Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Dispossessed

Prisons. Possessions. Time. Sequence and Simultaneity. Circular and Linear Time. The Individual and Society. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin won the 1975 Hugo, 1975 Locus Science Fiction, and 1974 Nebula awards. I found it a relatively quiet, gentle novel that left me thinking about societal structures and individuals.

Briefly, the novel tells the story of Shevek, a brilliant physicist, who attempts to embody in his life the philosophy of Odo—the founder of his home-world. Like an Einstein, Shevek is the process of developing a theory that has the potential to revolutionize physics and spur new technologies. He lives on Annarres, a barely inhabitable, mining world—it was never clear to me whether this was a twin planet or a moon—settled by anarchists who rebelled against the government of Urras. Annarres has a relatively Socialist and Libertarian society and is isolated from Urras and other worlds. In contrast, Urras is what the people of Annarres call Propertarian—Capitalist. The people of Annarres find Shevek’s ideas “unuseful”, first discouraging him and then becoming openly hostile towards him and his family. His thinking challenges their set ways of thinking. The government of Urras, on the other hand, embraces Shevek’s ideas as a way to create technology that will give them a competitive advantage over other worlds and create profit. The book weaves the stories of Shevek’s life on Annarres and on Urras.

The Dispossessed is a wonder title for the book. It reminds me of the Taoist principle of trying to live each day open handed, not trying to hold anything or experience. Shevek has no physical possessions and doesn’t even have a society to which he belongs. At some point I would like to reread the book and find all the bits of wisdom attributed to the fictional philosopher Odo. The book infers that both the philosophies of Annarres and Urras have their benefits and their drawbacks. Despite being written over 35 years ago, The Dispossessed is still relevant today. This is a good book for readers who are feeling disillusioned about society.

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