***Trigger warnings for sexual assault, discussions of miscarriage, war, police brutality and famine.***
There’s something almost transcendent about Ursula K. Le Guin’s books. I spent my summer last year making my way through the Earthsea quartet, reviewing them all here on the blog and it was honestly such an eye opening experience going through such a great series. The Dispossessed is my third time reading her science fiction and it’s just as eye opening.
The Principle of Simultaneity is a scientific breakthrough which will revolutionize interstellar civilization by making possible instantaneous communication. It is the life work of Shevek, a brilliant physicist from the arid anarchist world of Anarres.
But Shevek’s work is being stifled by jealous colleagues, so he travels to Anarres’s sister-planet Urras, hoping to find more liberty and tolerance there. But he soon finds himself being used as a pawn in a deadly political game.
There are two things that struck me as I was reading this. First thing was that in my journey through scifi that I am finding Utopias that are just as dangerous and restrictive as the Dystopias we all know well. In particular how writing one takes something of a skill and balance of dynamics written into both the characters and their world in order for the story to succeed. The second is Shevek is a man that I grew to detest as the book proceeded further, despite my sympathies at the beginning.
This is one of the books in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, the elements that link this book to it not coming into play until the later parts of the book. The themes from the other novels however do reach over into The Dispossessed and play out at their peak. The main concerns being that of gender, anarchy and dualism, from my own read. We are introduced to two satellite worlds, Anarres and Urras. Two contrasting places and two very different societies, the book opening with Shevek’s journey from Anarres to Urras.
Le Guin doesn’t leave either of the sister planets in the rear view as Shevek leaves, instead taking the decision to write the book in alternating chapters between seperate timelines that eventually converge between Anarres and Uras. For the sake of anyone wanting to read, the even numbered chapters take place on Anarres, the odd on Urras and the final chapter on a spaceship away from both (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 are the chronological order). Dual timelines are something I tire of very quickly but I honestly feel like others walked so this one could run. The formatting works best in the way in compares life for the Odonians of Anarres to the life of the Urrasti.
Anarres is a world that prides itself on it’s communal spirit, equality and hard working simplicity. Child bearing is a communal act, everyone is expected to volunteer in times of emergency and the simplicity of being unemployed means you go to the labour division (DivLab) to ask for a posting and they provide you with one. When these people fled to Anarres they prided themselves on the equality of their society, their openness with sexuality, gender and family. They were free. The freedom however, this Utopia if you will, begins to feel very conditional.
I became aware of the books subtitle ‘An Ambiguous Utopia ‘ while doing this review and somewhere in reprints over the years, it has fallen off the title page of the book. This is a title that provoked a lot of varied feedback from the SFF community over the years, covered far better in this review on Tor.com by Sean Guynes but it really summarises Anarres and Urras in a very good way. Shevek feels restricted on Anarres, unable to express his full theories. He travels to Urras, where he feels the Capitalist society there will let him thrive and carry his work to the standard he wants. I really feel that describes Shevek’s changing opinions of both worlds, a grass is always greener approach almost. The Urrasti themselves declaring as a blessing ‘May You Get Reborn on Anarres!’ to each other. I feel it sets the tone perfectly for the story, and it really does show me how Le Guin is able to interrogate how being from an open-minded environment can still carry it’s biases.
Speaking of biases, let’s talk about Shevek. I have become accustomed to Le Guin’s male protagonists over the years and I can honestly say none of them are perfect. In fact it’s presented to you from the very beginning with a lot of them that they are inherently flawed. Genly Ai, Ged and now Shevek. The difference is I feel the former were, for me, easier to warm to and eventually see as rounded people with good intentions. I feel throughout the book, I just couldn’t get past how virtuous and important he considered himself. Takver, his own partner, is giving birth and he is distinctly showing to not have the courage to step up like he should. He is openly disgusted by Urrasti explaining how their world is structured to him, after he chose to exile himself there. He doesn’t handle expression of sexuality as well as he thinks, taking a host’s open attraction him as a reason to ignore her clear withdrawal of consent at one point. I do still think though, he is written this way expertly.
I feel like it’s hard to write a male protagonist who considers himself a hero and imbue him with very distinct flaws he can’t see. Especially if you want to avoid grimdark/edge lord situations. By the end, I feel Shevek has learned a lot from what he has encountered and I do think that he continues to be a flawed man once we leave him, behind. But the fact I saw him over the course of the novel relearning attitudes and norms, makes me believe that he will continue to make changes on Anarres.
I am so happy I finally read this and I hope this longer review does it some justice. I always recommend listening to Le Guin’s books on audio, since I discovered them that way and this is no exception. Irish author Roddy Doyle even narrates his own intro! But this is definitely a book that deserves it’s place in the SF canon for it’s nuanced, detailed look at an anarchist society, it’s exploration of Utopia and a male protagonist I still could read despise hating him for most of the book. Thanks for checking in guys, happy reading!