Review of The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Published on 2021-01-17 by John Collins.

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin tells the story of Skevek, a brilliant physicist who lives on a desolate moon populated by anarchists, which orbits a wealthy planet largely populated by capitalists, or “propertarians” as the moon inhabitants called them.

In Shevek’s society, nobody owns property, there is no apparent government or hierarchy, and people are encouraged to not be driven by ego or profit. People are apparently free, but very poor and always on the verge of famine. They have cut themselves off from their parent planet, which they left generations before to form this anarchist utopia.

Shevek has a theory of physics that he believes will allow for instantaneous communication across time and space, which will prove to be invaluable for the nascent inter-solar human civilization featured in all of the Hainish Cycle books by Le Guin. The story centers around his efforts to promote that theory, at great personal risk, including traveling across space to the parent planet his ancestors left.

Previously I have read The Left Hand of Darkness in that same cycle, and can see some similarities between both books. Both books feature politically naive protagonists, brutally stark climates, Spartan-like societies, and an over abundance of politics for my liking. The central characters seem to stumble from one calamity to another, and only succeed due to the help and support of multiple side characters, some of which sacrifice themselves in the process.

On the positive side, Le Guin is a beautiful writer and some of her prose reads like poetry. When Shevek is working in the dessert, you feel the dust in his throat and the heat on his brow. When there is famine, you feel hungry with him. I had the same feeling while reading The Left Hand of Darkness, on that winter planet I actually felt cold. When I read Le Guin, I am there within the environments she so brilliantly describes. I feel it.

Overall I must admit that I struggled to finish this book, mainly due to the heavy political focus as I am firmly apolitical, as well as my dislike for the central character Shevek due to his naivety.

However this book gave science fiction the Ansible, the instantaneous communication device that Shevek’s physics theory helped to create (but that device is employed to much greater effect in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card), so I am glad I took the time to finish it. But in my opinion, The Left Hand of Darkness is the superior book.

The copy I read is from Easton Press (see photo), which is out-of-print but readily available on eBay.