Reading,  Review

Book Review: The Dispossessed

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In late 2015, I read The Left Hand of Darkness and found myself caught up in Ms. Le Guin’s idea of science fiction as thought experiment rather than the more frequent “if this goes on” model. In that case, the experiment was in building a society around the idea of being genderless. The Dispossessed, however gives us a vision of a society built on anarchy.

It’s not true anarchy, of course, but more an agreement of freedom from interference between its citizens, a path leading through anarcho-communism to a point where centralism and bureaucracy have begun to creep in.

Chapters in the book follow Shevek through two timelines on the harsh and difficult world the Odonians seceded the better part of two centuries ago.

In one, we see a personally dangerous, in more ways than he can consider, voyage to the original home world, Urras (the two inhabited worlds of Tau Ceti) where he finds he’s a famous scientist due to his work towards a General Temporal Theory, which may give the various human races of the galaxy faster than light travel. Here, there is political intrigue (noting the analogs between Cold War US and USSR , and even the Vietnam War), and dramatic cultural misunderstandings. He’s a rugged anarchist among die-hard capitalists, and it’s a lot of work to even begin to understand, even when he finds there are still followers of Odo (who originated the philosophy his society is based on). In fact, then it gets worse as there are protests and riots which he gets caught up in.

The second timeline works us through key moments in Shevek’s past, showing us the shape of Anarresti society through pivotal events in his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Anarres is a society without government, more or less, though there are collectives and organizations that might almost be called syndicates, and there are power structures slowly forming. It’s getting harder to depart from societal norms, which Shevek finds in the course of his research.

Through Shevek’s experiences, we see that Anarresti are taught from a young age to put the needs of the group and society ahead of personal needs and desires, that there is no personal property, that Mutual Aid is defined as the almost central tenet of their society, second only to the freedom of being answerable only to oneself.

Walls and dividers are a central theme in the book, between people, between nations, between cultures and subsets of those cultures. Ms. Le Guin gives us a juvenile version of the Stanford Prison Experiment, which is nonetheless chilling, to demonstrate this in a blunt fashion, but the motif is present throughout the book, never far from Shevek’s thoughts.

We end with Shevek’s apparent rescue from Urras and his return to Anarres at the hands of the Terrans, a completely neutral party. But we leave off before finding out what kind of welcome he’ll receive when he gets there. His mate and child will certainly be glad to see him, but many people on Anarres regard him as a traitor even for going to Urras, to see the mercenary enemy on its own world.

Overall rating: 4 stars. This isn’t always an easy read, but I’m beginning to think that the author doesn’t intend for her work to be. This is intellectual Science Fiction, Science Fiction as thought experiment. The experiment here is in anarcho-communism and what may happen when the society’s members get comfortable after the revolutionary spirit dies away. It should be difficult to read, and it should make you think, and I think I need more of Ms. Le Guin’s SF.

As a side note, I rather liked the idea of computer generated names. Everyone is given, at birth, a name consisting of six characters, unique on Anarres during their lifetime. No one else in the world at the time will have the name, though it may be used again after their death.

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