A review of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed which first appeared in Organise! #81.
When I first sat down to write this review all I could think of saying was along the lines of “The Dispossessed is about two worlds divided by a wall, and what it means to be a beggar on either side of this divide. Go read it!” Unfortunately that isn’t much of a review, but with that in mind…
The Dispossessed is a work of speculative science fiction exploring two different societies living in orbit to one another:
Urras. The Blue-Green world of plenty. A word of class. A word of division. The place where the rich are rich and the poor are poor. Where a workers takes the brunt from the bosses wars and wants, no matter if the boss claims to be a capitalist or a communist. Our world presented to us in another name.
Anarres. A moon colony of idealistic anarchists in exile. Now several generations old, it sits in isolation from the rest of humanity and the worlds beyond. Life here is tough and resources are scarce. When crops fail or disaster strikes the hardships leave deep scars against the egalitarian psyche. Although the ideals of anarchism are spoken of the local conditions are helping the world sleepwalk into bureaucratic syndicalism that sacrifices individual will to the collective.
Each is presented in a spiral of oppressive behaviours, each holding the redemptive key to the other’s doom. The spirit of Anarres shows what can be achieved if society is reordered along the principles of horizontal organisation, free association, solidarity and mutual aid. The resources of Urras can break the bane of economic scarcity that is choking anarchism to death in the name of collective survival.
The opening of the book presents to us a wall.
The wall keeps one world in. The same wall keeps the other world out. This applies no matter which side of the divide you look from and it is this wall – constructed not of stone but of the material conditions of the two societies – that is examined in great detail. Le Guin does not present this in dry terms however. Her deft characterisation of Shevek, our ideal anarchist cypher and lead character, is able to explore and reveal to us the words as they are lived, rather than simply providing us with dry exposition or simple narrator-descriptions which could be read but not felt. Alien planets beyond the entwined orbit of Anarres and Urras give brief glimpses, warnings, of other possible futures. Terra has been destroyed by self-created environmental catastrophe. Hain shows a disinterested world dying in spirit due to a lack of creative passion. The wall that separates and acts as the doom of Anarres and Urras is shown to also be the foundation to the downfall of these not-so-distant places.
A special note must be made towards the use of of language to convey the morals, philosophy, thought and behaviours of the people of Anarres. Their language sets up what they can or can’t put into words and communicate and commonly conceive. These altered boundaries of consciousness let us understand for ourselves in the way their society behaves, and in doing so invites the reader to think in a different way, one that goes out-with those presented in the mainstream of our day-to-day lives. In short, it is consciousness raising.
Like the anarchist ideals the book so deftly explores, the story itself does not leave us with an ending so much as a staging point for our own journey. To use the ideas of the books, it comes to you like a beggar man, relying on you for all that it requires and leaving you enriched by realising you would be better with nothing but what you carry as long as all needs are met. By the end of reading it I was stood at the wall between two worlds with the choice over whether I help to dismantle it, and by choosing to do so build a greater whole.