The late ‘60s early ‘70s was a magnificently productive time in Ursula Le Guin’s career. Though she continued writing award-winning, successful novels, nothing matches the quality and quantity of her output in this time. The first three novels in the Earthsea Cycle, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, and The Lathe of Heaven were all written then, each winning one if not more awards and flying off shop shelves. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, published in the middle of this stretch, rounds out the triumphant group and is considered by some her greatest achievement.
The Dispossessed is at heart the tale of the Shevek and his struggle to acquire and disseminate knowledge in two different socio-economic systems. A minor physicist, Shevek’s research into the effects of time on space is interrupted and downgraded by the orthodox, or exploited by ambitious colleagues. His home planet essentially a desert wasteland, basic habitation is also a struggle. Shevek and others, including his partner Takver, spend a great portion of their lives dealing with food shortages and the difficult circumstances arising from their planet’s geological conditions and weather patterns. Feeling his work holds more value than what it is appreciated for, Shevek sets aside his life’s problems and takes drastic steps to change the quality of his research. The result surprising, the push leads him places he least expected. The grass not always greener on the other side, it is the manner in which Shevek compromises the situation that the novel makes its point.
One of literature’s greatest realizations of an anarchic society, The Dispossessed is a thought experiment through and through. Le Guin imagined a planet and its inhabitable moon, placed a system analogous to capitalism on the former and anarchy on the desiccated latter, and named them Anarres and Urras. Not a Che Guevara or Sex Pistols-esque style of anarchy glorifying non-government, Le Guin handles the subject with maturity; the lives of the people on Urras are anything but utopic despite their lack of authority. The social problems they face, while in a context potentially difficult readers to relate to but related clearly by Le Guin, adheres to the nature of an anarchic system—for better and worse. Human vice being what it is, the oft idyllic nature of anarchic theory does not prevent Le Guin from exposing its vulnerable side. The capitalist system more well-known, she portrays the Anarrens with equal aplomb, and the resulting ideological clashes between the two planets serve up the tension in the novel, not to mention being amongst the greatest social commentary sci-fi has produced.
The Dispossessed’s narrative structure alternates between the two planets, Anarres and Urras, a chapter at a time devoted to each. Innate to this structure is also an oscillating timeline: the concluding events of the Anarres timeline correspond to opening events of Urras’ to form a satisfying whole. This structure, while breaking from the linear to make the text more engaging for the reader, likewise forms an analogy to the ultimate outcome of Shevek’s research. This symbolism, both in the narrative and in denouement, is rich.
In the end, The Dispossessed is a peak of anthropological science fiction and one of the top twenty-five science fiction books ever written. Le Guin’s voice neither lavish or expansive, she writes in affective prose, sensitive to the causes and effects of the social concerns raised. Shevek, those he encounters, and social systems they are a part of are dealt with in a realistic fashion that further belies Le Guin’s maturity. Both answering and raising an equal number of profound questions, the book is for the ages.