Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber, and raised in Berkeley, California, the daughter of anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber and writer Theodora Kroeber. She graduated from Radcliffe College and studied at Columbia University. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of more than one hundred short stories, four collections of essays, seven volumes of poetry, and nineteen novels. Her best-known fantasy works, the “Earthsea” books, have sold millions of copies and have been translated into sixteen languages.
The Left Hand of Darkness, her first major work of science fiction, is considered epoch-making in the field due to its radical investigation of gender roles as well as its moral and literary complexity.
Le Guin has received the National Book Award, five Hugo Awards, five Nebula Awards, SFWA’s Grand Master, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Howard Vursell Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the L.A. Times Robert Kirsch Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, and the Margaret A. Edwards Award. She has also been a finalist for the American Book Award three times and once for the Pulitzer Prize.
The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia
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 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, 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.
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.
Le Guin’s title could be in reference to Dostoyevsky’s novel The Possessed, 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.
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.
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.
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.
The story of The Dispossessed takes place on the fictional planet Urras and its habitable moon Anarres, the twin inhabited worlds of Tau Ceti. 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.
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. Before this, Anarres had had no permanent settlements apart from some mining.
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.
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.”
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.
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 dialog 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,” rather than “You may borrow my handkerchief”, thus conveying the idea that the handkerchief is not owned by the girl, merely used by her.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
The book won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1974, won both the Hugo and Locus Awards in 1975, and received a nomination for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1975.
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.