The Dispossessed

Ursula Le Guin (1974)

For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.’

This is my second Le Guin novel (after The Left Hand Of Darkness), and I’m well impressed with her so far. I’m not really into science fiction, but I am when it is used to explore different philosophies and ways of living. In this one, Le Guin takes on perhaps the biggest change from our current way of life that anyone could imagine – anarchism – and more or less pulls it off.

The central character is Shevek, a physicist from the anarchist planet of Annarres. This world is running into some problems, mainly because it’s basically shit in terms of resources, so this creates scarcity which communists on Earth hope we wouldn’t have to worry about. He becomes a rebel against anarchism, not in a ‘propertarian’ way – like on the planet Urras – but in a purely anarchist way.

Some socialist utopias (William MorrisNews From Nowhere being the most cloying example) are so abundant and happy that they’re basically unreadable by anyone living in a capitalist society (although I have to say NFN is a repeat guilty pleasure). Here, Le Guin gets round that problem with her use of the aforementioned dusty, shit planet.

Does that mean fiction couldn’t exist in a communist society, without the dramatic crucible of material scarcity? Maybe, but I wouldn’t be too worried about that should I ever see live to see it. I’d be enjoying the absence of walls too much.


4 thoughts on “The Dispossessed

  1. Rich (La Bohéme)

    I’m glad you don’t just dismiss science fiction entirely, as I find the large majority of the themes and perspectives are mostly grounded on Earth itself. If anything, I find it personally gives me far more leeway to explore ideas than if it were closer to home. Earth is far too canonical and obvious, whereas the opportunity to ‘play god’ somewhere else is far too good an opportunity to refuse.It sounds like a good read, I’ll definitely be picking up a copy from wherever one may be. It’s not too dissimilar to what I am trying to do, to be honest.


  2. a very public sociologist

    I’d agree with Rich. I tend not to read much sci-fi these days but it’s always good to keep your finger on the pulse, and there’s some really top notch stuff out there. Leftyblogland’s very own Ken MacLeod churns out politically engaged science fiction. Iain M. Banks offers a vision of transgalactic turbocharged communism, and for sci-fi set in the context of multi-stellar capitalism, Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy and Commonwealth Saga is intelligent, high concept and supremely entertaining.I’ll take my geek hat off now.


  3. Emma

    I’m so glad you enjoyed The Dispossessed! LeGuin has been a favorite writer of mine since I first read the Earthsea trilogy as a child, and moves far beyond the typical science fiction genre. Have you read Orsinian Tales or the Wind’s Twelve Quarters? Her short stories are marvelous.


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