The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin

I would like to take a moment to review what has long been among my favorite books, The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin. I first read this book as part of a 3-in-1 compilation I bought at age 17 (which I still have in my personal library). This volume also included The Lathe of Heaven & The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. After reading these, I devoured the Earthsea series, and have since read anything I could find by LeGuin.

First let me give a little background about LeGuin. She is among the most well-known and influential fantasy / science fiction writers of the 20th century, though she certainly has not restricted herself only to these genres. Her writings range from children’s books to poetry, from socially aware SF to interpretations of Eastern religious works, insightful essays, and literary criticism. She has won five Hugo awards and six Nebula awards — The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness each won both awards, making her the first author to win the awards twice with the same two books. LeGuin is actively engaged in the world of professional writing, participating in many workshops. Several of her works have also been adapted into films, miniseries, and radio programs. Her fiction is characterized by a deep concern with the problems of human relationships, social and political problems, religion, sexuality, and our relationship with nature. She is an expert at using alien cultures and climates to illustrate and analyze human issues, and her insights are often powerful.

The Dispossessed is among LeGuin’s most well-known works. It begins with the journey of the physicist Shevek from the planet of Anarres to the planet Urras, which effectively represent what we would characterize as the revolutionary fringe of society, and the ruling majority, respectively. On the surface, LeGuin’s story is a tale of a futuristic world, and the struggle of the civilizations on two separate planets to reconcile with each other’s way of life. Beneath the surface run deep undercurrents of meaning — philosophical, religious, and scientific themes that transcend the story itself. Shevek’s quest to reconcile two seemingly antithetical schools of theoretical physics is also the individual’s quest to reconcile individuality with social behavior, identity with belonging, and freedom with responsibility.

What sets LeGuin’s science fiction apart is that she does not fabricate heroes. She does not insert a larger-than-life character into an unlikely situation and rely on battles and explosions to keep the reader’s attention. She presents deeply realized, sympathetic, but highly realistic individuals. Shevek is not a super-hero. He is not even, in our usual sense of the term, a fighter. He is simply someone who believes strongly in his cause, and is willing to do what is necessary. Shevek’s selflessness is what is remarkable — in the face of a society built on selfishness, Shevek’s concern is always directed outwards: towards his family; towards his people; towards the completion of his work rather than the rewards of it.

Colored by the Taoist sensibilities with which LeGuin has long been fascinated, the parallels drawn in The Dispossessed are simultaneously vivid and subtle — the style of writing embodies the very ideas that LeGuin attempts to convey. There are passages I remember vividly, and several that I regularly quote for their insight into complex problems. Widely praised even beyond the usual literary circles of science fiction, The Dispossessed is a true masterpiece, the consummation of a unique and detailed vision of a distant world surprisingly similar to our own. I believe it will delight even those who normally dislike science fiction, and for SF fans, it is an experience that should not be missed.


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