Monday, February 13, 2012

Book review: The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

 X-posted at Cannonball Read IV

Here we have the story of two worlds: Urras and Anarres. Urras is meant to be an analog of our Earth, and Anarres is described as its habitable moon, albeit harboring some pretty tough conditions. The main plotline is constructed in parallel around the protagonist Shevek, a theoretical physicist, mathematician, and Anarresti. He grows to feel the necessity of traveling to Urras in order to progress further in his field, an action that is welcomed by Urras and abhorred by his fellow Anarresti.

Anarres was founded as a refuge for a colony of what may best be described as uber-communists or collectivists, based on our language. The title “The Dispossessed” refers to their extreme disavowing of anything insinuating personal possession: a blanket that I usually sleep with is not “my blanket” but “the blanket,” and an offer to share the blanket is not “Would you like to share my blanket?” but “Would you like to use the blanket that I use?” They are anarchistic and accept no government or currency, and they volunteer to perform work where it is needed, sometimes based on special interest or talent, and sometimes not. Shevek describes Anarres (I am paraphrasing here) as a place where it is not easy to live, but it is rewarding.

And if Anarres is the most extreme form of communism, then on Urras we are treated to the most extreme form of capitalism. As a capitalistic society that tends to pontificate often about our bitter end, we have a better idea about what that may look like: class warfare, feuding nations, and some totalitarianism thrown in for good measure.

For obvious reasons, the two societies don’t understand each other, but the Urrasti are portrayed as having more of a curiosity about Anarres, while Anarresti find even the neutral mention of Urras to be distasteful and can’t fathom the appeal whatsoever of such a place.

The Dispossessed explores politics, economics, religion, and of course  — it is Le Guin! — gender issues. It’s beautifully constructed around all of the aforementioned social issues, but also around Time, the focus of Shevek’s study. Shevek spends the majority of the novel developing his “Simultaneity Principle,” which is essentially a new way of explaining Time that incorporates physics, philosophy, and mathematics, and does not subscribe to the linear model of time we are familiar with. As such, the novel doesn’t progress in a strictly linear fashion. The chapters alternate between taking place on Urras and Anarres, with what are undoubtedly different periods of time in Shevek’s life unfolding simultaneously. Le Guin is a master at these “fish out of water” stories that result from the meeting of people from such starkly different backgrounds. It’s a pretty dense read and something that will take several sittings to get through, but regardless I wholeheartedly recommend it. The Dispossessed, for me, is poignant, provocative, and above all engaging.

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