The Dispossessed Summary

Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed

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The Dispossessed Summary

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Ursula K. Le Guin has long enjoyed a reputation as the thinking reader’s science fiction author. This does a disservice to much of science fiction, but it is true that Le Guin writes with purpose, with most of her novels and short stories tackling thorny, intractable issues of gender, equality, capitalism, xenophobia, and more. The Dispossessed is no exception.

The novel revolves around the inhabitants of two planets that are close in proximity, but worlds apart in philosophy and societal execution. The planet of Urras is a multi-state society where each state makes its own laws and largely governs itself. Anarres, in contrast, in anarchic, with no true government to speak of, and an economy that could charitably be called chaotic.

Many of Le Guin’s stories involve an iconoclast who wants to change things, or to see things that are denied to most people. In The Dispossessed this occur with the physicist Shevek. He lives on Anarres. As such, his orderly physicist’s mind is not well-suited to the tumult of his society. He wishes to visit Urras in order to foster community between the two planets. He views Urras as a Utopia that would remind readers of philosophy of Sir Thomas More’s treatise Utopia.

Travel between planets is uncommon, and Shevek meets with mild protests and discord as he prepares to leave. When he arrives in Urras, he is treated as if he is a superstar. When the glow of the attention fades, he finds much that unsettles him on this imagined utopia. The offer of his visit was not made with complete transparency. There are powerful people on Urras who want to use Shevek’s knowledge in order to stay ahead in various sorts of arms and technology races. With his help, they will be able to maintain an iron grip on Urras, but on other planets as well.

Despite growing up on the anarchic planet of Anarres, Shevek has never known true violence, or a desire to control others. He is unhappy with the sometimes brutal fashion in which Urras governs and disciplines its citizens. They are not interested in friendship and community in the way he had expected.

The novel begins with his departure for Urras. In the next chapter, it backtracks into his childhood so the reader gets a sense of how Shevek became the person he is. The reader learns, for instance, that Shevek’s mother left him when he was two. He is cared for by various communal organizations, and never truly feels the loss of his mother. Familial relationships are different on Anarres, and, though he is forced to work long hours at unsatisfying jobs in order to earn his lodging, Shevek manages to set himself apart as an individual. His mathematical acumen, in particular, is astonishing.

This eventually leads him to study at the National Institute of Sciences. Shevek’s status as a prodigy qualifies him for tutelage under the eminent physicist Sabul. However, as fulfilling as his education is, Shevek is eventually disillusioned when he learns that the scientists at the Institute are more privileged than others. Never before has he been forced to confront the idea that Anarres is anything less than equitable. Many theorists postulate that an anarchic society would promote selfishness, not equality. However, Anarres has always proven the opposite to Shevek, until he sees that the additional comforts enjoyed by the scholars. He is expected to participate and partake as well, which causes him much of the nagging guilt that will eventually lead him to make his visit to Urras.

The Dispossessed is an important study in how people might behave when left to their own instincts, and when they are controlled, even benignly, by a government. It takes on a cynical aspect when Shevek must realize that anything that can be exploited, even something as useful and worth sharing as knowledge, will indeed be exploited.

Readers are invited to ask themselves how they might behave on each of the two planets, and how they might view the other society if they had never known any but their own. Shevek is forced to ask himself whether all innovation is good, and how science itself, which is just a method, may have a certain amount of destructiveness built into it. Once knowledge is shared, the disseminator has no entitlement to the varied reactions and results that ensue.

It will be obvious from the first page, and from the massive critical praise that Le Guin has received for decades, that The Dispossessed is a book made of ideas. There is a story, but it is a novel intended to prompt more questions, rather than to provide answers. It sits comfortably in the theoretical space with books like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and even the histories of the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of the atomic bomb.