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Literature: The Dispossessed

A 1974 Science Fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. Subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, it tells the story of Shevek, a brilliant physicist from the planet Anarres, traveling to the world of Urras to complete his work on the theory of time, which would make instantaneous interstellar communication possible. The planet Anarres, arid and barely habitable, was colonized by refugees from Urras who established an anarcho-syndicalist society there. Urras, by contrast, is a lush, rich world but the two superpowers on the planet, A-Io (capitalist) and Thu (state-socialist), are in a state of cold war. The even-numbered chapters describe Shevek and his family's life on Anarres while the odd-numbered chapters tell the story of his adventures on Urras.

As the story goes on, Shevek comes to realize that his society is beginning to stagnate and the 'permanent revolution' envisioned by its founders is grinding to a halt. Informal power structures are beginning to exist where there were none, an Obstructive Bureaucracy is starting to form, and some people are gradually falling into reactionary close-mindedness, traditionalism, and proto-nationalism. He and some of his friends form an initially-small movement, the 'Syndicate of Initiative', to try to keep their society true to its anti-authoritarian principles; Shevek eventually returns to his home at the end of the book to rejoin this movement, which turns out to have grown steadily in his absence.

The novel won both the Hugo and Nebula Award.

Tropes appearing in The Dispossessed:

  • Actual Pacifist: Shevek and most of the people of Anarres. A few of the more conservative elements of Anarresti politics are willing to resort to violence to crush dissent, even organizing an angry mob to attack Shevek at the beginning of the book; the mob fails to reach him but does kill an innocent port worker.
    • Anarres has a small military, simply known as 'Defense', which has access to weapons but has never had to use them; the only time Defense soldiers are directly seen in the story they are completely unarmed despite being on duty, and it's mentioned that Defense's main duty is keeping the old space fleet repaired and monitoring sensor stations.
  • All Nations Are Superpowers: Actually averted. Although most of Urras is covered by A-Io and Thu, Benbili is much smaller and a pawn in the Great Powers' games. (It's rather like Vietnam.) There are also a number of other nations on Urras, although only one other country is specifically named, and is mentioned only in passing.
  • All Planets Are Earthlike: Both of the double-planets of the Tau Ceti system have an atmosphere which supports human life, although Anarres is far less hospitable.
  • Anachronic Order: Sort of. The odd-numbered and even-numbered chapters are both linear, but they are interwoven in a rather interesting way, and the overall effect is similar to reading a book actually in anachronic order. See also In Medias Res.
  • Anarchy Is Chaos: Completely averted. One of the signs that the society on Anarres is beginning to stagnate is that the anarchists are developing an Obstructive Bureaucracy.
  • Armies Are Evil: Shevek delivers a blistering mental rant about the military after watching striking workers be massacred by A-Io's soldiers.
    Shevek: Atro had once explained to him how this was managed, how the sergeants could give the privates orders, how the lieutenants could give the privates and the sergeants orders, how the captains ...and so on and so on up to the generals, who could give everyone else orders and need take them from none, except the commander in chief. Shevek had listened with incredulous disgust. “You call that organization?” he had inquired. “You even call it discipline? But it is neither. It is a coercive mechanism of extraordinary inefficiency — a kind of seventh-millennium steam engine! With such a rigid and fragile structure what could be done that was worth doing?” This had given Atro a chance to argue the worth of warfare as the breeder of courage and manliness and the weeder-out of the unfit, but the very line of his argument had forced him to concede the effectiveness of guerrillas, organized from below, self-disciplined. “But that only works when the people think they're fighting for something of their own — you know, their homes, or some notion or other,” the old man had said. Shevek had dropped the argument. He now continued it, in the darkening basement among the stacked crates of unlabeled chemicals. He explained to Atro that he now understood why the army was organized as it was. It was indeed quite necessary. No rational form of organization would serve the purpose. He simply had not understood that the purpose was to enable men with machine guns to kill unarmed men and women easily and in great quantities when told to do so. Only he still could not see where courage, or manliness, or fitness entered in.
  • Bomb-Throwing Anarchists: Completely averted; the anarchists in this book are almost entirely pacifist.
  • Crapsack Only by Comparison: At the decrepit Earth embassy in A-Io, Shevek declares that Urras is surely "hell." The ambassador from Earth, which had recently suffered environmental collapse and the near-extinction of humanity, responds that to her, it seems like heaven. In fact, the whole point of the novel is examining "what is a Crapsack World? And what is a utopia?"
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Much as in real life, the various political ideologies of Tau Ceti's far left are represented by colored banners. Unlike in real life, the color of communism and socialism in Cetian culture is white, rather than red, and anarcho-syndicalism is represented by blue and green, instead of the red-and-black color scheme it has traditionally used in real life.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The women of Urras are shocked that the women of Anarres "don't shave". This refers not to legs-and-armpits but rather to heads.
  • Democracy Is Bad: Or rather, liberal, capitalist democracy is bad. So is statist, authoritarian socialism. And even democratic anarcho-syndicalism has its flaws. So...again, an Ambiguous Utopia.
  • Dirty Communists: The country of Thu is not shown in the same detail as A-Io, but is implied to be this. It's pretty clearly supposed to be a Fantasy Counterpart Culture of the USSR, as shown by its reference to being run by a "Central Presidium."
  • Eagleland: The republic of A-Io is an obvious stand-in.
  • Esperanto, the Universal Language: Earth's official language, while never actually named, is mentioned as being a constructed language and strongly implied to be Esperanto.
  • Expy: Laia Odo and her lover are very obvious stand-ins for the real-life historical figures Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, respectively (albeit with a few changes, such as this world's Berkman-equivalent being murdered by the government).
  • Family Versus Career: Shevek spends much of the book dealing with this dilemma; it's eventually solved for him when his career is effectively destroyed by a jealous senior academic, leaving 'family' as the only option. He ends up being quite happy with the way it turned out. This is also one of the few examples in fiction of a male character facing this dilemma.
  • Free-Love Future: It is mentioned that on Anarres people who aren't coupled frequently engage in one-night stands. Also, it is not uncommon for friends to have sex with each other to affirm their bond, though public make-out sessions are frowned upon. The main character Shevek has sex with his male friend, even though Shevek is not particularly attracted to him. That being said, there are strong hints that the most mature relationships are long-term and monogamous. Shevek himself is Happily Married in all but name with his partner Takver.
  • Founder of the Kingdom: Laia Aseio Odo for the Anarresti, sort of. She developed the social philosophy on which the Anarresti way of life is based, and the people revere her as their founder, but she did not actually live to see Anarres settled.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: Shevek eventually comes to realize that his society is starting to end up like this, and he must return to his planet in order to avert this - to force Anarresti society back onto the path the original revolutionaries envisioned. This particular book remains ambiguous on whether he succeeds or not, though a later book in the series subtly indicates that he did.
  • Gender Is No Object: Anarresti society practices complete gender equality. Women and men do the same labor, receive the same education, and are otherwise treated as the same by society. It's to the point that the protagonist is completely baffled by the idea of 'gender roles' when it is introduced to him, and finds the whole idea of sexism laughably silly...at first, anyway. Once he realizes it's not a joke, he rapidly switches from 'baffled and amused' to 'baffled and disgusted'.
  • Good Republic, Evil Empire: Averted, both are pretty bad places to live. Interestingly, Anarres also has a seamy side, one that LeGuin implies could slide into something just as bad or worse than A-Io or Thu...so yet again, ambiguous.
  • Historical In-Joke: A very subtle one - the 'Syndicate of Intiative' founded by Shevek and his friends is almost identical in form and function to the real-life FAI (Federation of Iberian Anarchists), an organization founded in Revolutionary Spain in the 1930s in order to keep the revolution on an anarchist track and oppose the development of authoritarian institutions. Another, slightly less subtle, one is that the color associated with communism in Cetian politics is white, a color strongly associated with right-wing anti-communist movements on Earth.
  • Human Aliens: Literally human, by way of Transplanted Humans. Cetians look somewhat different from Terrans due to millenia of divergent evolution but they're still close enough to be considered the same species.
  • In Medias Res: The first chapter of the book is chronologically the middle of the story; the penultimate chapter ends where the first one starts. See also Anachronic Order, above.
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: Shevek goes through a period of this in his early 20s, compounded by him coming up against the true power structure of his world. Eventually, he finds some friends and a romantic partner who can relate to him on his level.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: A-Io, the capitalist superpower on Urras, is shown as being rather morally ambiguous for the entire book - while there is a sharp class divide and the lower classes live in near-squalor, the middle and upper classes have it quite good, are free to speak their minds and exchange information, and seem quite happy. Additionally, while the government of A-Io does some questionable things, it never does anything outright evil... that is, before a coalition of Syndicalist and Socialist trade unions organize a massive general strike in the capitol; the government responds by slaughtering the completely non-violent assembled crowd with helicopter-mounted miniguns. There are so many dead, packed so close together, that the bodies can't even fall over.
  • La Résistance: Shevek eventually joins up with members of A-Io's Odonian movement and inadvertently inspires an anarcho-syndicalist uprising. It's genuinely inspiring, until the crowd is massacred. It's strongly implied that the initial uprising was just the beginning, and sporadic fighting continues right up to the end of the book.
  • Language Equals Thought: Pravic, the constructed language used on Anarres, is designed so as not to include any distinction between work and play (although there is a distinction between 'work I enjoy' and 'work I dislike'). Additionally, although there is a possessive, it's normally only used for clarity - children learn quickly to say "the hat I use" instead of "my hat" and so on.
  • The Last DJ: A theme that comes up a number of times in the book, which is understandable given its emphasis on the role of resisting conformity in genuine anarchism. Because Shevek refuses to play politics with influential Anarresti, he is unable to get a position equal to his talents. One of his friends has it worse; he is sent to a prison in all-but-name because he wrote plays that satirized the status quo.
  • Obstructive Bureaucracy: The Production and Distribution Coordination (PDC) has slowly developed into one.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: Played with. Anarres is pacifist, but they do maintain an armed defense force, and the society is neither perfect nor is it entirely peaceful - human beings are still human beings, and there are plenty of people who are possessed of prejudice, jealousy, ignorance, malice, or corruption, which occasionally results in small-scale violence.
  • Property of Love: Discussed. Naturally, this attitude is frowned upon on Anarres and and people don't openly refer to their partners as "mine", but a minor character brings up the idea that an attitude of possessiveness incompatible with Anarresti ideals is inherent in monogamy.
  • Space Cold War: On Urras between A-Io and Thu, and in real danger of going hot. Also a more subtle one between Anarres and Urras - both sides are very suspicious of each other and exist in a precarious state of armed mutual distrust, with peace only being maintained because the Urrasti consider it more economically advantageous to let the Annaresti mine the moon and then sell them the ore, than to take the moon for themselves and mine the ore directly.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: Shevek rapidly learns that Urrasti society is deeply sexist. Women in A-Io are not only not allowed to attend university, they aren't even allowed to set foot in an institute of higher education - and that's just the tip of one awful misogynist iceberg. Shevek, coming from a society with absolute gender equality, finds the whole thing repulsive; at the same time, his Urrasti minders find the idea of a society where women are allowed to get an education or have a career positively ridiculous.
  • Stripperiffic: The clothing worn by A-Io's upper class women would be this by Earth standards, although Cetian society has much different standards of modesty than Earth humans do.
  • Subspace Ansible: Shevek's General Theory of Time makes construction of one possible. (LeGuin is in fact the Trope Namer for Subspace Ansible, although the term first appeared in an earlier story set later in the same universe.)

The Devil's ArithmeticSchool Study MediaDon Quixote
Technic HistoryHugo AwardThe Mote in God's Eye
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the SoulScience Fiction LiteratureDivergent
The Dice ManLiterature of the 1970sThe Diviners 1974
Time Enough for LoveNebula AwardThe Forever War

alternative title(s): The Dispossessed
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