Ursula Le Guin’s two most famous and acclaimed science fiction novels – 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness and 1974’s The Dispossessed have a great deal in common. Both are intellectual novels, more interested in characters dispensing sociology lectures than in character exchanging gunfire; both are novels where, in the final equation, very little actually happens. Both are primarily concerned with comparing and contrasting two very different sociopolitical power structures, locked in a Cold War – given the time in which the novels were written, we can cut to the chase and just admit, both novels are fundamentally examinations of the USA vs. the USSR. On a purely superficial level, both novels are set on distant planets occupied by a species who are almost, but not quite, human, with both Terrans (us!) and ‘Hainish’ mentioned in the background. Both novels follow a single traveller as he attempts to understand the world around him.
And yet there are also important differences: most importantly of all, where The Left Hand of Darkness seems to tiptoe delicately, frostily, across an icy surface, everything at a distance, everything filtered and contained, The Dispossessed is the literary equivalent of taking an axe to a target and hacking, first from the left, and then from the right, again and again until the blade hits the quick.
In theory, The Dispossessed is the story of an anarchist physicist, Shevek, who leaves his anarchist homeworld, the barren moon of Anarres, to take his knowledge to the capitalist planet of Urras. However, the book is really built upon its narrative structure: Shevek’s departure from Anarres occures in the first chapter, and from that point on odd-numbered chapters detail his following weeks and months on Urras, while even-numbered chapters flash back to detail the whole of Shevek’s life on Anarres, culminating in his departure to Urras at the end (/beginning) of the novel. Most authors would use this bold structural device to bring complexity and irony to the story of Shevek: they would cut from future to past to bring tragedy or comedy, or they would explore the ways that the Shevek of the past is different from the Shevek of the future. There are elements of that here, it’s true, but surprisingly little: for the most part, we get the same Shevek throughout, although of course what he knows, and some of what he thinks about that, do change. Instead, Le Guin’s real interest in this structure appears to be in juxtaposing the two worlds*.
*it’s interesting that where most authors are desparate to build compelling narratives, Le Guin seems to try to avoid them. Just as in The Left Hand of Darkness the story of Genly was broken into shards by the insertion of intervening chapters from other characters or from folklore, so too here the twin stories of past and future Shevek are cut apart by being interwoven in this way, causing each chapter to stand in isolation. Each chapter is dense and intense, and some illusory relief is provided by each switch in scenery – only for the next chapter to be just as intense. The effect is, as I say, one of powerful axe blows coming at the reader from one side after the other…
In TLHOD, Le Guin gave us a (very, VERY) Cold War defined through politics. On the one side, the West was stripped back to its feudal past, a society of both baffling traditions and apparent chaos, of an apparent inquality undercut by fluidity; on the other, the East was given to us without the specific trappings of communism, but reduced to a recognisable prototype of rigid rationality, of committees of safety, labour camps, modernisation, community dining halls and secret police, in which an apparent equality is undercut by stagnation – a political system recognisable from Rousseau to Xi, via Robespierre and Lenin.
In The Dispossessed, on the other hand, Le Guin returns to that basic conflict, but this time focuses on economics. Yes, Anarres is anarchist, and Urras’ governments are on the blackshirty side (literally!), but the real focus of the comparisons is between the Anarres system of mutual aid, and the Urras system of free-market capitalism, and the broader cultural differences that flow from that. The two sides of the novel therefore explore the flaws of, on the one hand, utopian communalism, and, on the other, modern America.
The former is certainly the more original. Anarres is maybe the most developed anarchist society outside of utopian literature, and Le Guin is careful to walk a balance, presenting a world that is in some ways horrifying, tragic, insidiously soul-destroying, and yet at the same time more or less believable as a functioning society in which most people are mostly happy – a society that, indeed, seems relatively attractive compared to the nightmares of the other half.
Because if the idea of attacking modern American culture seems less imaginative – and it is! – it’s also the more powerful side of the novel. Le Guin is savage and extensive in her satire of late-stage capitalism, casting her poison pen in every direction from art galleries to universities to international affairs, domestic economic politics, conversational norms, and of course (again in common with The Left Hand of Darkness) gender roles (not to mention packaging methods and bathroom sink design). Gender is the one area in which the society of Urras seems positively backward compared even to the middle of the 20th century: women are almost entirely excluded from science and economics, to an extent that even Victorians would have been proud of. At first, it seems like a misstep – a crass exaggeration that through overreaching lets her enemies off the hook – but as the novel progresses it seems like a cunning strategic move: it allows her to explore the role of women in capitalism by working on, as it were, a magnified canvass that lets the details show through. Again, she attempts to find balance: Shevek sees the women of Urras as horrifically oppressed, while they see themselves as possessing power and prestige, and it’s not entirely clear that either side is wrong; likewise, we’re given the wonderful expression that Anarres women have for their Urras sisters and the ways they maintain their power – “body-profiteers” – but it’s left ambiguous whether we should really see these women (and by extension many real women) as shameful and manipulative body-profiteers or as desparate prisoners trying to secure at least the illusion of agency – or, of course, whether they are both. [the bothness of things is quite a recurrent theme, I think…]
[by contrast, as in The Left Hand of Darkness, there is almost no consideration of race explicitly, although there are clearly post-colonial power disparities being criticised]
It’s powerful stuff – by making her protagonist literally a man from the moon, Le Guin is able to cast a clear and uncomfortable light on things we take for granted in our society (I’m reminded of the old fad for “Martian” poetry…). At the same time, she is also interested not only in the nature of society, but also in the place of the individual within society, and within the universe. There is more mysticism here, this time disguised as physics – and as a philosophy graduate I can only exhale with deep relief at finally finding a science fiction writer who launches into pages of philosophical verbiage that actually makes sense and is philosophically interesting. Oh, nothing here is actually totally new, but Le Guin seems to understand the interesting questions she is raising about consciousness and time, as well as about identity and ethics, and to express herself in an engaging and vivid way. Most of this is concentrated in the Anarres sections – it should be no surprise that in the cities of Urras, Shevek is alone, yet looks outward, while on depopulated Anarres he is among friends, yet looks inward – and coupled with lyrical romantic and maudlin melancholic material, and some intimations of tragedy, this makes the Anarres half of the novel every bit as intense as the Urras sections.
Intense is the word. Every chapter could pretty much stand alone as a powerful short story – they add together, but each is slightly different in its emphasis and paints a complete, if not independent, picture. Within each chapter, there is little relief: Le Guin’s prose is constantly precise and densely packed, filled with invention and insight; at times, it’s almost poetry in how much is wrapped into each word, in how considered each word appears. Many paragraphs stand out as little prose poems in their own right. And that formal density is mirrored by the extreme density in content – there is almost no moment that is not layered with symbolism and import, and no moment that does not independently add to the whole.
It’s very impressive. And yet that very intensity can be a liability. Sometimes it felt like I needed an axe myself to make progress in this book. It was a rewarding experience, but not an easy one: I kept wanting to stop to think, or to jot down a quote (so much of it is quotable!), and at the end of a chapter it felt like lifting up a stone tablet trying to start the next. It’s the kind of novel that, in perfect circumstances, you could smash through with a glass of red wine in one evening – or that, in other circumstances, could take months to chip your way through. In my case, it was the latter, and while that was mostly my fault (or the fault of my circumstances) it’s certainly true that the novel was not a page-turner. Not something to keep you up late at night. If this were a TV show, it wouldn’t be something that lent itself to binging – it would be something heavy and unremitting and best digested an episode or two at a time. [specifically, I guess it would probably be The Americans… with less killing and more ideology lectures]
Underlying this lack of compelling forward motion is a sad lack of plot. I understand entirely the desire of Le Guin and of some other authors of her era to concentrate less on plot and more on their ideas. By doing so – by not subjugating her narrative to the simplistic demands of ‘plot’ – Le Guin is able to build a more consistently intense and much more intellectually interesting story. And yet… something is also lost. Now to be sure, The Dispossessed is neither incoherent nor exactly rambling – it does have a definite direction of travel and, as a result, a general narrative arc that makes sense and is broadly satisfying. It does all that is strictly required, and is not, in this regard, a failure (indeed, that absence of failure elevates the novel over some attempts in a similarly ruminatory vein). But the lack of a more substantial plot hamstrings the book by undermining its ability to engage the reader’s passions – there is nothing dragging us from chapter (or even scene) to the next, and there is little to energise the reader with a sense of success, or to spark the fear of coming failure. It makes for a strange tone for the book: passion, but at a distance. Opinions may vary, but I felt that this was more of a problem than in TLHOD, because the earlier book’s coldness helped develop a creeping tension, whereas the comparative fireyness and intensity of The Dispossessed only highlights the lack of the driving force of plot that would be expected. And in the end, that lack of plot reduces the impact of the novel, which doesn’t so much reach completion as simply reach its allotted wordcount before tacking on what might pass for an ending. Oh, to be sure, the ending fits. It’s just… there’s no particular reason why the novel couldn’t have been twice as long before reaching that ending. Or half as long, for that matter. As with TLHOD, some vestige of resolution is created by the insertion of an artificial threat, and brief excitement, near the end – but where TLHOD’s concessions to plot start a long distance from the end, giving us an entire final section of real story, The Dispossessed tries to insert its actual plot into about a chapter. It’s a good chapter – these are all, to be clear, really good chapters – but it’s not enough to underpin the whole novel.
Sure, it may not really cohere as a novel. Sure, it’s not a page-turner (at least, not from beginning to end). It reads more as a series of intense but rather impersonal short stories on shared themes than as an actual novel in the traditional sense. But does that matter?
OK, yes, it does. But it also shouldn’t be everything. Let’s put it this way: the fact it doesn’t cohere into an entirely fluent and satisfying novel stops this from being an absolute all-time great literary classic. But that’s praising with faint damnation. Because it doesn’t stop it from being a classic of the genre, and a stunningly good book.
Maybe this isn’t a novel for everybody. It’s not ‘easy’, or ‘cool’ or ‘sexy’. But it is a novel for anyone looking for good writing; it is a novel for anyone looking for thought-provoking, critical thinking, both social and philosophical. It is a novel for anyone looking for something weird and powerful and immersive.
And above all, it is a novel for anyone who wants to see just what can be accomplished in speculative fiction. That an author could take such a bold structure, and fill it with such unforgivingly adult and serious thinking, leavened with the bare minimum of plot and spiced with a mild but indelible sense of tragedy, and produce a novel even remotely readable is in its own right astonishing. That it could be done with sumptuous prose, and that the novel that resulted could be a beloved – if niche – cult classic that may demand, yet certainly repays, as much effort as the reader can dedicate to it, is almost a miracle. Perhaps I’d have enjoyed a watered-down version more, but for the good of the genre it’s great that the concentrated form exists, if only for future reference…
Adrenaline: 2/5. The structure of the novel makes it hard to build adrenaline – but the big problem is just that most chapters aren’t that interested in either action or anticipation.
Emotion: 3/5. Le Guin hits some very emotional points here, particularly in the more intimate chapters on Anarres. On the other hand, much of the book is written at arm’s length, so on average it’s hardly a heart-wrencher.
Thought: 5/5. As I tend to say with this score, The Dispossessed isn’t exactly a masterpiece of philosophy – it’s arguments are relatively shallow and at times perhaps muddied or unclear – but it’s as thought-provoking as anyone could seriously expect a novel to be. You can’t take it much further before you cross the line from ‘think-y novel’ into outright ‘thought experiment with narrative ornaments’. And to its credit it takes in a range of (albeit linked) subjects, making it feel a more rounded novel, intellectually, than The Left Hand of Darkness.
Beauty: 5/5. If I’m nitpicking, I find Le Guin’s style a little too fussy to be truly stunning. But I can’t deny, she gets some fabulous lines in along the way – and some fabulous images, and a suitably elegaic (yet paradoxically hopeful) tone.
Craft: 5/5. I’ve pointed out some flaws in this review, but I can’t really claim that they’re inadequacies of craft – more just errors in judgement. I think she basically did what she set out to do, even if sometimes I wanted her to do something else. The prose may be a tad overdone, taken as a whole, but line-by-line it’s very good; in addition to sounding nice, she conveys nuanced characters and complex thoughts concisely, which is the hard-to-explain but absolutely essential quality of great writing. She adopts a strange and difficult structure and uses it in a very accomplished manner – if not quite how you might expect. She achieves an extreme concentration of thought in a surprisingly slight wordcount. She… well, she displays an absolute mastery of writing.
Endearingness: 4/5. There are very likable aspects of this novel (for one thing, it’s ridiculously quotable). I basically enjoyed reading it, and came out with positive feelings toward it. I hope others enjoy it too, and I’ll think kindly of it in future. And yet… it’s not exactly a curl-up classic. It’s prickly and dense and not entirely rewarding at the end – it’s hardly a feel-good favourite, or even an addictive tragedy. It’s a book I really like, but not one I think I can love.
Originality: 4/5. There are aspects that this novel has in common with others of its era (as suggested at the beginning of this review!). Many aspects of her criticism of late capitalist statism are far from innovative. But the pairing of sociopolitical criticism with phyical-philosophical mysticism and intimate psychology make this an unmistakable, specific, novel – not to mention the serious consideration of the pros and cons of the implementation of utopian anarchosyndicalism, which is lacking from most genre pieces…
OVERALL: 7/7. BRILLIANT. Perhaps it would be fair to say that The Dispossessed was not, in its own terms, quite as successful as The Left Hand of Darkness; but that, as it attempts more, it achieves more in overall terms. Nearly half a century after its publication, The Dispossessed remains that rare thing in science fiction: a novel that seems genuinely relevant to our times. Other than the increased status of women, our vices have taken us even closer to Urras over the years, while Anarres remains in practice out of reach, yet in concept still credible. Whether you’re looking for the politics, or for the philosophy, or for the psychological portraits, The Dispossessed was and still is a deeply rewarding novel – an absolute classic of the genre. Just so long as you weren’t looking for a plot-based adventure novel…