Book Review: The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin

The next book for my Readings in the Genre: Science Fiction Classics for my Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University was the Dispossessed (Science Fiction 311 pages) by Ursula LeGuin.

The first chapter showed immediate conflict and immediate action, with an unknown individual leaving a planet. What’s going on, who the main character is, why this is such a big deal, are all questions without answers throughout the first chapter of the book. Then, in the second chapter, we see the very beginnings of where Shevek starts his journey across space, as we are introduced to him as a young boy and how his interactions with his instructors and with his peer group shaped him into the first person from Anarres to travel to their neighboring world, Urras. This is the only book I’ve ever seen done like this, and I am of the opinion that Ursula LeGuin did a remarkable job with this story.

The Dispossessed by Ursula LeGuin was a story I’d never heard of before taking this course, but one that will easily be added to my list of favorite science fiction books. This book is so complicated, with themes stretching from what happens to utopias and people’s perceptions of those utopias to how ridiculous our current capitalistic society is and also to the theme of pushing yourself beyond your own limits for the betterment of humanity as a whole. Maybe it’s just where I’m at in my life right now, but the constant, reoccurring symbolism of walls was the main factor in my reading of this story.

I’m not sure if Ursula LeGuin was intending on adjusting the way I look at walls (which is entirely possible, as she’s a remarkably talented author) or if it really is just where I’m at with my own life right now, but the reoccurrence of walls throughout this story made me look at some concepts in my mind that I’ve noticed but never paid attention to. The world in which we all grow up is filled with walls, and most of those walls are designed to prevent external factors from entering our internal worlds. We build houses and apartment buildings with locking doors and windows to protect us from harsh weather outside, but also to protect us from our neighbors or potential criminals. Those same walls that protect us from the elements and potential criminals are the same walls that keep us inside.

The first example I saw of the use of walls as something other than a physical part of the world occurred on page 13: “Kimoe’s ideas never seemed to be able to go in a straight line; they had to walk around this and avoid that, and then they ended up smack against a wall. There were walls around all his thoughts, and he seemed utterly unaware of them, though he was perpetually hiding behind them.” This is not an isolated instance of the characters in the story being closed off by their own thoughts, their own perceptions, or their own concepts of morality. The conversation at this time centers around the women’s roles and how they differ between Anarres and Urras and Shevek seems uncertain what to do about speaking with Kimoe about an issue that he clearly lacks even the ability to comprehend such a foreign concept as women being completely equal to men in every aspect.

When Shevek moves to Room 46 at the Central Institute for Sciences, the walls of his room become his sanctuary to protect him from the social isolation he experienced since he was a young boy. “The privacy of his room became dear to him. He savored his total independence. He left the room only for breakfast and dinner at the refectory and a quick daily hike through the city streets to appease his muscles” (LeGuin 86).

The idea of using walls as barriers also comes up on page 112 where Shevek is talking with Chifoilisk and they have a discussion about how when doors have locked rooms, there are always people with keys to those rooms. This is a very interesting way of looking at power and how power is controlled, especially the idea of knowledge as power, as discussed extensively throughout this book. Shevek knows he can finish the General Temporal Theory, but he doesn’t know who he can trust. While the walls, and the doors with locks, are designed to protect Shevek’s knowledge, Shevek doesn’t trust those who have the keys to those locks and what they would do with the information if they had it. For this reason, even though Shevek’s room is protected by walls, doors, and locks, Shevek never trusts leaving even parts of his equations where someone might take them and be able to use those parts for their own ends.

On page 133, Bedap explains the concept of “the wall” to Shevek and how there really is a power structure on their “utopian” planet without government and this representation of the wall indicates Shevek’s inability to move forward with publishing his theories because his current sponsor, Sabul, put himself into a position of power and stuck with that position. Sabul was the only one who could control the mail going on and off the freighters between planets and Shevek realizes that his idealistic hopes for freely sharing knowledge with Urras are more complicated than he originally believed.

Internal walls are discussed again on page 140: “He got little comfort from anything. That the walls of his hard puritanical conscience were widening out immensely was anything but a comfort. He felt cold and lost.” The walls throughout this story continue to be used as metaphors for either the lack of true comprehension for the characters in the book or as a physical representations of the concepts of freedom and confinement. Sometimes, the walls keep Shevek safe, such as when he’s first travelling in the ship, or when he first arrives on Urras, but those same walls which keep him safe are also the walls which confine him and prevent him from travelling where he would wish and teaching or sharing his knowledge of physics as he would wish.

I had a lot of thoughts about the philosophical themes throughout the book, especially the look at the different types of utopia and how both planets have their own, distinctly different pros and cons. Inherent to both planets is the concept of freedom, where on the Urras propertarian (Capitalist) side, only the rich are capable of having freedom because they have the resources to pursue education and the higher-level academics that Shevek admires so much, while on Anarres side, everyone has the perception of total freedom, being able to work or move as they wish. As the story progresses, Shevek realizes that neither planet is nearly as free and utopian as each one believes and that in order to build a true utopia for everyone, some sort of balance must be reached.

One of parts I really got to thinking about was the scene where Shevek goes shopping for the first (and only) time on Urras and that really hit something in me about the way our own capitalistic society works. When Shevek is browsing the shops, he notices that there are no actual artisans or craftspeople in the shops – there are only buyers and sellers. That really got me thinking about how differently I would view the purchasing of products if I thought that the people who were attempting to sell those products to me had any part of the creative process. What if we went clothes shopping and the person selling the clothes was actually the person who sewed them together? Or the family who created the designs? Would that make it harder or easier to buy the things that I want?

The extravagance on Urras is often described in detail – what the people wear, their appearance, the environment in general, but on Anarres, the only descriptions really make you feel the dry, desert, survival side of the planet. In fact, Shevek’s orange blanket is described as appealing to his ego. That really makes me wonder if people on Anarres were allowed to be individuals at all. Did they all wear the same clothes? Paint the same paintings? Create the same music? When Shevek starts thinking about the General Temporal Theory, he struggles because he doesn’t have any intellectual equals who want to do the same kind of combination of physics and philosophy, which is why he travels to Urras.

Both the Dispossessed and Dune demonstrated a balance of philosophy and survival and how those two concepts are part of the overarching human experience. That part about how things as a whole look completely different from things seen at their smallest levels or at their encompassing whole was one of those sections that really stuck out with me, as well. There are so many philosophical comments about not being able to see the forest through the trees or how big things are just combinations of a bunch of little things that I thought the way it was described in the Dispossessed was very artfully done. I absolutely think that the realistic philosophical musings were a great way for the characters in the Dispossessed to become more human and more believable.

As the novel progresses, we get closer and closer to the realization that one person’s utopia is another person’s hell and it’s the perceptions of time and the increased knowledge of the small details of a world that slowly change the opinions towards the two civilization

I think Ursula LeGuin is definitely making a point of showing us what Terra will look like in our future if we don’t start working together instead of tearing the world apart. The introduction of the other planets’ ambassadors at the end of the novel really is the hammer blow to anyone looking at this novel through the eyes of modern society. The part that really blows my mind, though, is that my copy of this book was printed in 1975. This book must have taken her years to write, edit, and publish. My copy of this book is forty years old and we are still having the same problems today as what created the devastating changes to the Terra Ursula LeGuin discusses in this book. In fact, things have gotten remarkably worse for us in the last forty years, especially in the sense of wasteful consumerism, global military conflicts, and environmental neglect. This should serve as a very powerful wakeup call from the author.

Overall, this was a fantastic book and I’m exceptionally glad to have read it. I think this book is easily a high three or low four on my rating scale. I’m glad I own it, though I am a little unsettled that I appear to own a second edition original print.

About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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