I came to Ursula Le Guin’s work, as did many, via Earthsea – light but deep YA fantasy. The Dispossessed is the other side of Le Guin – deep, dense, intellectual science fiction focused on social issues and human nature.
I hadn’t read this book for decades, but after spending what seemed an endless period in Phillip Jose Farmer’s adventure pulp Tiers series, I felt I owed myself something a little more thoughtful (and better written). The Dispossessed was a good fit.
I’m sure I got more out of the book this time around. I was young when I read it last, and I recall thinking it was well written and interesting, but slow. Then, I was a budding scientist. Now, I work on governance issues. But my first judgment is still correct – it is well written and interesting, but it is slow. It’s just that now I’m a little more patient, a little more interested in pondering, and I look at things from a different point of view.
The Dispossessed is a masterful thought experiment – to see how anarchy might work out in practice (not entirely anarchic) and how an established mostly-anarchic culture might interact with a mostly-capitalist one. Le Guin has done an excellent job with pretty dry material. There are no clear blacks or whites, though Shevek, the protagonist, is sympathetic and largely on the side of good. Le Guin acknowledges the shortcomings of both sides, and if she has a clear inclination toward one side, it’s not at such an angle that she can’t see the other. This is the kind of book that gives science fiction a good name – it’s intelligent and thoughtful, and it genuinely introduces and explores an idea.
That’s not to say it’s all rainbows and puppies. As with Anarres, the anarchists’ world, it’s dusty and convoluted in places. Le Guin’s sequencing could do with clearer time stamps.The pace, as noted, is slow. And while she purports to set out a world in which gender is not determinative of role, she can’t quite get away from stereotypes. For a book written during the disruptive, freedom-seeking early ’70s, that’s disappointing. But it’s heavily outweighed by the strengths of the book.
Overall, The Dispossessed is a remarkable achievement, and well-deserving its status as a classic of science fiction. If you haven’t read it, you should – and not in the ‘Oh, it’s a dull classic, but I have to read it’ sense, but because it’s a genuinely good book. Just have some patience with it, and it will reward you.