These are my first impressions after reading The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974) in April 2007.
You shall not go down twice to the same river, nor can you go home again. That he knew; indeed it was the basis of his view of the world. Yet from that acceptance of transience he evolved his vast theory, wherein what is most changeable is shown to be fullest of eternity, and your relationship to the river, and the river’s relationship to you and to itself, turns out to be at once more complex and more reassuring than a mere lack of identity. You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.
Long after I closed this book for the night and lay waiting for sleep to catch up with me, I thought about what I’d read, about the ideas posed by the novel’s premise and characters, and the implications for my own life and our society. That’s a sign of a book that’s definitely worth reading.
The story is set in the future on a distant planet, Urras, and its moon, Anarres. The culture on Urras is similar to ours: capitalist, competitive, with a huge gap between haves and have-nots. One hundred and fifty years ago in Urras’ history, a group of anarchists rebelled against this way of life. They settled on — or were exiled to, depending on your point of view — Anarres, a desert world where they built a subsistence society based on the premises of no government and no ownership of private property.
Despite the difficulties of their environment, life on Anarres is like a simple Eden. No one goes hungry while others eat. No one goes without a sheltered place to sleep at night. People work and study at what they enjoy, travel where and when they want, and everyone communally shares the necessary but non-glamorous jobs. Without commercialism to occupy them, people spend their time working, learning, and socializing. Even an eight-hour workday is considered unusually long.
Of course, there are problems in this utopia, which have at their root the conflict between the continued survival of the society and the human drive to assert ourselves as individuals, to push the boundaries and explore new ideas. Without a government, Anarres is ruled by societal approval. Challenges to the status quo are unwelcome, and the challenger is often shunned.
This is the situation that the main character, a physicist named Shevek, finds himself in. He is on the cutting edge of theoretical physics but unable to progress in a society that does not want his work. So when he begins communicating with physicists on Urras, he becomes convinced that he needs to be the first Anarresti to travel back to Urras in order to shake up his own society and return them to their anarchist roots.
The Dispossessed plays on the theme of time in many ways. The narrative is divided into two timelines: the present, when Shevek is living on Urras, contrasted with the Shevek’s past life on Anarres and growing discontent with his own society. Shevek’s physics are also concerned with time; applications of his theories could make possible faster-than-light space travel and instantaneous communication across space to other known worlds, including our Earth (called Terra).
The four cultures of humans portrayed in the nvoel — Urras, Anarres, Terra, and another planet called Hain — also represent four possible timelines of the human species. Urras is most like modern-day culture, if exaggerated; consumption, possessions, and power are all highly valued. Terra’s future warns of the consequences of such excess, a planet made desert by the waste of previous generations, now trying only to survive. Contrasted with these outcomes are the alternate paths proposed by Hain and Anarres. We are not told much about Hain, only that it is a very advanced civilization, which helped save the Terrans. It seems only fitting that when Shevek finally returns to Anarres, the only person who wants to accompany him and learn from him is Hainish.
This novel is rich and meaty, full of ideas and keen observations of human nature. Like the dusty plains of Anarres, it takes some time to get used to LeGuin’s dry writing style, which incorporates hard science and spare prose. But give it time and you will find many fascinating landscapes to explore.