I come up with Eric Frank Russell's Gands in _The Great Explosion_ (" . . . And Then There Were None"), Robert A. Heinlein's Loonies in _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_, and Ursula K. Le Guin's Anarresti in _The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia_.
Oh, there are a handful of others, notably James Hogan's _Voyage from Yesteryear_ (which was itself strongly influenced by Russell). But most of the rest are thinly disguised libertarian propaganda without a great deal of literary merit (though your mileage may vary).
Of these three, Le Guin's is in some ways the most compelling. In part that's because she's just such a fine writer. But it's also because she's probably the _least_ "ideological" of all the SF writers who have ever tackled this subject.
On Le Guin's somewhat Taoistic approach, each of the contrasting societies contains the seeds of the other, and she lets the reader see both their "good" and "bad" points. She clearly likes the Anarresti society (and on the whole it comes off rather better than its Urrasti foil). But she doesn't hesitate to show the reader some of its critically important drawbacks. Its childrearing practices, for example, recall Ira Levin's _This Perfect Day_, and its treatment of original thinkers (and their "egoizing") even recalls Ayn Rand's tub-thumpingly propagandistic _Anthem_.
In general, then, Le Guin is pretty well immune to the usual salvation-by-ideology claptrap. And as her subtitle suggests, her utopia really _is_ ambiguous. For her, people aren't "saved" by adopting the correct philosophical position or social principles.
Least of all is her protagonist Shevek "saved" by such means. Shevek is a physicist from Anarres (the moon of the planet Urras) and has grown up in its anarchist society. But it doesn't really have a place for him. Neither, more obviously, does Urras, the "propertarian" counterpart to Annares's communitarian society, with which Annares has had no contact for about a century and a half. So with respect to the two polar-opposite patterns of social organization, Shevek is doubly dispossessed.
What's the book actually _about_? Well, Shevek cooks up a plan to get the two societies on speaking terms again and, in order to pursue it, decides to leave Anarres for Urras; so off he goes, as a passenger in a ship called the _Mindful_. (And yes, do be careful not to trip over the symbolism.) That's all I'm going to tell you about the plot. But the essential theme of the novel is, I suppose, barriers and their overcoming. (The very first sentence goes like this: "There was a wall." Yep.)
It's a very thoughtful novel. The narrative hops around in time a lot and the plot isn't exactly marked by nonstop action, so it's probably not for space opera fans. But readers of a more philosophical bent will enjoy it immensely.
And if you're at all interested in literary portraits of anarchist societies, make sure you read this one. If you share Le Guin's Taostic/anarchistic leanings (as I do), you'll like the Anarresti _and_ appreciate Le Guin's refreshingly anti-ideologue-ish honesty in her portrait of it.
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33 of 36 people found the following review helpful
This novel won the 1974 Nebula Award and the 1975 Hugo Award for best science fiction novel of the year as well as the 1975 Jupiter Award. It is centered about a complex society that is founded upon anarchism: an ordered society without laws. The "dispossessed" in the novel are the millions of the inhabitants of Anarres, an arid moon of the lush planet of Urras. Two centuries earlier, the followers of an anarchist philosopher had fled Urras to forge a new society, a society that has done away with the concept of "possession." There is no property on Anarres, no money, no marriage (I hope that Le Guin is not meaning to suggest that marriage is a possession by one or other of the participants), no government, no laws, no prisons. Even the language reflects this attitude. Possessive pronouns are even avoided. Instead of saying "My hand hurts," one would say "The hand hurts me." A mathematical genius of Anarres, who has made a conceptual breakthrough that allows for the development of the ansible (an instantaneous communication device that other science fiction authors will begin to use), travels to Urras. He had been having difficulties with the philosophical ideas of his home world but the social structure of Urras baffles him. The cultures of both world cause problems for the protagonist Shevik. This is one of the best science fiction novels of all time. However, I'm surprised at some of the comments by earlier reviewers. It appears that some reviewers are really offended at more cerebral type of novels. I gave this book five stars. And, I also gave "A Princess of Mars" five stars. Both books have their place within the genre. Perhaps we should be not so narrow in our tastes so that we exclude valuable works. Both of these novels should be read by any serious student of science fiction literature.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2001
Simply put, this is one of the greates science fiction books I have ever read. Beyond Le Guin's compelling storyline, masterful character development, and brilliantly constructed setting (all of which can be found in any of her other books), The Dispossessed is a social commentary the likes of which I had never experienced before.
Most people, I am sure, hear the word "anarchy," and it brings to mind images of smelly punk-rock kids throwing rocks and trashing cars (direct action!) However, the layperson generally cannot see beyone the premise of "no government = chaos." Le Guin tears down the philosophical walls and false presuppositions and proposes a world based on true libertarian socialist ideals: Anarchy. These people are not terrorists, but hard working, sincere individuals, possessed with all the faults that we have always had. It adresses the problems that could arise in an anarchist community plagued by extreme scarcity, but its message triumph over tribulation rings true.
It is this book which radically changed my political philosophies, and if is powerful and beautiful enough a piece of literature that it can do the same for all who read it.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2003
Whether or not THE DISPOSSESED passes as good sci-fi, I know not. I am not very knowledgeable of what SF fans look for in a book. As a novel, and as a philosophical exploration of authoritarianism, anarchism, capitalism, communism, revolution and utopianism -- this book is first-rate. The questions Le Guin grapples with here are by no means simple. Even great philosophers, like Marx and Bakunin, had difficultly imagining what an ACTUAL society would look like without bosses and owners. But through the gripping tale of an anarchist caught between two fundamentally different worlds, Le Guin seeks answers to many of the questions these philosophers left untouched. How would an anarchist society function? What would it take as its fundamental principles? What problems would that society have? What would a "propertarian" capitalist society appear from the perspective of an anarchist? Without offering any quick or final answers, Le Guin sheds light on these issues and beckons the reader to imagine the possibility of another world. After all, the evolution of culture here on planet earth was why Le Guin wrote this book in the first place. Inspiring, moving and transformative, this book was a pleasure. Thank you, Ursula. You have successfully removed another brick from the wall.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 1998
Do books really change people's lives? I've read this book many times over the last decade or so, and it never stops speaking to something deep inside me (and my wife, who I knew I had to marry when she said this was her favorite book). Ursula LeGuin isn't for everyone--you have to be willing to think, and care, and not just space out and be "entertained." But for those who want that, who are desperate for that, and like a great story on top of it, well there's no one like Ursula. And there's no Ursula book like The Dispossesed. If you haven't read it by the year 2001, you kind of missed the boat on 20th century literature. Oh, by the way, the book is about anarchy and love and stuff like that. It's about the REAL Utopia, the one that will never happen.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on June 18, 2007
Ursula LeGuin is one of my favorite writers and I just re-read this novel (in my early 40s, around the age of Shevek, the protagonist) after having read it the first time about 20 years before. The Dispossessed is a startlingly ambitious and perfect novel. On its face, the novel is about a physicist from a world of self-exiled anarchists (Anarres) who decides to travel to the "propertarian" (capitalistic) mother planet (Urras), both to complete his life's work of reconciling two contradictory theories of physics (Sequency and Simultaneity) and to tear down the walls between his society and the Urrasti world left behind.

One of LeGuin's remarkable achievements is her conception of an anarchistic society, something that has never existed in history. LeGuin fleshes out a world of 20 million anarchists, explaining how the people of such a society might live and love, how such a large community could function without a government. But this novel is so much more than a writer's imagining of functional anarchism. This novel is not really about politics, it is about love and the nature of human interaction.

The life work of the protagonist is to reconcile Sequency -- time as linear, history as progress -- with Simultaneity -- time as instaneous, history as cyclical. Similarly, Shevek tries to reconcile his society of Anarres, where there is no government oppression or inequality but also where individuality is stifled and creativity devalued, with Urras, where there is unjust distribution of power and wealth but also great beauty and achievement. LeGuin tells Shevek's tale in two different time arcs, a linear progression through Shevek's journey to Urras and the events there, and a looping back through Shevek's life from infancy to reach the beginning of Shevek's journey at the end of the novel. LeGuin writes the novel in two chronologies as if to highlight Shevek's struggle with reconciling the two theories of Time. This literary device works brilliantly, as the reader rushes through the novel not only to find out what happens to Shevek while in Urras but also to find out why Shevek chose to leave Anarres for the journey.

Underneath it all, LeGuin is not just trying to reconcile competing conceptualizations of time, or to decide what is the best way for people to govern themselves, but rather to harmonize the contradictions that exist within human nature. We are all "propertarians," as LeGuin demonstrates simply and beautifully early in the novel with a heartbreaking passage in which Shevek as a toddler is enjoying warmth and sunlight flowing through an open window, trying to "possess" the sunlight, only to have a larger boy shove him aside. We are all anarchists as well, disregarding government mandates for the sake of personal choices. Humans are both greedy and altruistic, inclined both to take and to help, to hate and to love. LeGuin settles on love as the human constant, the key variable in the equation of human interaction, but does not presume to define love, only describe aspects of it. LeGuin shows us that trying to understand human nature, and reconcile its contradictions, is easily as difficult as trying to construct fundamental principles of the physical Universe and reconciling the conflicts in our perceptions of reality. Following Shevek as he finds his own answers to both is a rewarding journey. This is a great novel.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2003
Whether or not THE DISPOSSESED passes as good sci-fi, I know not. I am not very knowledgeable of what SF fans look for in a book. As a novel, and as a philosophical exploration of authoritarianism, anarchism, capitalism, communism, revolution and utopianism -- this book is first-rate. The questions Le Guin grapples with here are by no means simple. Even great philosophers, like Marx and Bakunin, had difficultly imagining what an ACTUAL society would look like without bosses and owners. But through the gripping tale of an anarchist caught between two fundamentally different worlds, Le Guin seeks answers to many of the questions these philosophers left untouched. How would an anarchist society function? What would it take as its fundamental principles? What problems would that society have? What would a "propertarian" capitalist society appear from the perspective of an anarchist? Without offering any quick or final answers, Le Guin sheds light on these issues and beckons the reader to imagine the possibility of another world. After all, the evolution of culture here on planet earth was why Le Guin wrote this book in the first place. Inspiring, moving and transformative, this book was a pleasure. Thank you, Ursula. You have successfully removed another brick from the wall.
Note: The Perrenial Classics edition of this book (not this edition) is much more sturdy and readable, if a little more pricy.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 1997
I read this book about 10 years ago and it still echoes in my mind as far and away the best science fiction novel I have ever read simply because it avoids problems found in most SF--poor characterization and over-reliance on techno-babble. It amazes me that this classic has not been made into a movie yet, but it would lend itself much better to the screen than, say, "Dune." This book squarely faces the central dilemma of a materialistic society--that by its very nature encourages possessive (hence the title) desires, both sexual and otherwise, that lead inevitably to spiritual dissolution and unhappiness. And as far as LeGuin's prose goes, there are sentences here that I will never forget. The last line is surely one of the most memorable in American literature.
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