The first of the February books was Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. I have read LeGuin before, but that was mostly the fantasy side of her (Earthsea series) although I do recall having read a book with short story sci-fi stuff too. Reading the back blurb I was immediately intrigued.
Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides 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, Urras, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.
I learned, from the Book Club Blog, that this book is part of the Hainish Cycle, a number of books LeGuin wrote featuring the same worlds. The different books are, as I read it, focusing on different planets and people and stuff, but the link between them is the world of Hain. They are also named in this book, but very much in the background. Wikipedia tells me that this book, in-book chronologically speaking, is the first (although not the first in publishing order), so it’s a nice introduction. I will definitely be reading more books in this series.
The book starts when Shevek starts his journey from Anarres to Urras. From that moment on, the book alternates chapters taking place in the present with Shevek on Urras with chapters detailing Shevek’s past and how he came to be where he is now, and who he is now. I tend to find this switching annoying, however in this book I really liked it. The alternating chapters gave each other a deeper meaning by providing a backstory to what is happening to Shevek in the present as he recalls certain times or events.
Shevek comes from the world Anarres, which is the moon of the planet Urras. The Anarresti left Urras about 200 years ago after an uprising against the economic and socio-political structure of the world at that time (patriarchal, capitalist). Founded as a world of anarchists, where there are no laws, everyone is equal and the guiding principle is to do what is best for all. After 200 years though, anarchism has evolved into a form of communism, where any form of ‘egoising’ is admonished. Personal property, for example, is virtually non-existant, and instead of saying ‘my book’ they would say ‘the book that I am using’. Shevek, and a small group of friends he collects through the years, begin to realise that the idealised anarcho-communism of their world is, in places, turning into an oligarchy, where the work placement committee is deciding what is best for the planet, and they don’t like to be defied. So, instead of posting people where they are best skilled for, dissidents get far out postings where they can be kept ‘harmless’.
Shevek, as a brilliant physicist who far surpasses any other scientist on Anarres, gets restless. After being exposed to Urrasti scientific ideas, he starts communicating with the homeplanet, and eventually realises he must go there. As the first Anarresti to leave the planet since his people came, he is both applauded (by his friends) and greatly reviled for doing this.
While growing up, Anarresti children learn that Urras is an immoral place, with an extravagant lifestyle and strict capitalism. When Shevek arrives, he is ushered to the University that invited him, shown to his fancy room, and introduced to the scientists he’s been corresponding with.
For a while everything is well, but then Shevek grows restless. Everything he’s being shown is so very nice. Everyone is cordial, he gets shown around all the pretty things. However, he never gets to see the people outside the University without supervision. And as he starts to realise this, he also realises he is being used. And instead of the universal theory he is developing benefitting everyone, they want to use it for themselves, to make a profit and to keep the other nations (and worlds) under control.
Shevek manages to escape from the University, and as he meets and interacts with the middle and lower classes he learns of their problems, and becomes, almost by accident, a frontman for their resistance and the core of people that want to follow the ideals of Odo, the founder of the Anarres way of life.
After a bloody rebellion, he learns there is no way that he can bring the change he wanted to these people, and he finds a safe haven in the Terran Embassy. As they prepare to bring him home, a Hainish crewman on the ship decides to go down to the planet with Shevek. To meet his people and learn of his world.
The book is, in terms of sci-fi, a softer version. Especially in the chapters taking place on Anarres, where the technology level is much lower in daily life due to scarcity of many resources. I liked how the sci-fi nature of the world building was subdued, it really let the intellectual exploration of all these different ideas (socio-economic systems, political systems, higher physics) come to the forefront. I found it to be a great book that really got me thinking. I’d been taught these systems in school, however, this was pretty rudimentary and dealt more with how these systems should be, ideally. I enjoyed the exploration on how these societies could develop and how the system would evolve.
I LOVED this book! This is the type of book that I enjoy greatly, especially in sci-fi and fantasy settings, where a culture that is (mostly) alien to us (being your everyday reader) gets an in-depth exploration. Other examples of this are Robert J. Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (of which I, regretfully, have so far only read the first book: Hominids) and Ken Macleod’s Learning the World.
Book Club Blog Review/Discussion
Pro: A thinking book.
Con: Not so much in the story itself, but it would have been nice to have it mentioned in the lists of other works and so, that this is part of a series of sorts.