Concordances and Characters
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The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is a 1974 utopian science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, set in the same fictional universe as that of The Left Hand of Darkness (the Hainish Cycle). The book won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award in 1975, and is notable for achieving a degree of literary recognition unusual for science fiction works.

Setting[]

The story of The Dispossessed is set on Anarres and Urras, the twin inhabited worlds of Tau Ceti. Cetians are mentioned in other Ekumen novels and short stories. An Anarresti appears in the short story A Fisherman of the Inland Sea/The Shobies' Story. Urras before the settlement of Anarres is the setting for the short story The Wind's Twelve Quarters/The Day Before the Revolution. In The Dispossessed, Urras is divided into several states which are dominated by the two largest ones, which are rivals.

The story has many themes, as well as the creation of the ansible, an instantaneous communications device that plays a critical role in Le Guin's Hainish Cycle. (The invention of the ansible places the novel first in the internal chronology of the Hainish Cycle, although it was the fifth Hainish novel published. In The Word for World is Forest, the newly created ansible is brought to Athshe, a planet being settled by Earth-humans. In other tales in the Hainish Cycle, the ansible already exists. In Rocannon's World it is central to the plot.

In a clear allusion to the United States (represented by A-Io) and the Soviet Union (represented by Thu), one has a capitalist economy and patriarchy and the other is an authoritarian system that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat. Further developing the analogy, there is in A-Io an oppositional left-wing party which is closely linked to and supporting the rival Thu, as were Communist parties in the US and other Western countries at the time of writing.

Beyond that, there is a third major, though underdeveloped, area called Benbili - when a revolution breaks out there, A-Io and Thu invade Benbili generating a proxy war. Thus, Benbili comes to represent south-east Asia, the situation being a powerful allusion to the Vietnam War. See Yellow Peril.

In the last chapter of The Dispossessed, we learn that the Hainish people arrived at Tau Ceti 60 years ago, which is more than 150 years after the secession of the Odonians from Urras and their exodus to Anarres. Terrans are also there, and the novel occurs some time in the future. A date of 2300 has been suggested, while the complexities of Urrasti history hint otherwise.

Plot[]

The story takes place on the fictional planet Urras and its moon Anarres (since Anarres is massive enough to hold an atmosphere, this is often described as a double planet system). In order to forestall an anarcho-syndicalist workers' rebellion, the major Urrasti states gave the revolutionaries the right to live on Anarres, along with a guarantee of non-interference, approximately two hundred years before the events of The Dispossessed. The story is told in LeGuin's "The Day Before the Revolution". Before this, Anarres had had no permanent settlements apart from some mining.

The protagonist Shevek is a physicist attempting to develop a General Temporal Theory. The physics of the book describes time as having a much deeper, more complex structure than we understand it. It incorporates not only mathematics and physics, but also philosophy and ethics. The meaning of the theories in the book weaves nicely into the plot, not only describing abstract physical concepts, but the ups and downs of the characters' lives, and the transformation of the Anarresti society. An oft-quoted saying in the book is "true journey is return."

Anarres is in theory a state-less society or coercive authoritarian institutions. Yet in pursuing research that deviates from his society's current consensus understanding, Shevek begins to come up against very real obstacles. Shevek gradually develops an understanding that the revolution which brought his world into being is stagnating, and power structures are beginning to exist where there were none before. He therefore embarks on the risky journey to the original planet, Urras, seeking to open dialog between the worlds and to spread his theories freely outside of Anarres. The novel details his struggles on both Urras and his homeworld of Anarres.

The book also explores the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language shapes thinking, and thus, culture. The language spoken on the anarchist planet Anarres, Pravic, is a constructed language that reflects the philosophical foundations of utopian anarchism. Thus the use of the possessive case is strongly discouraged. Language is an inevitable victim of Orwellian manipulation in every utopian project.

The Dispossessed looks into the mechanisms that may be developed by an anarchist society, but also the dangers of centralization and bureaucracy that might easily take over such society without the continuation of revolutionary ideology. Part of its power is that it gives a spectrum of fairly well-developed characters, who illustrate many types of personalities, all educated in an environment that measures a person not by what he owns, but by what he can do, and how he relates to other human beings. Possibly the best example of this is the character of Takver, the hero's partner, who exemplifies many virtues: loyalty, love of life and living things, perseverance, and desire for a true partnership with another person.

Note that the work is subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia", and one of the major themes of the work is the ambiguity of realizing an ideal community. Anarres is not presented as a perfect society, even within the constraints of what might define an anarchist utopia. Bureaucracy, stagnation, and power structures have problematized the revolution, as Shevek understands through the course of the novel. Moreover, Le Guin has painted a very stark picture of the natural and environmental constraints on society. Anarres citizens are forced to contend with a relatively sparse and unfruitful world. Hardship caused by lack of resources is a prominent theme, reflected in the title of the novel. Anarres citizens are dispossessed not just by political choice, but by the very lack of resources to possess. Here, again, Le Guin draws a contrast with the natural wealth of Urras, and the competitive behaviors this fosters. Le Guin's foreword to the novel notes that her anarchism is closely akin to that of Pyotr Kropotkin's, whose Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution investigated the influence of the natural world on human political life.

Influences for the novel[]

Le Guin's title could be in reference to Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Possessed.

One scene in the novel bears remote resemblance to the Stanford prison experiment, while its actual influence on the novel stays unclear. Childhood Shevek and some friends – curious about Urras and what prisons must be like – decide to play prison and enact a game very similar in design and results to the actual experiment, including its being cut short.

References[]

  • John P. Brennan, "Anarchism and Utopian Tradition in The Dispossessed", pp. 116–152, in Olander & Greenberg, editors, Ursula K. Le Guin, New York: Taplinger (1979).
  • Samuel R. Delany, "To Read The Dispossessed," in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. N.Y.: Dragon Press, 1977, pp. 239–308 (anarchism in The Dispossessed).
  • Leonard M. Fleck, "Science Fiction as a Tool of Speculative Philosophy: A Philosophic Analysis of Selected Anarchistic and Utopian Themes in Le Guin's The Dispossessed", pp. 133–45, in Remington, editor, Selected Proceedings of the 1978 Science Fiction Research Association National Conference, Cedar Falls: Univ. of Northern Iowa (1979).
  • John Moore, "An Archaeology of the Future: Ursula Le Guin and Anarcho-Primitivism", Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, v.63, pp. 32–39 (Spring 1995).
  • Larry L. Tifft, "Possessed Sociology and Le Guin's Dispossessed: From Exile to Anarchism", pp. 180–197, in De Bolt & Malzberg, editors, Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat (1979).
  • Kingsley Widmer, "The Dialectics of Utopianism: Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Liberal and Fine Arts Review, v.3, nos.1-2, pp. 1–11 (Jan.-July 1983).

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