Wednesday Book Club: The Dispossessed

Wednesday, 15 October 2008 — 3:29am | Book Club, Literature, Science

This week’s selection: The Dispossessed (1974) by Ursula K. Le Guin.

In brief: A straight-up Cold War allegory constructed as an offshoot of an added twist—the arrival of a revolutionary theoretical physicist from an isolated anarcho-communist moon colony—makes for an outstanding novel of political philosophy that examines not only the relationship between the individual and the state, but also the effect of the state on the advancement of science. We often think of science fiction as an investigation of how science reshapes society; Le Guin’s opus begs us to consider the reverse.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Dispossessed, keep reading below.)


Here’s the rundown: a dozen light-years away in Tau Ceti, there’s a planet called Urras and a moon called Anarres. Or maybe there’s a moon called Urras and a planet called Anarres, but Anarres was uninhabited until it was colonized by people from Urras, so by convention we’ll refer to Anarres as the moonish one of the two.

Urras is a wealthy, prosperous, and mostly harmless sphere—at least, we think so, from what we see of it through the superpower of “A-Io”, a “propertarian” country stratified in every which way. A-Io is embroiled in a cold war with the country of Thu, which aborted its socialist revolution somewhere in the authoritarian phase, though we don’t hear much about that: being run by civilized men, A-Io and Thu prefer to duke it out over collapsing puppet regimes on the other side of the world like the one in Benbili.

Anarres, on the other hand, is a poor but sustainable anarcho-communist utopia of religious exiles where nobody owns anything, people are assigned labour according to need, and the political process is entirely syndical. In their consciously designed language—think Esperanto—it’s “the mother”, never “my mother”.

Still with me?

The Dispossessed opens with the departure of Shevek (just “Shevek”—not “Dr. Shevek”), an Anarresti physicist bound for Urras—the first envoy from Anarres since the establishment and seclusion of its religious society. Successive chapters alternate between Shevek’s life on Anarres leading up to his departure and his visit to the country of A-Io on Urras. The chapter structure is important, as it reflects the core of Shevek’s scientific theory, which is actually a sort of phenomenology with equations: while the dominant paradigm on both worlds is the Sequency model of causality, Shevek develops a unified theory that reconciles Sequency with Simultaneity, a conception of time that has fallen into disfavour. Think of him as a cross between Einstein and Heidegger. Or maybe not; your head might explode.


Shevek is perfectly positioned to be the hero of a story of disillusionment and dispossession because of his profound sense of alienation from both worlds. Anarres suffers from the critical flaw endemic in all collectivist societies—the exclusion of exceptional individuals and the suppression of their ideas not by any central elite, but by the community acting in the capacity of a de facto central authority. This is not good news for Shevek, whose ideas cannot see publication, let alone distribution to the scientific establishment on Urras, without the approval of a parasitic supervisor who redacts and claims co-publication credit on everything Shevek produces so as to ascribe to the Sequentist orthodoxy.

Le Guin asks us to suppose that an anarchist commune can indeed survive for two centuries, and her conclusion is that hypocrisy and corruption are inherent in the system. Systems of human attachment like monogamy necessarily involve property-oriented thinking, and the separation of families through labour division has a poisonous effect. And for a society that prides itself on never distinguishing between comfortable white-collar jobs and blue-collar hard labour, cycling its citizens through the latter in a constant rotation, it sure is curious how persons of a dissident bent keep getting sent to the mines as punishment.

Reading The Dispossessed, I am inclined to believe that a truly communist novel is a conceptual impossibility. At its utopian asymptote, communism not only supposes an end of history, but also runs counter to literature’s whole notion of the Character as the atomic origin of action. Certainly we see a lot of ensemble pieces come out of places in the world with a strong communitarian tradition, especially in the postcolonial fiction of former British holdings that have some reconciling to do with the conceptual legacy of ownership and capital, but novels of the community ultimately end up being novels about the community’s characters. And a character, as an element of the foreground, by definition stands apart from his or her peers.

There are no heroes on Anarres, lest you count Odo, the founder of the anti-propertarian doctrine that governs Anarresti society, who is revered as more of a Buddha-figure than a human being proper. Yet there is no question that Shevek is a hero in the classical mode of the Quest: by daring to set foot across the threshold that separates Urras from Anarres, he is a traitor to his community. As for why he makes that decision at all—well, that’s the narrative arc of the Anarres half of the book.

What about Urras?

To map Urras directly to late-twentieth-century America would be misleading; The Dispossessed precedes the roaring laissez-faire of Reaganomics by several years, and Urrasti society’s latent sexism is more reflective of the industrial era in nineteenth-century Europe. The most overt allegory is the satellite war between A-Io and Thu in Benbili (read: United States, Soviet Union, Vietnam), which comes packaged with the surrounding constellation of domestic controversies, like the disproportionate conscription of the underprivileged into military service. As a distinguished visitor, Shevek sees little outside the bubble provided by his prosperous hosts, and one of the central curiosities in the Urrasti half of the story is where the planet hides all of its poor people.

So far, I’ve made it sound like The Dispossessed is a hypothetical clash of capitalism and communism at their most extreme, and no more. What makes the novel compelling is that it explores the ramifications of this philosophical conflict with respect to science. While Shevek can’t see publication as an independent thinker on Anarres due to the intervention of the syndicates (and the individuals who exploit them), he discovers an equal dissatisfaction with the handling of intellectual property on Urras. How cognisant of Le Guin to forecast our contemporary crisis of IP law over the open access to information: in A-Io, a scientific discovery is something to retain as an instrument of power, a source of competitive advantage over others. If knowledge is power, there exists a Will to Knowledge.


Arguments in political philosophy fundamentally come down to disagreements over human nature. Where do we sit on the axis from Hobbes to Locke? Are we selfish savages, or is it in our character to share? Are we good or bad? And ultimately, do we need a state?

If The Dispossessed is to be believed, there is no universal human nature at the root of all forms of governance. Instead, it is governance that shapes human nature and its relationship to power. Shevek’s disillusionment with Urrasti society is in large part a product of his cultural conditioning in Anarres: brought up in a world where it is contrary to nature to own things or to have something that another has not, Urras can only be foreign to him. Shevek may be an outsider on Anarres, but he will always call it home.

Like The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed is one of the standalone novels that constitute Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. In the Hainish Cycle, humans are colonial descendants of an ur-human race that spread itself throughout the galaxy long ago, and is only now reuniting thanks to advancements in interstellar travel and communication. (Today’s audiences may be familiar with an iteration of this story called Battlestar Galactica.) This permits Le Guin to explore other humanities that are biologically similar to our own, but socially disparate as a result of adaptation to their respective environments. This way, her novels can ask hard questions about what is essential to humanity and what is merely constructed—all without having to mess around with inventing biologically improbable notions of alien intelligences vaster than our own.

I must also draw attention to the logical gesture in Le Guin’s political causality: that, as I said before, forms of government determine human nature as much, if not more so, than human nature determines forms of government. Urras operates on a belief in an intractable will to power because its people live in a political reality constructed around a race to the top. Anarres sustains itself as a stable anarchy because of its foundations in a belief that stripping away all hierarchies of ownership leaves us with a community of people free and willing to share. (The trenchant Nietzschean rebuttal, which one character voices, is that Anarres has simply absorbed all oppressive superstructures of bureaucracy into a deep, internalized shame in the face of the majority’s tyrannical ressentiment. One fears not a state, but the judgment of one’s peers.)

The reversal of our ordinary presumptions of cause and effect has a greater thematic resonance with the novel’s imagined science. As my regular readers are aware, one of the things I prize the most about art in any medium is the complex interaction of form and content. It speaks volumes for Le Guin’s finesse as a narrative architect that she is able to invert conventional causalities and string them around a protagonist whose research interest is in causality itself. I have already spoken of the pattern of chapters that alternate between past and present, and how it mirrors Shevek’s endeavour to reconcile Sequency with Simultaneity; equally pertinent is Le Guin’s study of how all political systems perpetuate their own justifications.


One might ask how either A-Io or Anarres can plausibly survive at all when the economic underpinnings of their respective governments are so extreme, and how they made it as far as the story of The Dispossessed to begin with. But that would miss the point. What Le Guin is doing is advancing the stable existence of hypercommunist anarchism and hypercapitalist “archism” as hypotheses, and extrapolating the consequences of their meeting.

This is made abundantly clear when Le Guin examines the process of scientific thought. It takes a leap of invention to imagine a theory at all: the hypothesis precedes the mathematical proof, which then faces the test of empirical observation. Shevek is stuck in a rut for most of the story because he expects to justify every step along the way to his unified theory:

He had been groping and grabbing after certainty, as if it were something he could possess. He had been demanding a security, a guarantee, which is not granted, and which, if granted, would become a prison. By simply assuming the validity of real coexistence he was left free to use the lovely geometries of relativity; and then it would be possible to go ahead. […] The wall was down. The vision was both clear and whole. What he saw was simple, simpler than anything else. It was simplicity: and contained in it all complexity, all promise. It was revelation. It was the way clear, the way home, the light.

The excerpt above comes from a passage, several pages in length, that may well be the best account of scientific epiphany I’ve ever read in fiction. Observe the musicality of its construction, the way it evokes the motifs that run throughout the book and tie it together—words like “possess”, “prison”, “wall”, and “home”. Physics is a process of reconciliation, of tearing down walls: mathematics is tautological by nature, but in order to squeeze out its theories, one must accept its axioms as reasonable abstractions and worry about corresponding to reality later.

The inspiration for Shevek’s moment of understanding is a work from a distant alien civilization of humans descended from Hain—some place called Terra that came up with the theory of Relativity. From earlier in the same passage:

He thought about the book. He could not state clearly to himself what, exactly, he had found so stimulating about it. Most of the physics in it was, after all, outdated; the methods were cumbersome, and the alien attitude sometimes quite disagreeable. The Terrans had been intellectual imperialists, jealous wall builders. Even Ainestain, the originator of the theory, had felt compelled to give warning that his physics embraced no mode but the physical and should not be taken as implying the metaphysical, the philosophical, or the ethical. Which, of course, was superficially true; and yet he had used number, the bridge between the rational and the perceived, between psyche and matter, “Number the Indisputable,” as the ancient founders of the Noble Science had called it. To employ mathematics in this sense was to employ the mode that preceded and led to all other modes. Ainestain had known that; with endearing caution he had admitted that he believed his physics did, indeed, describe reality.

The sci-fi gambit here is that the phenomena we consider metaphysical—Being and Time, as Heidegger would have it—are subject to numerical representation at all. Le Guin asks us to suspend belief and open ourselves to the ambition of her imagined physics, and it lays the groundwork for the grandest unified theory of all—the structural homomorphism of scientific and political philosophy. In other words, Knowledge and Power.


As you have no doubt gathered by now, The Dispossessed is an immensely clever book, a rare sci-fi novel where science is the effect, not the cause (and there we are again with the intricate thematic architecture). However, it is not without its quirks and frustrations.

First, we only get a small window into the specifics of what Sequency and Simultaneity are all about; most of what we know are inferred from their names and their consequences. It is implied on more than one occasion that the flaw in the Sequentist model of causality is that it has no way of accounting for Zeno’s Paradoxes of Motion, suggesting that Sequency breaks down the flow of time into a discrete chain of events. When the young schoolboy Shevek alludes to the arrow paradox—can a projectile ever hit its target if it must always pass into a position closer to but not touching its target?—the reader is told that he means it as an obvious joke that nobody seems to get; but later, serious mentions crop up in relation to temporal physics (“you are throwing a rock at a tree, and if you are a Simultanist the rock has already hit the tree, and if you are a Sequentist it never can”).

Yet for anybody to be considering Zeno’s paradoxes with anything resembling seriousness requires the absence of a continuous mathematics as opposed to a discrete one, something which is definitely sequential and not simultaneous in any sense I can imagine. I know I said earlier that the manner in which Urras and Anarres got where they were is irrelevant to the story, but I can’t imagine that Urras would ever have gotten as far as colonizing another stellar body without a well-developed calculus.

Second, the linguistics in The Dispossessed adhere to a Whorfian model that is inconsistently applied. Pravic, the Esperanto-like language spoken on Anarres, was planned and designed to fit the needs of a communist utopia where property and class do not exist. Le Guin’s presentation of this is quite elegant: she “translates” the disparities between Pravic and Iotic (the language spoken in A-Io on Urras), along with the occasional code-switching, into English analogues—thereby avoiding the indulgent trap of science fiction and fantasy that Randall Munroe so helpfully illustrates:

Here’s an example from a news broadcast on Anarres:

“A famine in Bachifoil Province in the Nation of Thu,” the commenter’s voice had said. “Bodies of children dead from starvation and disease are burned on the beaches. On the beaches of Tius, seven hundred kilometers away in the Nation of A-Io (and here came the jeweled navels), women kept for the sexual use of male members of the propertied class (the Iotic words were used, as there was no equivalent for either word in Pravic) lie on the sand all day until dinner is served to them by the unpropertied class.”

Then how come the infant Shevek, who has almost certainly had little exposure to anything but Pravic at that early, diaper-soiling age, is able to earn a scolding by shoving another kid out of his warm patch of sunlight and declaring, “Mine sun!”? Where would he get the word “mine”—and indeed, why does Pravic have possessive pronouns at all when it discourages their use (again: the mother, not my mother)?

Perhaps Le Guin presents this as an intentional design flaw; after all, people are still the atomic units of a community, and they couldn’t get very far without referring to their own body parts, or their sense of self, without recourse to the word “mine”. Or maybe we are asked to suspend belief here, as we do when Le Guin “translates” Pravic and Iotic alike into English. The problem that Pravic can’t seem to get around is the dynamism of language change: a language intelligently designed from the ground up is not a static edifice, but a starting point for further evolution, and code-switching into Iotic is one of many factors that could motivate the corruption of the language with “propertarian” words excluded from the original construction.

I do not find it plausible that Pravic would leave ownership and possession embedded in its very syntax and merely discourage their invocation. But I would find it even less plausible for Pravic, and Anarres as a whole, to subsist in perfect isolation free of propertarian influence from without and within. So maybe we can look at its precarious stability as yet another instance of the book’s enduring image of walls that crumble, but stand as tall as ever in our heads.

To quote the opening lines:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real.


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4 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: The Dispossessed

  1. I barely remember reading this one. I should reread it sometime, once I get it back from the friend I lent it to! ūüôā

    Thursday, 16 October 2008 at 11:44pm

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