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Literature / The Dispossessed

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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 Awards.

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. However, despite being kleggich, or a job so dull it's called drudgery instead of work, being a member of Defense is considered so prestigious (it's ostensibly Anarres's shield against Urras, after all) that it needs a waitlist to handle all the volunteers.
  • 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. Ironically, Earth itself is described in the story as mostly desert and barely habitable after centuries of ecological devastation.
  • 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 becoming conformist and 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.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Despite being not-quite Human Aliens who have not shared a biosphere with Earth for a couple of million years, the Cetians have measles - or rather, Urras does and Anarres no longer does, so Shevek needs to get vaccinated before he can travel to Urras. But measles only appeared on Earth about a thousand years ago.
  • Bald Mystic: It's fashionable in A-Io for women to shave their heads (and faces; Cetians are mentioned here and in "The Shobies' Story" to have sparse but noticeable fur).
    • Deliberately inverted by Laia Asieo Odo, who led the anarcho-socialist pacifist movement that was exiled from Urras to Anarres centuries before the main story. She and the women among her followers refused to shave their heads and were slurred as "longhairs". Does this remind you of anything?
  • 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?"
  • Cross-Cultural Kerfluffle: Happens a few times, of course, but the worst is when Shevek and an A-Io woman decide to have sex in a side room at a party. Their differing cultural attitudes towards sex and foreplay (further impaired by alcohol) nearly turns it into an assault before Shevek realizes what's happening and backs off.
  • 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.
  • Conlang: In-universe, Pravic was created by the Odonians to invoke Language Equals Thought. Possessives are only used for clarity, there are no curses because it lacks sexual or religious taboos, and there's no distinction between work and play. As time went on, it evolved: the word kleggich, roughly meaning drudgery, is used for work that is necessary but so miserable it can't be mistaken for play, and curses are either Fantastic Slurs or loanwords from Urrasti languages.
  • Dead Guy Junior: All citizens of Anarres are given unique five to six letter names to make it easier for computers to track them, with names being reused as soon as the person passes on. Shevek's name was first used by an agricultural engineer among the first colonists.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The women of Urras are shocked that the women of Anarres "don't shave". This refers not primarily to legs-and-armpits (or even pubic hair) but rather to heads.
  • Democracy Is Bad: Or rather, capitalist, oligarchic democracy is bad. So is statist, authoritarian socialism. And even democratic anarcho-syndicalism has its flaws. So... again, an Ambiguous Utopia.
  • Determinator: Neither isolation nor creative block nor public backlash nor famine nor exile is going to stop Shevek from figuring out Simultaneity.
  • 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" and its claim of being born from the same revolutionary, socialist Odonian ideals as Anarres.
  • Eagleland: The republic of A-Io is an obvious stand-in.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: After spending decades struggling to reconcile the theory of Sequency (temporal physics where one thing happens after another), and Simultaneity (temporal physics where time is understood as a whole) and running into dead end after dead end, Shevek eventually realizes that if he treats the equation he's been trying to solve as unprovable and comes at it from a different angle, he's able to form the General Theory of Time.
  • 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.
    • Shevek speculates that the way jobs are distributed uses this as a way of discriminating against partnered couples, especially skilled workers, because you can either do the job you are passionate about, or live in the same settlement as your partner and/or children, but not usually both. As Shevek is a physicist and Takver is a fisheries biologist, this is a recurring problem for them.
  • Fantastic Slurs: Annarresti use the terms "propertarian" (basically, capitalist), "profiteering" and "egoist" (self-, as opposed to community-focused) as terms of general abuse.
  • Free-Love Future: It is mentioned that on Anarres people who aren't coupled frequently engage in one-night stands, and everyone is open about their sexual orientation. 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 (Shevek compares foreplay before unmated people to eating in front of hungry people). The main character Shevek has sex with his male friend, even though Shevek is by his own account “pretty definitely heterosexual”, because he knows it would mean a lot to the “pretty definitely homosexual” friend. 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-Blender Name: Discussed. Anarresti names are handed out regardless of gender. An A-Io woman finds this hilarious and wonders how you can tell men and women apart there, while Shevek doesn't know what the big deal is.
  • 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."
  • Gilded Cage: For most of his stay on A-Io, Shevek is kept in the university which seems to be a demonstration of the best parts of their society. Whenever he asks to go out and explore, he is given extensive tours by his guides, which show that even lower class people are happy and well off. However, he eventually figures out that he can't truly go where he pleases and that he's been shown a very skewed version of A-Io, and eventually has a servant smuggle him out and show him the countless people suffering in squalor. And then when he decides to unite with trade unions and speak at a general strike, the facade drops entirely and we learn why A-Io seems so clean and prosperous: it massacres anyone who says otherwise.
  • 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 Initiative 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 millennia of divergent evolution (for one, there's a layer of thin hair over their bodies) 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.
  • Information Wants to Be Free: Shevek eventually figures out how to make the Subspace Ansible work, but quickly realizes that A-Io will keep the theory to themselves to profit from it rather than letting the whole of humanity advance. He eventually gives it to the Terran ambassador, on the condition that it be spread across all of the Hainish systems, and later books indicate that this is the case.
  • 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 a distinction eventually evolved 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. Subverted in that while it does have words for things that don't exist on Anarres such as crime, jails, and private property so they can teach history, this doesn't mean the inhabitants actually understand said concepts, and the contrast being reading something in a book and seeing it at work is the source of most of Shevek's troubles.
  • 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.
  • Libertarians IN SPACE!: Sort of an upside-down version of Heinlein's trope-codifier The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Instead of being about someone who hatches a revolution for a lunar penal colony to achieve independence from the planet it orbits, it's about a pacifist descendant of a revolution that already succeeded trying to break down the barriers between the moon he was born on and the planet its inhabitants originally came from (which he considers a way of the necessary continuing of revolution). In both cases the moon is ultimately tolerated as long as it continues exporting resources to the larger civilization it orbits, but the pacifist Odonians didn't have to wage a war and reject ideas of property & marriage Heinlein wanted his Loonies to exemplify.
  • Liberty Over Prosperity: The settlers of Anarres chose to live on a barren, barely habitable planet so they can form a society where everyone is radically free.
  • Loophole Abuse: How the Obstructive Bureaucracy manages to work even through the anarchist structure. While there is no central government and important syndicate positions are shuffled regularly so no one holds power for too long, custom is used to shame people into conformity, and minor, supposedly nonimportant positions can slip under the radar. For example, Shevek's rival in physics uses his position at the PDC as a "physics consultant" to control what research gets published and squash competing scholars.
  • Missing Mom: Shevek's mother leaves Shevek and his father when Shevek is two years old, and Shevek only meets her essentially by chance when he's around age 20. Although this is accepted practice in Annaresti society, Shevek never really forgives her for it.
  • Measuring the Marigolds: Averted. Shevek's study of physics is portrayed as beautiful, philosophical, and artistic, with his search for the Grand Theory of Time being compared to an artist's search for his magnum opus. It is instead businessmen who are cut off from art and greater understanding, as they see no value in what they can't profit from.
  • Multipurpose Monocultured Crop: Since it is the easiest thing to grow on Annares, the Hollum plant is used to produce all textiles and paper products, as a food source, as a building material, and for a wide variety of other things.
  • Obstructive Bureaucracy: The Production and Distribution Coordination (PDC) has slowly developed into one.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Subverted. The people of Anarres have no organized religious institutions because they wanted to avoid a Corrupt Church, but many are still personally religious. One of Shevek's first interactions with an Urrasti to is laugh at his mistaking Shevek for an atheist.
  • 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.
    • The book begins with a crowd of protestors trying to stop Shevek from leaving Anarres for Urras. Some of them come with clubs and rocks. Shevek avoids injury, but the attackers kill another person in the crowd.
    • When the multi-year famine occurs, raids on supply trains become an occasional occurrence, as are the drivers of said trains running over said raiders, although both events are viewed by the Anarresti who talk about them as indicators of how desperate things have gotten.
  • Prequel: The short story "The Day Before The Revolution", published a few years later, details the day before the major revolution which led to Anarres being colonized, and what's heavily implied to be the last day in Laia Aseio Odo's life.
  • Property of Love: Discussed. Naturally, this attitude is frowned upon on Anarres 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.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: To Anthem by Ayn Rand. Like Prometheus, Shevek struggles with the pain of being a genius in a deeply communal society. He leaves that society and experiences capitalism for himself, rejects it, and chooses to return to Annaresti society to reform it.
  • 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.
  • Stealth Insult: When Shevek is excitedly speaking about the beauty and potential of Simultaneity physics, an A-Io businessman interrupts him and says that the only thing that matters is what profit can be made of it. Shevek calls him a profiteer, and he agrees, unaware that "profiteer" is one of the worst insults on Anarres.
  • 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.)
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome: Anarresti people who are extraordinary or unusual tend to get the cold shoulder from their peers. Much milder case than in sci-fi dystopias.