Reviewed by Galen Strickland
By internal chronology, this is considered to be the first novel in the Hainish series, although it was the fifth published, and there were a couple of short stories that deal with earlier events. Something I didn't mention in my review of The Left Hand of Darkness is that Hain had developed relativistic space ship drives that travelled at least the speed of light, but no faster. However, there was a communication device, called an ansible, that could transmit messages across the vastness of space instantaneously. That had been created using mathematical formulas devised by Shevek, the main character in The Dispossessed. Shevek was born on Anarres, the desert-like, but habitable, moon of the planet Urras. Some 160 years prior to the events in this book, Anarres was settled by revolutionaries inspired by the philosopher Odo, who invisioned a society based on anarchist collective principles. Odo herself never witnessed her inspiration, dying in a Urras prison. The Terms of Settlement decreed that no one from Urras could come to Anarres to live after the initial colonists, although ships were allowed to land for trade of minerals and other goods. Most Anarresti believed the opposite was also true, that no one of their group could return to Urras, or else they would be branded traitors and not allowed back on Anarres. The story of Shevek tests that theory.
Almost all of Le Guin's work, but most especially the Hainish stories, are highly sociological in nature, examining cultures in conflict, from both within and without. Most also include a very personal story. Shevek is a brilliant physicist in a society that does not value his work as a service to the collective. As much as he is loyal to his fellow citizens, he begins to realize that even without a government per se, Anarres suffers from restrictive customs and societal expectations. Everyone is supposed to be able to find meaningful work, yet most also accept work assignments outside their expertise from feelings of obligation. Bureaucracies, primarily of work and study assignments, become entrenched, and artistic creativity is discouraged as unnecessary. What was supposed to be a free anarchy becomes a State as stifling as the "propertarian" culture on Urras. Shevek and a few others form the Syndicate of Initiative, to both publish his work that has been denied authorization, as well as directly communicate with scientists on Urras. He wins a mathematical prize from a university on Urras and is invited to the sister planet, which outrages many on Anarres.
"Those who build walls are their own prisoners." The primary metaphor of the book, established in the first sentence, is a wall. The literal wall that separates Abbenay from the space port is representative of the mental barrier Anarresti have put between themselves and Urras, between their anarchic society and the greed and profiteering of the mother planet. Shevek experiences similar walls between different cultures on Urras, but not before realizing Anarres suffers from the same affliction. There is no marriage on Anarres, even permanent partnership is discouraged, and child-rearing is supposed to be a community obligation. Yet Shevek's greatest strength, even more than his passion for physics, is his partnership with Takver and their children Sadik and Pilun. As their relationship grows stronger, so does the wall between them and their fellow Anarresti. Chapters alternate between Shevek's experiences in traveling to Urras with his earlier life on Anarres. It is the latter segments that develop the character that becomes the perfect spokesman for the reestablishment of relations between the two worlds.
Conditions on Urras are similar to our current situation, with vast wealth contrasted with abject poverty, "First World" nations alongside less developed cultures, war and profiteering under the guise of patriotism and privilege. Anarres has no monetary system, no one "owns" anything, they take and use only what is needed and in as fair and equitable manner as possible. Thus Shevek is baffled by so much on Urras, although he is sheltered from most of its negative aspects until he cultivates contacts among the lower classes, beginning with the servant assigned to his rooms. He is also baffled by the Terran ambassador, who considers Urras a paradise, but that's because Earth, before contact with Hain, had been devastated by war and environmental mismanagement. Through all of his experiences, Shevek continually thinks there must be a way to balance the selflessness of Odonian thought with the potential for scientific and cultural growth that Urras and Hain promise. Again, not fully explored here, but left for the reader to analyze and ponder. What is the ideal structure for society and the individual?
I'm torn between whether Le Guin's strength is her literary style or her political/social thought. But why choose? You can identify with her characters, since they are well drawn and act logically within the confines of their environments, plus relish the vivid depictions of their world and their actions, as well as embrace the ideas which are as relevant today as when written more than forty years ago. We still need to find that balance of individual freedom and social responsibility. Along with the political quandaries, she also explores the differences between the gender parity on Anarres and the dominant patriarchy of Urras. There are a couple of statements made by Urrasti men that I felt were a bit exaggerated for effect, although women might think them fairly accurate depictions of male opinion. You have to keep in mind she was writing about an alien culture, no matter how similar it is to our own. This was written in the mid-'70s, in the midst of the Women's Movement, but it is discouraging that many of the same points are still being argued today. If we could only embrace Shevek's outlook, those arguments might finally be won.
The author's Official Website
ISFDb and Wikipedia on the Hainish series
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