“There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.” (p. 1)
So much of The Dispossessed is already laid out for readers in the novel’s opening paragraph: things that do not look important but are, the reality of ideas, the rough and improvised nature of a key setting even after seven generations of settlement, the strength of people’s willingness to follow customs. No people appear in the first paragraph, and though people are alluded to in a general way on the book’s second page, no specific characters make an appearance until the third, and no names are mentioned until the seventh.
With this start, Le Guin signals to her readers that The Dispossessed will be a novel of ideas and of types as much as it is of the individual characters who populate the two worlds where the book takes place. I have sometimes seen The Dispossessed with the subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia,” although the edition I have simply says “A Novel” on the title page. In either case the reality of ideas, the idea of boundary, the notions of utopia, and the seven generations are all important to both setting and story.
The book posits two worlds in a binary pair. They are more equal in size than earth and the moon, although they are not fully equal. Both have atmospheres and environments that can support human life, although the habitat on Urras is much more congenial than that on Annares. The latter is mostly dry, and never evolved large animal life outside of its oceans. Crops that nourish humans struggle to survive, and their society is not materially wealthy. Nevertheless, people on Annares do not live in want, because their civilization was founded as a voluntary migration from Urras on the basis of a set of ideals, and in their adaptation to the conditions on Annares they have remained true to these ideals.
Life on Annares is organized as a sort of ongoing anarchism, leavened with a helping of practical communism. People have very few personal possessions, taking what they need from communally provided production. Work is voluntary, but undergirded by a strong ethos of mutual support and various customs that ensure that unpleasant duties are also attended to. Children raised in Annaren culture are socialized from very early on to share, not to take more of anything than they need (including other people’s attention), not to place their own ego above group priorities. Following the settlement of the planet, the people who went to Annares even took up a new language that made selfish thoughts difficult to express and emphasized the group over the individual.
The wall mentioned in the opening paragraph also plays an important role in the success of Annares as an alternative form of human civilization. It marks off the spaceport, the sole point of contact between Annares and the original world of Urras. A limited amount of trade takes place between the two worlds, and spaceships regularly ply the route between them, but only material goods move back and forth. People do not cross. The Annarens are raised to believe that Urras is jealous and fearful of their freedom, that the peoples on the original world are stuck in their old attachments to countries and cultures, or held back by oppressive structures. The Annarens have had their revolution, but do not feel the need to export it. Urras, for its part, seems content to let the experiment run. Rulers on the original planet have neither tried to crush the alternative not to exploit it so thoroughly that it bends away from its radically egalitarian tenets.
Le Guin’s set-up thus does away with many of the things that have most troubled earthly communities when they have tried to construct utopias. The seven generations that have passed have relegated attachments to different parts of Urras to the distant past. The voluntary nature of the migration ensured a community of true believers. An uninhabited planet is a true tabula rasa for the new civilization. Restraint from Urras means that there is no external attempt to strangle the revolution. Many of these things seem improbable when I think about the history and politics of human settlements, but I am willing to spot them to Le Guin as premises, because otherwise there is no room for her to examine such a utopia from the inside, nor for her to tell the stories of some of the people who live in it.
The first named character in the book, Shevek, is also the first to leave Annares for Urras. The Dispossessed alternates between Shevek’s present, in which he travels to Urras and discovers life on the old planet, and his past, in which Le Guin shows how he came to undertake such a journey in the first place. The wall at the beginning thus also divides the book into past and present: the past that led Shevek to crossing it at the point where a gate isn’t, and the present that tells what he found on the other side. Le Guin’s observation that where the wall crossed the roadway it became “mere geometry” also points to Shevek’s vocation as a mathematician and a physicist, indeed the greatest physicist that Annares has ever produced. He transcends mere geometry well before he crosses the real idea of the boundary at the edge of the spaceport.
Obviously not every paragraph of The Dispossessed could support the close scrutiny I have lavished on the opening one, but it is a brilliant start to a brilliant book. Le Guin populates her utopia with real people, doing all of the kinds of things that actual humans do, even if they have random computer-generated names, live in either dormitories or other temporary quarters, and inhabit a society that knows neither marriage nor divorce. Shevek is a true believer — a characterization that fits with his mathematical and scientific bent, but he also encounters people who don’t care about the system, people who use it for petty ends, and people who crash hard into the limits of what the system will allow. Annares is supposedly a world without coercion, but Le Guin shows some of the violence inherent in the system, or perhaps the violence that is inherent in humans.
And among the large-scale brilliance of the book, there are many smaller terrific bits. “It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.” (p. 72) Le Guin’s sketches of incidental characters hint at the full lives they have lived off the page. They are not mere props in the main story, but people whose own tales intersect with Shevek for a given period.
Gvarab was old enough that she often wandered and meandered. Attendance at her lectures was small and uneven. She soon picked out the thin boy with big ears [Shevek] as her one constant audience. She began to lecture for him. The light, steady, intelligent eyes met hers, steadied her, woke her, she flashed to brilliance, regained the vision lost. She soared, and the other students in the room looked up confused or startled, even scared if they had the wits to be scared. Gvarab saw a much larger universe than most people were capable of seeing, and it made them blink. The light-eyed boy watched her steadily. In his face she saw her joy. What she offered, what she had offered for a whole lifetime, what no one had ever shared with her, he took, he shared. He was her brother, across the gulf of fifty years, and her redemption. (p. 108)
Like The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed feels contemporary in many ways, even though it was written more than forty years ago. The Annarens’ approach to sexuality, and Le Guin’s matter-of-factness in describing that aspect of her characters’ lives, is one example. “[Shevek and Bedap] met again the next evening and discussed whether or not they should pair for a while, as they had when they were adolescent. It had to be discussed, because Shevek was pretty definitely heterosexual and Bedap pretty definitely homosexual. The pleasure of it would be mostly for Bedap. Shevek was perfectly willing, however, to reconfirm the old friendship and when he saw that the sexual element of it meant a great deal to Bedap, was, to him, a true consummation, then he took the lead, and with considerable tenderness and obstinacy made sure that Bedap spent the night with him again. They took a free single in a domicile downtown, and both lived there for about a decad [ten days], then they separated again, Bedap to his dormitory and Shevek to Room 46. There was no strong sexual desire on either side to make the connection last. They had simply reasserted trust.” (p. 172) Science fiction, as a field, is still profitably in dialogue with The Dispossessed.
Shevek’s time on Urras is, of course, a whole new world. He puzzles the Urrans, and they him. He plays the naive visitor from another planet, and sometimes, maybe more often than he realizes, he is the naive visitor from another planet. Physicists on Urras welcome him; that much he had expected. Political leaders welcome him, too. He had given that some thought, but it turns out that living in an anarchist and mostly non-violent society is not good preparation for political maneuvering among the oligarchies, autocracies and dictatorships that he finds on Urras. He knows that there is hidden opposition, including some followers of the philosophy that led to the exodus on Annares. He wants to make contact but Shevek’s natural and taught openness make him ill suited to conspiracy. Moreover, he is physically unmistakable and one of the most famous people on the planet. Complications ensue.
This was the first time I read The Dispossessed, but it certainly won’t be the last. The aspects of the novel I have touched on already could each form the basis for an essay, as well as many others that I have not even mentioned, to say nothing of those I didn’t spot the first time through. Once upon a time, Le Guin was asked whether she would rather win a Hugo or a National Book Award. “The Nobel, of course,” she replied. The Dispossessed is one of the books that would have gotten her there, and it’s one of the books that did help pave the way for someone who wrote science fiction to win that prize.