Classics for Everyone: “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin

The DispossessedIn the spirit of the Summer Reading theme “Build a Better World,” your Classics Maven has chosen to discuss a master literary world builder – Ursula K. Le Guin, winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards for her 1974 science fiction book, “The Dispossessed.”

“The Dispossessed” is a book about walls: physical, psychological, social. The story begins with Shevek, a physicist from the moon colony Anarres, breaking seven generations of tradition by crossing the wall around the space port where ships come and go with cargo. This wall contains the only “No Trespassing” sign in all of Anarres, a utopian anarchist society where everything is shared.

The system they’ve developed works well in many ways, but Shevek feels limited by the lack of space for his individuality. And the maintenance of the ideal depends on isolation from other worlds, especially the original home world of Urras, a planet divided into many states and rife with conflict and inequality. Yet the two populations still depend on each other for the basics of life. Urras receives products of the mines on Anarres, while sending them supplies that are scarce in the colony.

When Shevek makes the monumental decision to travel to Urras for a meeting with physicists there, he hopes to re-establish cultural and personal connections between the two societies, to unbuild walls. And he believes he might find a place where he fits in better. At first, though he finds the cultural differences jarring, his dreams seem to be coming to fruition. Before long, though, he discovers the intentions of the people who invited him are less than noble.

Le Guin’s science fiction has space ships and cool technology, but it’s less about the wow factor of the technology than about its effect on societies and individuals. A large part of the story in “The Dispossessed” centers on development of the ansible, a device that enables speedy interstellar communication. In many ways, the social impact Le Guin envisioned anticipated the advent of the internet age. She has a brilliant eye for social and cosmological perspective, coupled with a gift for language.

For years, I’ve kept a quote from this book taped over my desk at home: “’If you can see a thing whole,’ he said, ‘it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives … But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern.’” This is my reminder about the importance of perspective and, I believe, one of the central messages of Le Guin’s story.