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The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed coverUrsula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed carries the subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia.” The not-quite-Utopia in question is the planet Anarres. With Urras, it forms a double planet system orbiting the star Tau Ceti. About 160 years before the start of this novel, anarchist-socialist revolutionaries on Urras are granted permanent exile on the desolate but marginally livable Anarres. These “Odonians,”–named after their Karl Marx, a woman named Odo–scratch out a meager but peaceful living on their new planet/old moon. They are portrayed as generally happy, but it is not a convincing portrayal.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is listed at #5 on Bachblog’s 45 Great 20th Century SciFi/Fantasy Novels. It was first published in 1974.

The Anarresti physicist Shevek grows disenchanted with an increasing tendency toward rules and bureaucracy in Anarres’s nominally anarchist society. Frustrated in his attempts to pursue theoretical physics without having to justify its use to the revolution, he arranges to travel to “properterian” Urras where he hopes to gain intellectual freedom.

Things don’t work out as he had hoped, though he does develop a wildly successful theory.

This novel’s examination of capitalism versus communism is sometimes tedious. It is not as bad as the pages of unreadable, facile philosophizing in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but its Cold War atmosphere feels dated rather than futuristic. (The Urras nations A-lo and Thu are analogous to the United States and the Soviet Union.) Still, Le Guin’s galaxy, which includes the Hainish and the Terrans (us), is an interesting place, full of potential.

I will read at least one other of Le Guin’s “Hainish Cycle” (her The Left Hand of Darkness is tied with The Dispossessed at #5 on my list of 45 Great 20th Century SciFi/Fantasy Novels). There are seven novels in the series–Le Guin herself does not regard it as a cycle, but fans and critics do–and whether I will want to read them all is an open question at this point.

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