Friday 23 March 2012

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

Yet another selection for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group. Something of an achievement for me; I don't think I've managed to read both the classic and modern novels in one month before.

I first read The Dispossessed when it emerged in 1974 but haven't done so since. I had conveniently forgotten everything about the plot so could read the story with fresh eyes.

The setting is the far future, with humanity existing on several worlds but apparently having developed separately since before the beginning of recorded history, the original race who had seeded the other planets being the Hainish. These had more recently provided the technology for interstellar flight to less developed civilisations such as the Terrans (who had by then completely wrecked the environment of the Earth). This background was used for other Le Guin novels from this period: Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, and The Left Hand of Darkness.

The Dispossessed is set on Anarres and Urras, a pair of worlds which orbit each other as well as the star Tau Ceti. The Cetian civilisation had developed on Urras, Anarres being smaller and almost barren. However, a revolution nearly two centuries before had seen the revolutionaries, followers of an anarchist named Odo, voluntarily transferred to Anarres to continue the development of their ideal society there. Urras continued as a patchwork of nations and philosophies not very different from present-day Earth. Contact between the two worlds then ceased but for some essential trade.

The story begins with the controversial journey of a ground-breaking physicist, Shevek, from his home in Anarres to visit Urras. The chapters then alternate between his experiences on Urras and his earlier life on Anarres which led up to his unprecedented decision to leave his home world. Anarres is a harsh, dry world permitting little but a survival level of existence, well suited to the frugal, egalitarian society implanted there, and Le Guin paints a convincing picture of the how the society functions, with all its flaws and benefits. On the lush world of Urras, Shevek finds himself not only the centre of attention but also the focus of tension, as competing interest groups are stirred into conflict by his arrival.

The Dispossessed isn't really a traditional SF novel; the setting and plot are merely vehicles to enable the author to explore some fundamental issues about society and humanity in a much more clear-cut way than would otherwise be possible.

This novel is not a dramatic page-turner and isn't the kind of story which would normally appeal to me, but it is so well-written and contains such intelligent observations that it held my attention throughout. It deservedly won both the Hugo and Nebula awards as well as being well-received outside the SFF community. Highly recommended.


Fred said...

I enjoyed reading your review of _The Dispossessed_.

I had reread it a few years back and I also found it had held up well over the decades. Many critics consider it her best, but my vote would be for _The Left Hand of Darkness_.

Anthony G Williams said...

I still have the full set of Hainish novels which I listed in the review; I read them all at the time. I'll have to work my way through them again - if I can find the time!

Fred said...

I saw the list. I have read all of them at one time or another but at widely separated times, so I really don't have a good overall view of them.

Perhaps some day I may sit down and immerse myself in them.

imperfectvacuum said...

Nice review! I just read and reviewed this one too and I really enjoyed it, first "Le Guin" novel I've read, so I'm going to have to read more.