The Dispossessed

Posted by : atcampbell | On : October 5, 2009

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

This meeting at the North Village Library drew nine attendees. Our topic was The Dispossessed, a classic 1974 utopia novel set on the twin planets of Anarres and Urras. Eight of us had read Le Guin before. All started the book, and seven finished it.

Many of us thought this book was slow and difficult to read initially. One reader found the writing dense and the story hard to get into, and she had to set page reading quotas for herself. Another felt many of the transitions were jarring, particularly with flashbacks. A third commented that the slow pace and unlikeable main character were disappointing, and he would have given up after 50 pages if the book had not won so many awards.

One reader felt the writing was immaculate and worldbuilding was excellent. He did not think either society depicted in this book could work in reality. He enjoyed the problems the author posed and felt these societies gave her an interesting way to examine them.

One person said this was a “pure idea book.” Another said that this book did not contain enough action for his taste; he felt that little happened, and “ideas were beaten to death. Yet another commented that it felt like a book of The Sixties.

It was noted that this book is a member of a rare sf subgenre, which examines the effects of language on society and society on language. It deals with interesting ideas like “How do you swear with no religion and where sex is not dirty?” Among the few other books in this subgenre is Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany.

A reader was pleasantly surprised by how well this book still holds up after thirty-five years. She is still interested in the ideas covered in The Dispossessed. She does not find the societies to be utopias, since they are both hard to get along in.

We discussed how the societies in this book reminded us of things we’d seen elsewhere. One member thought the lunar society was patterned after an Israeli kibbutz. Another felt that it was reminiscent of Cold War Russia. Another felt the society on one planet inspired the Centauri world on Babylon 5.

One person thought the first 150 pages of this book were a complete slog, but he ended up enjoying the book. He felt the concept was simple: whatever system you set up, people will try to game it. He felt that Shevek was an ingrate. He could not publish in his society and was not treated well, so he left. The next place he went treated him well, but he did not give his invention to them. Instead, he gave it to aliens he hardly knew.

A member commented that the main character in Le Guin novels is always atypical for a sf hero: contemplative, and out of step with their society. Another said that Shevek reminds him of Gulliver.

One longtime Le Guin fan discussed how the writer’s world view was informed by anthropology, which was her father’s profession and her own. He felt the depiction of Shevek’s life reminded him of real physicists like the secretive Isaac Newton. He said that Shevek is a lens to see the two societies, and these societies provide a lens through which we see characters.

Near the end of the meeting, it was noted that this book defeated The Mote in God’s Eye for the Hugo award. We had an enthusiastic discussion about which should have won, with defenders for both books. After we concluded, we had a nice dinner at Waterloo Ice House.

—A. T. Campbell, III