This, along with The Left Hand of Darkness, is surely Ursula K. LeGuin’s masterpiece. I read tLHoD and The Lathe of Heaven fairly recently, and was extremely impressed (especially by tLHoD), and was eager to read The Dispossessed. Once I started reading, however, I discovered that I was actually re-reading. I’ve no idea when I read it before, but read it before I had.
It’s not exactly a rare occurrence, but a book has to be fairly special for me to read it a second time (Oh, the far off days of yore when every new volume of the Wheel of Time was precursed by a rereading of all the extant volumes. Imagine the sheer quantity of books I could have read instead!). As soon as I started it, though, I knew there was no way I was putting it down.The story is told in alternating chapters. One strand begins with Shevek, a genius physicist from the resource poor planet Anarres, leaving by rocket ship to go to Anarres’ wealthy sister planet Urras. Anarres’ society is anarchist/socialist. It was settled by dissidents from Urras 200 years prior to the events of the story, since which time it has been almost entirely isolated from its progenitor. Shevek’s leaving, while not explicitly forbidden by any laws (anarchist society, remember), is not a popular move with many people. This strand continues with Shevek’s adventures while on Urras, which is dominated by two societies: one capitalist (A-Io), and one communist (Thu). Shevek is feted and indulged by the wealthy intellectual caste of A-Io, who want access to the theoretical breakthroughs he has made that make FTL communication possible.
The other strand depicts Shevek’s life up until this point: his childhood, his education as a physicist, his time working in the physics institute and elsewhere, his lovelife, and his growing realisation that Anarres’ society has become stultified. Certain people have more power than others; the idealistic principles of anarchism on which their society was built seem to be draining away.
The novel is pleasingly cyclical. The second strand finishes just before the events of the very first chapter, when Shevek leaves Anarres; the first ends with his return. There are a host of allegories and allusions throughout the novel, letting LeGuin tackle all sorts of very interesting topics wisely and insightfully. The wikipedia page does a rather good job explicating these, so I won’t go in to them here, other than to say that I particularly enjoyed the stuff in there dealing with language (for example, there are no possessive adjectives in the language of Anarres) and with gender roles.
It’s a delight to read a novel that is so well written, that is imbued with such philosophical and social awareness, and that has such aspirational and transformational ambitions. Such works are very rare. I feel like LeGuin did it so well that it prevented a generation of writers from attempting to follow in her footsteps. Only now are writers starting to tackle such big themes (some the same and some new) in the same bold and aspirational way (e.g., Miéville).
It’s an important novel, and not just within its genre. Read it.