The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin)
The Dispossessed, a classic of dystopian sci-fi, explores the conflict between a class-based, capitalist society (Urras) and an anarcho-communist splinter settlement (Anarres). Anarres―a technologically advanced society with no central government, no legal system, and no private property―is conjured up with breathtaking attention to detail. How are benefits and responsibilities distributed without centralisation or the rule of law? How is opportunism prevented? How do education and employment work? Do sexism or homophobia exist? Are people actually happy? Le Guin has carefully thought about all of these questions (and many more) and answers them credibly, for the most part. The sociological scope of the book invites comparison to Tolkien and Frank Herbert.
The political battle between Anarres and Urras is personified by Shevek, a brilliant Anarri physicist who returns to the capitalist fold. Flashbacks to Shevek’s childhood highlight issues with Anarri society, e.g., the tyranny of custom and moral orthodoxy, the de facto government of apparatchiks, resource poverty, and a certain lack of glamour. But none of these is presented as a knock-down argument against the communitarian way of life. The chapters set in Urras are less ambiguous. Although Le Guin makes some effort at neutrality, we are, in the end, left with no doubt that Urras is founded on the moral evils of political oppression and class inequality. The physics is less convincing than the anthropology. A breakthrough in faster-than-light physics (specifically, the development of an ansible) is the novel’s main MacGuffin, but the scientific shop-talk is often implausible and embarrassing. There are capitalised neologisms and not enough real physics to stop them from looking like placeholders.
Still, despite a few minor blemishes, this novel represents science fiction at its best: a space where ideas can flourish without restriction.