The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin

The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin was a recent choice for one of my book groups. I can honestly say that if I hadn’t been reading it for discussion, I might well have given up on it after the first couple of chapters. I really struggled with this novel, but before I explain why, let me tell you a bit about the story.

The Dispossessed is a science fiction book set on twin planets Anarres and Urras. It explores two different societies. Urras is a Capitalist society, recognisable as similar to western societies like America or here in the UK, in terms of human values and motivation, while Anarres is described as ‘anarchic’ society, where the proletariat rule. It is a sort of utopian Communist society. The community on Anarres was formed when a group of people migrated to it from Urras, following the teachings of a female thinker Odo. The story follows our protagonist – Shevek, a physicist who is well- known on both planets. He leaves his home planet of Anarres and goes to live on Urras, where his work is highly respected and through his eyes, the customs, advantages and problems of both societies are revealed to the reader.

The opening passage below, gives a good flavour of the style of the book and the idea of the divide between the two societies.

“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.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.”

The book starts with Shevek’s arrival on Urras and flips backwards and forwards between his present and descriptions of his former life on Anarres. I felt that this was an effective way of conveying the set-up of the new world through his eyes, while slowly revealing details of his background. Le Guin sort of drip-feeds information through about life on Anarres which at the outset seems quite idyllic, however as the story continues, glimpses of life causes the reader to wonder if it is everything that it is cut out to be. Having alternate chapters on the different planets also helps to encourage comparison of them. However while the non-linear construction of the story is clever it also made the book somewhat difficult to get to grips with, particularly in the first 100 or so pages where I hadn’t quite visualised the features of each society and was struggling to follow the train of events.

Speaking of getting to grips with the story, I found that initially didn’t empathise very well with the characters as I was absorbing the unusual names of people and places. This started me musing on how, in the world in general, it is actually difficult to understand a different culture until you have learned to associate a name with a real person and identity. Until you have, it is quite natural to feel removed from a situation – for example, when we watch catastrophes happening in far-away places on the news. I hope that as the world becomes more mixed-up, culturally and better connected that these kind of barriers grow less distinct. Anyway, I digress…

Unfortunately, the things that I thought were strong points in The Dispossessed were a bit of a double-edged sword for me. The societies and images created were beautifully crafted, but sometimes I got lost in the detail. The social and political sentiments conveyed in the story were well-thought out and sharp, however perhaps at times I found that this aspect wasn’t balanced well enough with the adventure angle of the novel. Perhaps it also doesn’t help that this book was written in 1974 when the cold war still loomed and feminism was a much more recent topic – it may be that it would have had more impact on me had the issues been more current.

Overall I felt that The Dispossessed is a very accomplished piece of writing, but felt the story-telling aspect and the pure enjoyment of the narrative was somewhat lost in the need to have a political discussion. It is part of a series, so perhaps it would be easier to become involved in one of the other books having read this and therefore enjoy it more quickly. However, I would still say that other novels have explore sociopolitical themes more deftly (such as George Orwell’s 1984) and for me, The Dispossessed felt somewhat laboured. I found it a book full of interesting ideas and one that conjured up a totally convincing and vivid new world, but in my own opinion (and I do believe that this is a book that many others will love so it really is just my point of view), it loses points because I just didn’t find it an enjoyable read. I will say though that it was a very good book-group choice, because it gave us lots to discuss!

My Rating:

6 out of 10

Have you read any Ursula Le Guin books? Do you enjoy science fiction as a genre and if so what are your favourites?

12 responses to “The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin

  1. Funnily enough, I’ve just been saying recently that I wanted to read more science fiction.

    I used to read quite a bit when I was much younger, and eventually just got a bit cheesed off with really bland female characters who just seemed to exist for the fun of the (quite well-developed) male protagonists. Some notable exceptions, obviously, but I think my teenage self got a bit bored of trying to wade through the rubbish to find the good stuff.

    I think that actually there’s some really good stuff out there. I always liked the sci-fi elements in the books I read when younger if they were nicely done, and I think that you can do some theoretically really interesting writing around the nature of science, society, progress and reality etc etc. when you’re able to create a completely separate world.

    Anyway! Ursula Le Guin is on my list of writers to have a look at, along with China Mieville. I also thought that this book might be quite interesting. So yeah, definitely into the idea of sci-fi, just want well-written sci-fi with good characters!

    • novelinsights

      That does look like an interesting book – you’re right, science fiction does really allow the author to explore totally different societies and ideas. You might enjoy The Dispossessed more than me if you read sci-fi when you were younger and maybe find it easier to get into the world she creates. It certainly is a very well written book – not rubbish!

      • Well hopefully! I am interested in her as a writer, but was probably a little more inclined to start with The Left Hand of Darkness, as I find the premise quite interesting.

        The only other thing that I think really is a bit of a risk with – not as well-crafted – science fiction, is that because the writer is able to craft their own world and scenarios to their liking (however out there it may be), there can be a lack of subtlety to what they’re trying to explore. Which is why it’s perhaps worth being quite picky!

  2. Hmmm this book lost me at “The Dispossessed is a science fiction book set on twin planets Anarres and Urras.” Thpugh I was holding out hope this might be like an adult He-Man and She-Ra with Eternia and Etheria, but sadly its looks like its not the case!!!!

  3. I’ve always meant to read Ursula Le Guin, and was keeping an eye out for this one. But I didn’t make it very far through the first Earthsea book.

    (Thought I was the only person who wasn’t enamoured by her writing).

    I do enjoy science fiction but I am very picky about it, as with most ‘genre’ books I read. Neal Stephenson has been highly recommended by everyone so I’m planning on reading him soon.

    • novelinsights

      I haven’t read the Earthsea books but I suspect if you struggled with them then you’ll struggle with this. ‘Not enamoured’ is a good way to put it! Ah, if you enjoy Neal Stephenson let me know, am always open to reading different genres so will piggyback off you and find out what you think 🙂

  4. Pingback: Novel Insights’ May Review « Novel Insights

  5. ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ is by far my favorite of hers! It goes a little quicker than The Dispossessed and I think the social commentary in ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ (a feminist novel with no female characters) is a bit more relevant and well done.

    I also really enjoyed ‘The Planet of Exile.’ However, I might be in the minority 😉

    • Hi Joachim – I think I may have been spoiled forever on the subject of Ms Le Guin but it’s good to have a perspective about her other books. A feminist book without any female characters sounds interesting though… Perhaps I will have to revisit her writing at some point.

  6. The Dispossessed is one of my favorite novels, one which I found equally enjoyable and relevant to our times. 🙂

    • novelinsights

      I think it’s one that you either would love the style or it’s not your cup of tea. I could see that it was wonderfully imaginative and skilfully written but sadly couldn’t fall in love with it. Thanks for stopping by Karlo and sharing your thoughts!

  7. I would rate Ursula le Guin as one of my favourite writers and The Dispossessed was a highly infouential novel on me at 15 (in 1977). I would agree that the Cold War aspects were more relevant then. She is still writing and I think just gets better. A recent read for me was Lavinia, about the almost anonymous wife of Aeneas of Troy when he founded Rome. Totally different from The Dispossessed, but still with that luminous writing style.

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