The Dispossessed

Ursula K. Le Guin

Book cover

I picked up “The Dispossessed” because I had read somewhere, and now I forget where, that it was an interesting example of an author trying to work out how an anarchist society might really operate. I have some kind of intellectual and romantic attraction to anarchism–not to say any real political commitment–so that was enough to make me want to read it. I also recalled very much liking the only other Le Guin book I’ve read, “A Wizard of Earthsea,” when I was in ninth grade.

The book did not disappoint. I would highly recommend it in general, not just to fans of sci fi. UKL’s sci fi, at least here, is as “soft” as it gets. There is no fanboyish fixation on technology whatsoever, and the sci-fi setting of a lush planet with a harsh but habitable moon is really just a vehicle that allows her to explore the human themes of the book. (Really, she could have used the same plot in a completely non-sci-fi setting.) I can’t even think of another female sci-fi author I’ve read so I can’t generalize, nor would it probably be wise to do so, but I do think this book has something of a feminine touch on a very traditionally masculine genre.

Although it is quite different from AWOE, TD shares with it a quality that I love–it imparts a strong visceral feeling of what it is like to live in the world it portrays. I was very convinced by UKL’s depiction of the anarchist society on Anarres. The anarchists here are not those of black flags and street graffiti, but those described in a memorable phrase in Zafon’s “Shadow of the Wind”: “people who wear darned socks and ride bicycles.” Anarres is not an easy place to live and there is an implicit sense in the book that a stable anarchist society can only really be maintained in places where there is barely enough; where mutual aid and solidarity are just the only ways of getting by. This is a theme echoed in a lot of other sci-fi, e.g. in Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and Herbert’s “Dune”, or for that matter, “Little House on the Prairie” or anything else about the American frontier. The Anarresti in the novel are 150 years beyond their revolutionary moment so they are no longer zealots, but they are still driven by deeply held moral convictions, to the point where they are shown occasionally foregoing those few luxuries that are available to them. In Odo’s memorable slogan, “Waste is excrement; excrement retained in the body is a poison.”

Yet despite the appeal (to me) of the book’s anarchists and their values, TD is in no way utopian. UKL clearly illustrates the shortcomings of the Anarresti society. For one thing, it is kind of a dingy and poor place, and there is a palpable sense in which choosing anarchy limits human flourishing in many dimensions, even if it opens it in others. UKL shows anarchy as being unnatural in its opposition to certain facets of human nature (even as “propertarianism” is shown as unnatural in its own ways). And finally, the book nicely depicts the “iron law of oligarchy” in the ways that power dynamics remain even in the absence of any formal law.

Early on in this book I thought it echoed Heinlein’s TMIAHM and “Stranger in a Strange Land”, but having finished it, I think that I like it better than either of those. UKL maintains a restraint throughout (that is only breached in one moment that I thought was a little over the top), to the benefit of her treatment of the deeper themes.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars