When Ursula K. Le Guin began writing science fiction in the 1960s, the genre was largely male-dominated and tended to focus more on technological speculation than the questions posed by the social sciences.
In works like The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and The Word for World is Forest (1972), Le Guin introduced a new anthropological sensibility to science fiction, giving far-reaching consideration to the ways in which societies organize themselves and determine their values.
One of the greatest novels from this period of Le Guin’s career is The Dispossessed (1974), a powerful book about the promise of utopia and the nature of time.
The Dispossessed takes place on the twin worlds of Anarres and Urras, which have radically different political systems.
On the lush planet Urras, various national governments compete for power. The most prominent state, A-Io, is a highly unequal capitalistic society; while the very rich enjoy an opulent consumer economy, most people live in poverty.
The desert planet Anarres, by contrast, is organized on anarchist lines, emphasizing shared decision-making and collective ownership of the world’s wealth. The people of Anarres enjoy a remarkable equality and personal freedom, but the planet’s limited resources mean that life on Anarres is often arduous; encroaching droughts are beginning to threaten its egalitarian way of life.
The book’s hero, Shevek, is a physicist from Anarres. His story is deftly structured: half of the book’s chapters detail his coming of age on Anarres and his work towards a new theoretical physics, and the other half follow his journey to A-Io, a journey that pushes against the norms and boundaries of both worlds.
Much of the pleasure of this book comes from Le Guin’s subtle observations about the differing ways of life on the two worlds. Yet the story itself is also gripping, and Le Guin’s prose has a memorable poetic beauty.
The Dispossessed is an intellectual adventure perfect for anyone who is about to embark upon one of their own.