The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin, Reviewed

I finally sat down with Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and am really glad I did. Le Guin gets pigeonholed as just a sci-fi writer (she talks about it here), and this has definitely steered me away from her work. What is it about science fiction that makes me feel ambivalent at best? I’m sure this is an unfair generalization, but sci-fi always seemed to me like a world that adolescent boys and young, nerdy men can dive into to forget about their worries and to find strong, reassuring male heroes. But what appeal could that have for me? I don’t want to read novels to escape to a dressed up version of the status quo (or to force myself to wade through really complex “hard” science that I’m not all that interested in). Dystopian novels always made a lot of sense to me though. They have that uncanny ability to reveal familiar facets of power and oppression in the strangest, most foreign worlds (recently, I loved On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee). And I have tried with some sci-fi lately. 2312 didn’t capture me and was impossible to trudge through.

The Dispossessed isn’t like that. Yes, it’s science fiction. And once in a while, I felt like I was watching a cheesy episode of Star Trek from the 1970s. But there are a lot of great things about this book.

What does freedom look like and how can it be cultivated? So many people have written about Le Guin’s choice to make the anarchist society of Anarres imperfect. While it is ostensibly a free society, power still operates in a more insidious way. A group of Anarresti begin to recognize the ways in which they are unfree, how they are compelled to obey work placements and compromise their values and scientific or artistic endeavors. Le Guin’s imperfect Anarres illustrates that people can’t just arrive at this noble goal– a society built on anarchist “principles”– and then live there happily-ever-after. Freedom is something that people must strive for continually. (Just as hierarchies must be continually maintained by those in power.) For me, this is actually a hopeful insight. We don’t just fail and call it quits, saying oh people will never be free, the powerful are just too powerful. The struggle for freedom is a constant, it’s a way of being in the world.

I have also been thinking more specifically about gender in this book. Online, people tend to point to Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness to discuss her gender politics, but I think The Dispossessed is interesting in its own right. First of all, why a male protagonist? If Anarres is such an egalitarian society, why don’t we have a female physicist driving the story? I was wondering this throughout the book, especially when we get to learn more about Takver, Shevek’s female partner. According to one site, Le Guin has defended her decision by explaining that she is drawn to entering alien minds. So writing from a male point of view is an interesting challenge, and I can buy this reasoning. I also think just logistically, it allows her to create a character that is going to be at least relatively accepted on Urras, enough that we can see how that very oppressive world operates.

The Anarresti aren’t hung up about the differences between men and women. They don’t emphasize them to institute a hierarchy of the sexes. They also do a lot to remove class distinctions. Essentially, class societies are those where certain groups of people do the dirty work while others don’t have to. But the Anarresti take work placements every so often to do whatever work needs to get done. This is pretty intriguing stuff!

I am looking forward to reading more of Le Guin’s work, as well as more specifically feminist science fiction. There is something really powerful and captivating in being able to re-imagine the world, the whole of it, the way society is fundamentally organized, and the kinds of relationships that form the foundation of that.