Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Review - The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed
by Ursula K. Le Guin
1975 Hugo Winner for Best Novel
1974 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

So I went into The Left Hand of Darkness expecting to dislike it. After all Le Guin is a highly political writer and I personally dislike her politics and The Left Hand of Darkness had a reputation for being a big "important" novel ("important" being a term that can usually be interchanged with "preachy" and "pretentious"). Strong writing and a richly textured world overcame my prejudices (even if I didn't find it important) but then there's The Dispossessed, the other of Le Guin's "important" novels. Surely I'll hate a novel in which Le Guin tells the reader repeatedly how magically perfect a society without the concept of property is while capitalists are vile, evil worms.

And I was wrong again.

The Dispossessed is a wonderful novel with a real strength of characterization and a very complex pair of societies. One, Urras is fairly analogous to the United States while the other, Anarres, is a communist anarchy, they have no concept of property or almost no overarching central authority. The Anarrians shun any concept of ego or self; not even their names are their own as they are chosen randomly by computer and reused once they die.

Shevek is a scientist from Anarres and he has developed a theory along the lines of quantum physics that will radically overturn huge portions of accepted science. He finds that his work is being repressed by a scientist who manages the distribution of the limited resources available. Shevek choses to leave be the first person to leave his world for its neighbor Urras where he hopes to find the freedom to continue but quickly discovers that he has to produce results for someone. The culture shock crushes his abilities and eventually he choses to return home in order to finish his work and try to move his society back toward its ideal.

The novel is told in alternating chapters starting with the present day Shevek trying to deal with a society that has property and then flashing back to his life on Anarres which eventually brings him to leave it behind. It's a disorientating technique but one that really serves to draw the reader in to Shevek's life.

The real strength of the novel is in it's depiction of Anarres and Shevek coming to grasp the problems with his homeland. The country is an anarchy that has descended into a kind of social totalitarianism. They're blind to their own faults because of those social structures and suppress anyone who could suggest that there may be a problem. If a member of the society dares to point out that one of those who have gained a measure of power through popularity then the society viciously turns against them attacking them for having a perceived ego. It's a communist country run by mob mentality and it's both terrifying and believable.

Le Guin isn't the only person in the seventies to write about "perfected" socialists states and it's a theme that I generally despise. Typically these books are about how wonderful life is without property and how everything manages to run itself just fine with everyone being nice to each other. This is usually peppered with preachy rants about how evil twentieth century capitalists or their stand-ins were (funnily enough you don't see many of these books post Soviet collapse but there are exceptions). Le Guin at this point recognizes the real complexities with such a world view. The people in The Dispossessed are aliens so she can gloss over the issues of human nature but by building it around social pressures you can see how such a fanatical society would form and maintain itself.

From that starting point Le Guin builds a rich picture of her protagonist Shevek which propels the book forward. He doesn't set out to be a revolutionary but becomes one by default. He becomes the ideal form of the Anarres society holding up a mirror that shows their hypocrisy. He grows, forms a family, and questions his purpose and ideals in the face of societal pressures.

So once again Le Guin surprised me and brought in a good novel. In fact, let me revise that: this is a great novel. I'd mark this one down as one of the best Hugo winning novels simply because of it's rich structure and detailed examination of the societies while the compelling story of Shevek is just icing on the cake. This is a book not to miss.