I would highly recommend the Dispossessed to anyone. It’s a dense, heady sci fi novel that loses nothing in terms of readability from that fact. It presents political philosophy in an essentially human way that makes for a completely engrossing read (Plus its only like 300 pages).
The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin is a 1974 Sci fi novel that remains just as relevant today. In it we join the protagonist Shevek in exploring an alien world. Shevek is the first visitor from his home planet Annares to its sister planet Urras in almost 200 years. As humankind’s most eminent physicist, he hopes Urras will provide him with the environment in which to finish his work into instantaneous travel, and a society that will appreciate it. As a guest he is presented with the luxury of Urras for his appraisal, but as a man born on a planet that chose its own exile, he sees this capitalist society with new eyes.
The novel’s sci fi setting and narrative clearly is in service of exploring ideas of political philosophy and yet it never feels trite or contrived. The book alternates its chapters between Shevek’s present in the capitalist world of Urras and his past in the anarchist commune of Annares. While obviously jarring, as the book progresses, we see our protagonist develop and see how as an individual they move between these societal ideologies. This allows us to eventually see the overlap these two alien concepts have in what they aim to provide the individual in terms of fulfillment. We are given the chance to see capitalism as alien, removing what we take for granted in our own western society, whilst getting the chance to see the alien concept of functional anarchism as a given.
A lesser novel would get bogged down in the minutiae of its worlds and let one ideology clearly dominate over the other. What sets this novel apart is that these grand political ideas are presented in an essentially human way, one that serves to keep this an effortless read. As anarchists the characters are supposedly free from the ties of competition and assertion of dominance. This freedom affords them the chance to question what it is they really desire and how they should approach that impossible question. It questions what progression aims to achieve and it begs the reader to ask the same questions. The novel is quick to promote community over society and posit this as a true source of fulfillment, but despite this refuses to offer easy answers, and rightly so. You find yourself pausing at the turn of each page to reflect not only on the novel, but also on its relevance to current affairs.
The Dispossessed is a thought experiment. To me its premise of anarchism blossoming on an isolated planet is admittance of the much toted problem of anarchism, its practicality. At points the novel freely admits anarchism’s vulnerability to more competitive societal models. I think it’s this honesty and real consideration of scenario that makes The Dispossessed feel like more than an anarchists manifesto. There’s no shying away from the difficulties and benefits of both societies. We see the middle classes propped up by the luxury of distraction on Urras, and by the very fact Shevek leaves his home, we understand his doubts in anarchism. In this way The Dispossessed manages to avoid the trap of using capitalism as simply a dirty word. Meanwhile, on Anarras we are shown the potential of a lasting anarchist society, we see the fulfillment lent by community contrasted with the struggle against the problems caused by the natural human disposition towards structure.
It almost seems as though anarchism is presented as a meaningful and fulfilling society by virtue of it requiring effort to maintain, most prominently in the form of sacrifice and the conquering of the self. The inhabitants of Annaras are constantly chastising each other for “egoizing” which seems like an admission that it is an inevitable natural human trait. What The Dispossessed then goes on to argue is that by virtue of our ability to struggle and overcome there is no need to fall back on what comes naturally. We have the freedom to choose and to strive for something better. This continual mental struggle the characters face is joined by the physical struggle to sustain the survival of their society. While certainly difficult and tiring this struggle is presented positively, it is presented as meaningful and fulfilling as opposed to the arbitrary struggle of pointless competition.
There is a problem with this though. If anarchism is a difficult society to maintain and one in which the benefits, while considerable, are not immediately obvious, then why would anyone choose it? As far as I can see, in The Dispossessed the way it is done is through the control of information. In the novel we see education is essentially state run. Children would appear to have a consistent curriculum centered on the society’s founder Odo and the suffering she underwent at the hands of capitilism. This initial centralisation of access of information seems directly at odds to the tenets of anarchism. Alongside the control of available information there is also social conditioning in place to chastise “egoizing” behavior from a young age. By doing this, individuality, while freely allowed, becomes against the social convention. This leads to homogenisation which in turn leads to stagnation of thought. Shevek experiences this in this work, hence his departure to Urras, but as the novel excellently mentions, revolution has no end. By discouraging “egoizing” community is encouraged, but since “egoizing” is natural, prolonged stagnation of thought is impossible. People will always react, anarchism just presents a society that requires it rather than encouraging it.
The Disspossessed explores the above in an effortless way via the lead up to Shevek’s departure. This takes up about half the book and is focused on Shevek’s difficulty in expressing individuality within the “social organism”. While community should provide respect for his individual strengths and interests, it leaves little room for either validation, or appreciation & traction of his new ideas. Naturally exclusionary elements of social groupings take their course and the development of Shevek’s isolation and confusion at his own being are written with an adept familiarity that makes him easy to connect with.
The one aspect that I did fail to fully connect with was Le Guin’s interesting stance on relationships and fidelity. She concludes that for freedom to be meaningful we must make choices that reduce it. These allow us to direct our freedoms so we might change and grow. Prominently these ideas of choosing a path feature in terms of monogamy. It’s very persuasively written and leaves a lot to think about in terms of how our ideas of relationship develop. Although I’m not sure i’m entirely on board with the idea that variety or novelty only serve as distraction. That’s not to say i think the book is wrong on this point or that it’s not fully thought out, just that I am not totally convinced. But as i said this is not a book that provides answers, more one that prompts important questions.
In summary this is a dense heady novel that loses nothing in readability from the fact. This universality makes the book feel important, like a start to a very long and engrossing conversation, fraught with implications. I would recommend the book to anyone, but particularly to anyone disengaged in politics. The Dispossessed breathes new life into political discourse by returning to the original aims of the political systems we take for granted. Yet, regardless of whether politics is your bread and butter, there is enough here in terms of people grappling with themselves and their self determined isolation to carry an entirely character focused piece, and it is in seamlessly combining the two that The Dispossessed becomes timeless.