Sunday, May 3, 2009 By: Suzanne

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decided to take action. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the Utopian mother planet, Annares to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.

Normally I don't start my reviews by posting the back of the book like this (instead I like to talk a little first) but I did it here to make a point. This is not at all what happens in the book. Sometimes I wonder if these blurbs are written by people who did not actually read the book. I was very confused for a long time by this statement because Shevek is FROM Annares and he is going TO another planet. This blurb also makes it look as if the hatred is from the outside. In a sense it is but the isolation on Annares is self imposed. They refuse any contact with other societies. Anyway, kind of irritating. It so rarely happens that the blurb is just WRONG but it seems to have happened in both this and The Ruins, which I reviewed the other day. Maybe I shouldn't put so much stock in the blurb of the book, but I do. It's what gets me interested in a book and I feel lost, it helps me get grounded in it again.

Shevek is a temporal physicist. He is seeking to prove a connection between "Sequency Theory" and "Simultaneity Theory." In layman's terms, he wants to prove that time is not sequential, that past, present, and future are all occurring at once and yet he believes there is still validity in the sequence that we experience. He has grown up in a pure socialist society. There is no government, no money-based economy, and people work in the jobs they want instead of have to. However, for a society like this to function, people must also do things for the good of the fellow man. Therefore, they have instituted the "ten-day work job." Apparently (I say that because it is never explained but implied) they use a ten day week. Once week, if possible, people leave their long-term jobs to work in other jobs that need doing - janitors, cooks, farming - whatever is not being covered. They also see this as a kind of break. They don't HAVE to do this, most people opt to do it so they can just break up the monotony of their lives. (There is an interesting moment when he meets a man from a country very similar to how the USSR was. He recognizes without ever having to go that this is not an actual "communist" society as they pretend since there a strict power structure that rules over everything). Unfortunately in this kind of society the will of your neighbors becomes a kind of law. If you don't do for "the good of social organism" you must be working solely for yourself, being an "egoist" as they call it. After many years, this has begun to form a type of government. Shevek is feeling strangled by it.

At the same time he has been offered a position to teach and share his physics with the people of the home world - Urras. This where the people of Annares came from. They were given the moon of Urras as a kind of bargaining chip. They were revolutionaries, socialists, working class people that weren't going to take it anymore. The governments of Urras offered to give them the Moon and let them build their own society according their non-rules. They never imagined it would actual become a success.

Now Shevek is learning all about the "profiteers" (what they call the people of Urras) and their system of only doing something for reward or profit, instead of for the good of society. There are two moments in his story that show the stark differences in the two worlds.

On Annares:
Letters went unsealed, not by law, of course, but by convention. Personal communication at long distance is costly in materials and labor, and since the private and public economy was the same, there was considerable feeling against unnecessary writing or calling. It was a trivial habit; it smacked of privatism, of egoizing. This was probably why the letter went unsealed: you had no right to ask people to carry a message that they couldn't read.
pg. 251

On Urras:
He went down to the basement door and tried it; it was locked. All doors were locked. Property was private.
pg. 303

The book is not told linearly. Obviously this is done on purpose to show how our lives are also not linear; to show that although the past is gone and the future is yet to come, we constantly live our lives with the past and future as a part of our present. There are moments in the beginning of the book when this makes a bit for a disjunct story. Just as you're getting into the story in one time, you're forced into the other and the momentum seems lost. Starting about the middle though, the two stories of Shevek's life come together in a way. He has faced this trouble before and gotten through it then. There is hope for the now. It also helps us see that his "Utopian" society is as perfect as Shevek believed. His moments of realization, both in his past on Annares and his present on Urras happen at virtually the same moment for the reader. It is very powerful.

This is the first book I've read by Le Guin and I was struck by her similarity to Ayn Rand. The writing style is that same stark harshness that can be off putting but keeps you coming back for more. Also, there are the contrasts between socialism and capitalism but obviously told from very different points of view. I am always in a weird state of mind after finishing an Ayn Rand book. I want to be out in the world trying to change the bad and influence the good. I want to tell the world about what's good and how the world should be. This book made me feel this way also.

There are a couple quotes from the book that I'd like to share. The first two come at the moment when Shevek begins to learn his home, as broken as he may have felt it was, is better than where he is now.

At the mills in Southwest Shevek had seen men hurt much worse than this in accidents and had learned that people may endure and survive incredibly much in way of gross injury and pain. But there they had been looked after.


"You are contemptible," Shevek said in Pravic to his companion. "You cannot keep doors open. You will never be free."

And this when he is becoming disenchanted with his own society.

...the social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience, instead of striking a balance with it. We don't cooperate - we obey. We fear being outcast, being called lazy, dysfunctional, egoizing. We fear our neighbor's opinion more than we respect out own freedom of choice.

A summary of Shevek:

Loyalty, which asserts the continuity of past and future, binding time into a whole, is the root of human strength; there is no good to be done without it.

In closing of the my review, I want to say that this book is exactly why I've stopped taking ARCs. I could talk all day about this book because I LOVED it. I'm writing for the joy of writing, not because I'm expected to. This book was published in 1974. Every review and literary paper that could be written on it, has been. I found an entire site devoted to dissecting this story. So what. I don't have to review something new for my review to be fresh and new.


Anonymous said...

This review was wonderful and it is obvious that you are happy to be reviewing books that you choose :)
The only book I've read by her was the one she wrote about writing and it was wonderful. I'll have to try some of her fiction soon.

Tonya said...

This was the first book I've read by her. I'm going to have to pick up more!