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!
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?