Why “The Dispossessed” Is Still One Of The Most Important Sci-Fi Novels Of All Time
To put forth an idea of a utopia is one thing — to dissect the idea and watch as its parts intermingle and clash in a blinding haze is an entirely different endeavor. It’s one of the reasons why Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed won two of the most coveted sci-fi fiction awards.
The novel is essentially the tale of two worlds: Urras and the colonized nearby moon, Annares, the latter of which was a gift to its once native revolutionaries to tame a threat of rebellion. The nations and societies of Urras are not unlike our own: the excess materialism, the belief in competition, the rabid hunger for wealth and resources, the rigidly structured societies under all powerful autocrats, oligarchs. Anarres in comparison is a austere tabula rasa, an unforgiving world that tests survival, and where ownership and property is as alien as its former motherland on its horizon.
Few transverse the worlds, but readers intimately get to know one who does, the Annares-born Shevet, an ardent revolutionary at heart but a inquisitive and practical physicist with a penchant for what his race demeaningly refers to as “egoism.”
Le Guin’s telling of Shevet’s life is told in non-sequential chapters, reading at times like a prologue and other times like a countdown fighting its own inertia. It is through Shevet that the novel achieves a seamless, contrary feat in a scope that is both narrow and wide. It’s not just a life of one man or one humanity, but a plane where anarchy is tested in practice, of individual against society, competition against cooperation, public opinion against personal desire, and in no small part an exploration of the bounds of philosophy, math theory, ethics, time theory, sexuality, and relative linguistics.
There is irony inherent in Le Guin’s no-nonsense approach to prose, which at times is bare, stripped down, and brusque. However, that complexity works on many levels. The story is as much an acerbic critique of modern capitalist culture as it is an examination of its symbiotic nature to opposites. It uncovers a harsh truth: for all their fervor, all ideals soon cow to human needs for order, survival, and social belonging.