Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life—Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Urras, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.
The book cover below includes alt-text. This is just one of many covers this book has had over the years though :)
The world-building and the ideas conveyed through it are the most important elements of this book. The story is interesting, and the characters feel real, but they seem more like instruments. The book offers an in-depth exploration of how an anarchist, anti-capitalist society without money or government would work and juxtaposes it against a more familiar wasteful, capitalist world. It's a thought-provoking story that can be a great tool for self-exploration. Definitely worth reading.
I think character development was done a bit differently when this book was written, or maybe it's Ursula Le Guin's style. On the one hand, the characters feel real — they have distinct personalities, their actions make sense, and there are clever little details in their behaviors and word choices that reveal their views or the values of the world they come from.
Shevek's (the main character) observations about the alien planet he travels to both provide a lot of context about his own culture and allow us to examine our world from an alien's perspective (he doesn't travel to Earth, but some things are similar on Urras).
On the other hand, there is not much focus on the characters' feelings and not much description of sensations or involuntary reactions to provide an insight into their inner world that seems to be the staple of modern writing.
It's a paradox that the characters both feel real and seem like devices for the world-building or mouthpieces for their philosophies.
The world-building is engaging, and the juxtaposition of the cultures on two planets is thought-provoking.
On the one hand, we have Anarres: an anarchist, anti-capitalist world without money or government built as a result of a rebellion. It's based on the principles of equality, voluntary work and mutual respect. It's a harsh world, and people know that the "social organism" relies on each and every one of them for survival. There are no laws, but there is social pressure to do the right thing. "Propertarian" is an insult and "egoizing" is a vice, which children learn from a young age. There is no private property, and using possessive forms is discouraged. It's not my thing it's a thing I use. This equality is not based on abundance but scarcity — no one has much and everyone's life is difficult. There is no elite. There is complete consent-based, shame-free but privacy-oriented sexual freedom, absolute gender equality and acceptance of any sexual orientation as an unquestionable norm. Curiously, there is no alcohol or drugs — people drink juice when they get together.
It's not a perfect world, and not only because the conditions are harsh. Ursula Le Guin dove deep into the details of how such a society would work. She studied works of prominent anarchists and tried to envision what it would look like in practice. She showed the downsides and challenges too. It's not always the way it's supposed to be, and it doesn't always feel fair.
On the other hand, we have capitalist, wasteful Urras that will feel pretty familiar. It's interesting to look at some of the things that are considered normal there (and here on Earth) through Shevek's eyes. It's also a sexist world that objectifies women, where they're considered incapable of doing serious work. It's a world of social inequality, a world in which human life has no value, a world that wages wars, where the rich feel entitled to their privilege and are removed from the suffering of the poor. There is pseudo-intellectual justification for all of these things. What can I say? I'm sure you'll recognize a lot of it. There are multiple parallels that can be drawn to our world.
I'll admit, some of it felt a bit heavy-handed, but was it really for its time? The things that seem obvious to me now weren't necessarily perceived this way when the book was written in 1974.
In any case, I think world-building is what you read this book for. It's not really for the story or the characters, it's for ideas, a possible perspective shift, a thought experiment. What would it be like to live in an anarchist society? I think it's interesting to answer to yourself: would you want to? Would you give up what you have for it? This book can be a great tool for self-exploration too.
The plot is non-linear. It starts in the middle of the story and some chapters keep moving forward in time, while others go back to Shevek's childhood to tell the story of his life and how he got to that point in the middle. It's fairly interesting, some parts were even captivating, but I feel like both the characters and the plot are secondary and only there to serve the world-building.
To be honest, it took me a long time to get into the book, and if it wasn't Ursula Le Guin, I'd give up on it way before it engrossed me. I think I only got invested somewhere after the 30% mark, but then I was suddenly fascinated by all the details, the philosophy, the conversations, the backstory, the relationships and the present moment. I think it's a book worth reading. It's unlike other stories, it offers ideas that don't often (if ever?) get explored in speculative fiction, and it leaves you with a lot to think about.
You might enjoy The Dispossessed if you are interested in anarchism and / or alternatives to capitalism, if you like exploring ideas through strange worlds, enjoy a deep dive into an imaginary culture and are looking for something thought-provoking.
Ursula K. Le Guin published twenty-two novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and has received many awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc. Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia, an essay collection, Cheek by Jowl, and The Wild Girls. She lived in Portland, Oregon.
She was known for her treatment of gender (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Matter of Seggri), political systems (The Telling, The Dispossessed) and difference/otherness in any other form. Her interest in non-Western philosophies was reflected in works such as "Solitude" and The Telling but even more interesting are her imagined societies, often mixing traits extracted from her profound knowledge of anthropology acquired from growing up with her father, the famous anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber. The Hainish Cycle reflects the anthropologist's experience of immersing themselves in new strange cultures since most of their main characters and narrators (Le Guin favoured the first-person narration) are envoys from a humanitarian organization, the Ekumen, sent to investigate or ally themselves with the people of a different world and learn their ways.