The Dispossessed – Ursula K LeGuin (1974)
‘The Principle of Simultaneity – a stupendous concept which will revolutionize interstellar communications between the nine Known Worlds. it is the life work of Shevek, a brilliant physicist from the anarchist world of Anarres.
But Shevek’s ideas are being stifled by jealous colleagues. So he goes to the authoritarian hell-planet Urras from whence his ancestors fled, seeking a different kind of freedom – and finds himself embroiled in deadly intrigue and bloody revolution…’
Blurb from the 1979 Panther paperback edition
On the cover of my seventies paperback is a brief quote from a Science Fiction Monthly review which says ‘destined to become a classic,’ which it undoubtedly did.
Set against the backdrop of LeGuin’s Hainish universe (in which Earth is just one of an unknown number of planets which the Hainish seeded with Humanity over a million years ago) we follow the life of scientist Shevek, a citizen of the anarchist moon Anarres, which orbits the parent world of Urras. Anarres has survived as a communist/anarchist state – based on the teachings of Odo – for a hundred and seventy years, and has had little contact with the parent world. Now, Shevek, on the verge of discovering a Universal Temporal Theorem (which will, among other things, allow instantaneous communication throughout the universe) finds his work hampered by jealous colleagues and the very nature of Odonian politics.
In fact, lack of communication is a recurring theme throughout the novel. Some of the young scientists face stiff opposition from the other anarchists when they begin to engage in radio dialogue with scientists on Urras.
Shevek, realising that the scientific community on Anarres will never allow his work to be published, arranges to travel to Urras in the trade freighter that occasionally lands on the moon, at the risk of being labelled a traitor and never allowed to return.
Thus, we then see Urras through the eyes of Shevek, a man unaccustomed to the concept of money or class systems. Ultimately Shevek’s presence gives impetus to the downtrodden masses of Urras who have already staged uprisings against the military government in another part of the world.
There are deep flaws in both of LeGuin’s societies. Shevek’s world, ostensibly an anarchist/communist state without laws, has evolved its own innate laws of rigidity. Avante garde composers are withheld teaching or composing posts, for instance, because their work doesn’t fit an acceptable Odonian aesthetic. Shevek himself finds it impossible to work at pure scientific research without political considerations and his colleagues’ rather selfish motives getting in the way. One feels that the Odonian dream has only survived on Anarres because resources are so scarce that no one could get rich even if they wanted to.
The story alternates between Shevek’s experiences on Urras and flashbacks of how life brought him to the point of leaving Anarres. The contrast works very well and LeGuin skilfully paints a dual portrait of the younger and older Shevek.
The societies are exquisitely realised and rendered in such believable detail one is drawn immediately into the dust and sweat of Anarres and the decadent pomp of Urras.
It’s a wonderful book, and one that will stay with you.