Monday, January 18, 2010

1975 Hugo and Locus, 1974 Nebula Award – THE DISPOSSESED by Ursula K. LeGuin

Yet another Leguin, and yet another triple crown winning novel. As in The Left Hand of Darkness, LeGuin uses science fiction to explore themes and ideas about human culture. This time, her central question is about government, and specifically, the practicality of anarcho-synidcalism.

The Dispossessed takes place in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness. Humans throughout the galaxy descend from an ancient people called the Hainish. In the future, these people, including Earthlings, reconnect and form a large and peaceful coalition of human worlds. "Terrans" make a brief guest appearance near the end, but most of the action takes place on the world of Anarres and its habitable moon Urras. We learn that 160 years ago a wave of socialist revolution swept through Anarres inspired by a philosopher named Odo. Anarres eventually solved the problem by exiling the revolutionaries to the harsh moon Urras, where they formed a utopian society based around their anti-state and anti-property principles. The main character is a brilliant physicist from Urras named Shevek. In order to pursue and spread his research, Shevek becomes the first Urrastian to return to Anarres. The novel follows two alternating narrative paths. The first traces Shevek’s progress in the capitalist society of Annares. The second follows Shevek’s previous life on utopian Urras, from his childhood up to his decision to leave. Throughout, we get his thoughts on the two societies and their views on free expression, labor, class, art, gender, etc.

As always with LeGuin, The Dispossessed is amazingly well-written, and the characters are the richest, most complex, and most lifelike of anything I’ve read. The ideas and conflicts are fascinating. Still, I did not enjoy this novel as much as the previous two. There isn’t much plot to speak of, and utopias, even more than dystopias, can easily fall into preachiness. LeGuin mostly avoids the soapbox, but just barely. Urras may be a utopia, but she does add some complexity: it’s highly conformist and emotions like jealousy have not been completely eliminated. Even without property, people still envy Shevek’s talents as a physicist. In fact, this is the central plot of the Urras story, and it echoes a lot of the ideas about the sociology of science in Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (must’ve been in the air in the mid-70s).

Overall, it’s a really intriguing novel with rich characters, and it’s as good a utopia as I’ve read. But, utopias are hard to write, and this book did not hold me in as rapt attention as her previous novels.

Grade: B+

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