The Dispossessed

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The Dispossessed
TheDispossed(1stEdHardcover).jpg
Cover of first edition (hardcover)
Author Ursula K. Le Guin
Cover artist Fred Winkowski
Country United States
Language English
Series The Hainish Cycle
Genre Science fiction
Published 1974 (Harper & Row)
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 341 (first edition)
ISBN 0-06-012563-2 (first edition, hardcover)
OCLC 800587

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is a 1974 utopian science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, set in the same fictional universe as that of The Left Hand of Darkness (the Hainish Cycle). The book won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1974,[1] won both the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1975,[2] and received a nomination for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1975.[2] It achieved a degree of literary recognition unusual for science fiction works due to its exploration of many ideas and themes, including anarchism and revolutionary societies, capitalism, individualism and collectivism, and the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.

It features the development of the mathematical theory underlying the fictional ansible, an instantaneous communications device that plays a critical role in Le Guin's Hainish Cycle. The invention of the ansible places the novel first in the internal chronology of the Hainish Cycle, although it was the fifth Hainish novel published.[3]

Setting[edit]

The story of The Dispossessed is set on Anarres and Urras, the twin inhabited worlds of Tau Ceti. Cetians are mentioned in other Ekumen novels and short stories. An Anarresti appears in the short story The Shobies' Story. Urras before the settlement of Anarres is the setting for the short story "The Day Before the Revolution".

In The Dispossessed, Urras is divided into several states which are dominated by the two largest ones, which are rivals. In a clear allusion to the United States (represented by A-Io) and the Soviet Union (represented by Thu), one has a capitalist economy and patriarchal system and the other is an authoritarian system that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat. Further developing the analogy, there are oppositional left-wing parties in A-Io, one of which is closely linked to the rival society Thu, as were Communist parties in the US and other Western countries at the time the story was written. Other parties represent various dissident visions of socialism, including Odonians, who contact Shevek with a note chiding him for betraying his beliefs by working at the university and accepting the government's hospitality. Beyond that, there is a third major, though underdeveloped, area called Benbili — when a revolution supported by Thu breaks out there, A-Io invades, generating a proxy war. Thus, Benbili comes to represent south-east Asia, an allusion to the Vietnam War. Although there are a wide variety of parties in A-Io, there are no opposition parties on Anarres, only an Odonian orthodoxy that rules without any overt enforcement or oppression, although free thinkers who go too far can end up in psychiatric institutions, as happens with Shevek's childhood friend, Tirin.

In the last chapter of The Dispossessed, we learn that the Hainish people arrived at Tau Ceti 60 years ago, which is more than 150 years after the secession of the Odonians from Urras and their exodus to Anarres. Terrans are also there, and the novel occurs some time in the future. A date of 2300 has been suggested, while the complexities of Urrasti history hint otherwise.

The plot[edit]

Structure[edit]

The chapters alternate between the worlds — even-numbered chapters are set on Anarres, odd-numbered chapters are set on Urras. The only exceptions are the first and the last chapter which include both worlds and are, thematically, chapters of transition. In chapter one, we are basically in the middle of the story, while the plot of the last Anarres-chapter (i.e., the penultimate chapter, or, chapter twelve) ends at a point before the plot of the first chapter begins.

Chapter numbers in chronological order
2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13

Themes[edit]

The story takes place on the fictional planet Urras and its habitable moon Anarres. In order to forestall an anarcho-syndicalist rebellion, the major Urrasti states gave the revolutionaries (inspired by a visionary named Odo) the right to live on Anarres, along with a guarantee of non-interference, approximately two hundred years before the events of The Dispossessed.[4] Before this, Anarres had had no permanent settlements apart from some mining.

The protagonist Shevek is a physicist attempting to develop a General Temporal Theory. The physics of the book describes time as having a much deeper, more complex structure than we understand it. It incorporates not only mathematics and physics, but also philosophy and ethics. The meaning of the theories in the book weaves into the plot, not only describing abstract physical concepts, but the ups and downs of the characters' lives, and the transformation of the Anarresti society. An oft-quoted saying in the book is "true journey is return."[5]

The meaning of Shevek's theories – which deal with the nature of time and simultaneity – have been subject to interpretation. For example, there have been interpretations that the non-linear nature of the novel is a reproduction of Shevek's theory.[6]

Anarres is in theory a society without government or coercive authoritarian institutions, and the people of Anarres are explicitly anarchist. Yet in pursuing research that deviates from his society's current consensus understanding, Shevek begins to come up against very real obstacles. Shevek gradually develops an understanding that the revolution which brought his world into being is stagnating, and power structures are beginning to exist where there were none before. He therefore embarks on the risky and highly controversial journey to the home planet, Urras, seeking to open communications between the worlds and to finish his General Temporal Theory with the help of academics on Urras. The novel details his struggles on both Urras and his homeworld of Anarres.

Shevek experiences hatred from some of the people on Anarres due to his journey to Urras to advance his research, and due to his idea about increasing contact with the home planet. So the story touches on the themes of how people suffer for pursuing their purpose in life (suffering for one's art), and how they suffer for speaking out for change.

The book also explores the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis, that language shapes thinking, and thus, culture. The language spoken on the anarchist planet Anarres, Pravic, is a constructed language that reflects many aspects of the philosophical foundations of utopian anarchism. For instance, the use of the possessive case is strongly discouraged (a feature that also is reflected by the novel's title). Children are trained to speak only about matters that interest others; anything else is "egoizing" (pp. 28–31). There is no property ownership of any kind. Shevek's daughter, upon meeting him for the first time, tells him, "You can share the handkerchief I use,"[7] rather than "You may borrow my handkerchief", thus conveying the idea that the handkerchief is not owned by the girl, merely used by her.[8]

The Dispossessed looks into the mechanisms that may be developed by an anarchist society, but also the dangers of centralization and bureaucracy that might easily take over such society without the continuation of revolutionary ideology. Part of its power is that it establishes a spectrum of well-developed characters, who illustrate many types of personalities, all educated in an environment that measures people not by what they own, but by what they can do, and how they relate to other human beings. Possibly the best example of this is the character of Takver, the hero's partner, who exemplifies many virtues: loyalty, love of life and living things, perseverance, and desire for a true partnership with another person.

However, in order to insure the survival of their society in a harsh environment, the people of Anarres are taught from childhood to put the needs of their society ahead of their own personal desires. Shevek and Takver, as good Odonians, take work postings away from each other, and Shevek does hard agricultural labor in a dusty desert instead of working on his research, because he is needed there due to a famine.

The work is sometimes said to represent one of the few modern revivals of the utopian genre,[9] and there are many characteristics of a utopian novel found in this book. Most obviously, Shevek is an outsider when he arrives on Urras, following the "traveler" convention common in utopian literature. All of the characters portrayed in the novel have a certain spirituality or intelligence, there are no nondescript characters. It is also true that there are aspects of Anarres that are utopian: it is presented as a pure society that adheres to its own theories and ideals, which are starkly juxtaposed with Urras society.[citation needed]

When first published, the book included the tagline: "The magnificent epic of an ambiguous utopia!" which was shortened by fans to "An ambiguous utopia" and adopted as a subtitle in certain editions. The major theme of the work is the ambiguity between different notions of utopia. Anarres is not presented as a perfect society, even within the constraints of what might define an anarchist utopia. Bureaucracy, stagnation, and power structures have problematized the revolution, as Shevek comes to realize throughout the course of the novel. Moreover, Le Guin has painted a very stark picture of the natural and environmental constraints on society. Anarres citizens are forced to contend with a relatively sparse and unfruitful world.[citation needed]

Le Guin's title could be in reference to Dostoyevsky's novel The Possessed,[10] but hardship caused by lack of resources is also a prominent theme. Much of the philosophical underpinnings and ecological concepts came from Murray Bookchin's Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971), according to a letter Le Guin sent to Bookchin.[11] Anarres citizens are dispossessed not just by political choice, but by the very lack of actual resources to possess. Here, again, Le Guin draws a contrast with the natural wealth of Urras, and the competitive behaviors this fosters.[12] Le Guin's foreword to the novel notes that her anarchism is closely akin to that of Peter Kropotkin's, whose Mutual Aid closely assessed the influence of the natural world on competition and cooperation.[13] Le Guin's use of realism in this aspect of the work further complicates a simple utopian interpretation of the work. Anarres is not a perfect society, and Le Guin's The Dispossessed seems to argue that no such thing is possible.[citation needed]

Reception[edit]

The novel received generally positive reviews. Baird Searles characterized the novel as an "extraordinary work," saying Le Guin had "created a working society in exquisite detail" and "a fully realized hypothetical culture [as well as] living breathing characters who are inevitable products of that culture."[14] Gerald Jonas, writing in The New York Times, said that "Le Guin's book, written in her solid, no-nonsense prose, is so persuasive that it ought to put a stop to the writing of prescriptive Utopias for at least 10 years."[15] Theodore Sturgeon praised The Dispossessed as "a beautifully written, beautifully composed book," saying "it performs one of sf's prime functions, which is to create another kind of social system to see how it would work. Or if it would work."[16] Lester del Rey, however, gave the novel a mixed review, citing the quality of Le Guin's writing but claiming that the ending "slips badly," a deus ex machina that "destroy[s] much of the strength of the novel."[17]

Translations[edit]

Other versions[edit]

In 1987, the CBC Radio anthology program Vanishing Point adapted The Dispossessed into a series of six 30 minute episodes.[18]

See also[edit]

Hainish cycle novels
Other works
Themes

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ "1974 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  2. ^ a b "1975 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  3. ^ In The Word for World is Forest, the newly created ansible is brought to Athshe, a planet being settled by Earth-humans. In other tales in the Hainish Cycle, the ansible already exists. The word "ansible" was coined in Rocannon's World (first in order of publication but third in internal chronology), where it is central to the plot.
  4. ^ The story is told in Le Guin's "The Day Before the Revolution".
  5. ^ Said by Shevek near the end of Chapter 13
  6. ^ Rigsby, Ellen M. (2005), p. 169
  7. ^ Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed, p.69.
  8. ^ Burton (1985).
  9. ^ Davis and Stillman (2005).
  10. ^ "Study Guide for Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed (1974)" - Paul Brians
  11. ^ Janet Biehl, Bookchin biographer; letter in UKL archive
  12. ^ Mathiesen.
  13. ^ Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid (1902).
  14. ^ "The Dispossessed: Visit from A Small Planet", Village Voice, November 21, 1974, pp.56, 58
  15. ^ "Of Things to Come", The New York Times Book Review, October 26, 1975
  16. ^ "Galaxy Bookshelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1974, pp.97-98
  17. ^ "Reading Room", If, August 1974, pp.144-45
  18. ^ Times Past Old Time Radio Archives.
Bibliography
Anarchism and The Dispossessed
  • John P. Brennan, "Anarchism and Utopian Tradition in The Dispossessed", pp. 116–152, in Olander & Greenberg, editors, Ursula K. Le Guin, New York: Taplinger (1979).
  • Samuel R. Delany, "To Read The Dispossessed," in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. N.Y.: Dragon Press, 1977, pp. 239–308 (anarchism in The Dispossessed). (pdf available online through Project Muse)
  • Neil Easterbrook, "State, Heterotopia: The Political Imagination in Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany", pp. 43–75, in Hassler & Wilcox, editors, Political Science Fiction, Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina Press (1997).
  • Leonard M. Fleck, "Science Fiction as a Tool of Speculative Philosophy: A Philosophic Analysis of Selected Anarchistic and Utopian Themes in Le Guin's The Dispossessed", pp. 133–45, in Remington, editor, Selected Proceedings of the 1978 Science Fiction Research Association National Conference, Cedar Falls: Univ. of Northern Iowa (1979).
  • John Moore, "An Archaeology of the Future: Ursula Le Guin and Anarcho-Primitivism", Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, v.63, pp. 32–39 (Spring 1995).
  • Larry L. Tifft, "Possessed Sociology and Le Guin's Dispossessed: From Exile to Anarchism", pp. 180–197, in De Bolt & Malzberg, editors, Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat (1979).
  • Kingsley Widmer, "The Dialectics of Utopianism: Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Liberal and Fine Arts Review, v.3, nos.1–2, pp. 1–11 (Jan.–July 1983).
Gender and The Dispossessed
  • Lillian M. Heldreth, "Speculations on Heterosexual Equality: Morris, McCaffrey, Le Guin", pp. 209–220 in Palumbo, ed., Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature, Westport, CT: Greenwood (1986).
  • Neil Easterbrook, "State, Heterotopia: The Political Imagination in Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany", pp. 43–75, in Hassler & Wilcox, editors, Political Science Fiction, Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina Press (1997).
  • Mario Klarer, "Gender and the 'Simultaneity Principle': Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, v.25, n.2, pp. 107–21 (Spring 1992).
  • Jim Villani, "The Woman Science Fiction Writer and the Non-Heroic Male Protagonist", pp. 21–30 in Hassler, ed., Patterns of the Fantastic, Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House (1983).
Language and The Dispossessed
  • Deirdre Burton, "Linguistic Innovation in Feminist Science Fiction", Ilha do Desterro: Journal of Language and Literature, v.14, n.2, pp. 82–106 (1985).
Property and possessions
  • Werner Christie Mathiesen, "The Underestimation of Politics in Green Utopias: The Description of Politics in Huxley's Island, Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and Callenbach's Ecotopia", Utopian Studies: Journal of the Society for Utopian Studies, v.12, n.1, pp. 56–78 (2001).
Science and The Dispossessed
  • Ellen M. Rigsby, "Time and the Measure of the Political Animal." The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Ed., Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman. Lanham: Lexington books., 2005.
Taoism and The Dispossessed
  • Elizabeth Cummins Cogell, "Taoist Configurations: The Dispossessed", pp. 153–179 in De Bolt & Malzberg, editors, Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat (1979).
Utopian literature and The Dispossessed
  • James W. Bittner, "Chronosophy, Ethics, and Aesthetics in Le Guin's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, pp. 244–270 in Rabkin, Greenberg, and Olander, editors, No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press (1983).
  • John P. Brennan, "Anarchism and Utopian Tradition in The Dispossessed", pp. 116–152, in Olander & Greenberg, editors, Ursula K. Le Guin, New York: Taplinger (1979).
  • Bülent Somay, "Towards an Open-Ended Utopia", Science-Fiction Studies, v.11, n.1 (#32), pp. 25–38 (March 1984).
  • Peter Fitting, "Positioning and Closure: On the 'Reading Effect' of Contemporary Utopian Fiction", Utopian Studies, v.1, pp. 23–36 (1987).
  • Kingsley Widmer, "The Dialectics of Utopianism: Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Liberal and Fine Arts Review, v.3, nos.1–2, pp. 1–11 (Jan.–July 1983).
  • L. Davis and P. Stillman, editors, "The new utopian politics of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Lexington Books, (2005).
Additional references
  • Judah Bierman, "Ambiguity in Utopia: The Dispossessed", Science-Fiction Studies, v.2, pp. 249–255 (1975).
  • James F. Collins, "The High Points So Far: An Annotated Bibliography of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed", Bulletin of Bibliography, v.58, no.2, pp. 89–100 (June 2001).
  • James P. Farrelly, "The Promised Land: Moses, Nearing, Skinner, and Le Guin", JGE: The Journal of General Education, v.33, n.1, pp. 15–23 (Spring 1981).

External links[edit]