I’ve just re-read LeGuin’s masterpiece (See my first review here). If anything, I loved it even more this time than last. It is a true treasure and speaks to me as few things have.
A couple of things that I want to mention. I love the characters that LeGuin introduces on Anarres that let her consider how individuals, diverse and imperfect human beings, might fit within an anarchist society. There’s an unpleasant gossipy neighbour who has her eye on the apartment that Shevek and Tavek share. There’s a colleague who has compulsive hoarding traits. How would such a behaviour be viewed in a society where not only is there no ownership, there’s not even such a thing as a possessive pronoun?
I also loved the ending. Some have criticised it as introducing a deus ex machina, which is true, but it remains effective for me in a couple of ways. On Urras, on the run after prominently contributing to the class struggle, Shevek seeks sanctuary at the Terran embassy. One outcome of this is that he, perhaps too neatly, ends up returned to Anarres. What this also does, however, is give us an entirely new perspective on the two societies depicted in the novel. For the majority of the book, we see Anarres and Urras though Shevek’s eyes. As a critical citizen of the first he grows to see it quite clearly — as a flawed, idealistic, yet utterly pragmatic, society. It is worth preserving, and deserves to be a goal for other societies to move towards. His view of Urras, though, is much less objective. He ends up viewing it as a hellish place, and we (perhaps picking up particularly on the poor position of women in Urrasti society) are largely happy to go along with that. The Terran ambassador, however, finds it hard to see things in this way:
“The government here is not despotic. The rich are very rich indeed, but the poor are not so very poor. They are neither enslaved nor starving. […] We can only look at this splendid world, this vital society, this Urras, this Paradise, from the outside. We are capable only of admiring it, and maybe envying it a little.”
Reading this dialogue between Shevek and the ambassador is unsettling and exciting. It is this multi-facetedness, this nuance and complexity, that elevates The Dispossessed to literature. It truly is a fantastic book.
PS. This was the first book I’ve read entirely on a “device”. It was a great experience. I downloaded the text from the anarchist library and read it using FBReader. I look forward to reading more books in this way.