Book reviews / Science Fiction / Top picks

Book review: The Dispossessed

Wow. What a book! My first Ursula Le Guin. I’m not sure why it took me so long.

At least 3 separate people have told me how much they loved this book. 2 friends and a coworker. 3 nationalities, 3 different ages.

I can safely say, I’m a fan.

So. The plot. It takes place on a planet and its moon. The planet is much like earth: they are capitalist (mostly), have wars, consumerist, poverty etc. The moon is a colony from that planet who are anarchists. They’ve been there for 170 years after a rebellion and have continued to develop their anarchist society. There are no real possessions, no religion. There’s shared work, shared food, shared everything.

What is brilliant about this book is how carefully laid out the anarchist society is, warts and all. It’s not a Utopia but it’s a practical functional society. It’s got its problems (it’s a harsh place to live for one) and what forms the central action is essentially the reinvigoration of the revolution. Over the 170 years, the society has developed certain ingrained cultural and social expectations of its inhabitants.

The central character is a physicist named Shevak, from Anarres (the anarchist moon) who escapes and visits the planet Urras. The physicists on Urras want him to finish his theoretical work that will essentially allow for instantaneous communication and travel (rather than delayed through lightspeed). He has to ‘escape’ Anarres as it were because his ideas are deeply unpopular among the majority of his planet.

The story unfolds across 2 periods and places: Urras and Anarres. The first chapter is Shevak escaping to Urras. It then flips back to when he was a child growing up on Anarres and we find out about about the development of its political and social structure. It then flips back and forth – the Anarres story following Shevak from a child up to the moment where he departs for Urras and the Urras story following the politics there and his response to wealth, politics and inequality.

This reminded me a lot of the Foundation Series by Asimov. It’s the complexity and richness of the politics and society that completely absorbs you. You don’t need interstellar wars or big space battles. You just need a good story. In this case, the interesting conflict between the different politics and the innate revolutionary ideas in terms of politics but also science that is contained in the person of Shevak. The cast of characters that accompany him are also great. Each is a distinct individual, not just window dressing.

Anyway. The twin stories weave together and climax together. The last 100 pages just flew by for me, it was so interesting. One of the best things about it, given that it was first published in 1974 is how contemporary it feels. Aside from some small technological idiosyncrasies (given the advances we’ve had in the last 40 years) it could be relevant now. It doesn’t have the cringeworthy social commentary that I had a problem with in the Forever War.

I must admit. One of my favourite things about Urras is the complete social equality. For that it gets 5/5 for feminism.

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