Book review: The Dispossessed

Written in the 1970s The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin is regarded as one of the classics of science fiction –a genre that most of us don’t normally read. The book is set on twin planets which have very different resources and systems – Arranes is a utopian society whilst Urras reflects the various systems on earth (capitalism versus a communist totalitarian block in a standoff – plus ca change).  The story is that of Shevek, a talented physicist with a radical theory who finds himself thwarted on Arranes and chooses to go to Urras only to find himself a pawn in political game where he doesn’t understand the rules.

The book is not really plot driven – I kept expecting more to happen. It is also not really typical science fiction – it is much more of a thought experiment pondering what happens to humans under various political systems – and how human nature effects the systems we live in. Some found it heavy going (not least because the typeface in the current edition is so small) and some of the scientific concepts were hard to grasp – Shevek’s grand project was to come up with equations uniting the concepts of time as a linear construct with all time occuring simultaneously.

The way the societies work is explored through Shevek’s experience – his upbringing on Arranes up to the point he leaves is interwoven with his experience on Urras, (giving the novel a circular structure in that time loops back to where it began) and much is conveyed through discussions with the people in his life.

We discussed how language  can shape the culture we live in. The people of Annares had developed a new language with no personal pronouns reflecting their belief in a system of shared ownership and responsibility. Gradually over time the utopian ideal becomes more rigid and the system squashes the individualism that the founding philosophy promoted.

We commented on Le Guin’s prescience – she mentions the problem of plastics not breaking down, and Earth is a distant world reduced to a dusty shell of its former beauty (let’s hope we manage to dodge that one!).

I will certainly be seeking out more of Le Guin’s writing – I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Dispossessed’ and it has stay with me.