Book Review: The Dispossessed – Science Fiction as Art


The DispossessedThe Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a time when I was burning through a book every three days, this one took a month to read. And deservedly so. The Dispossessed is not a “fun” book. It is a work of art, a brilliant display of social science fiction.

Every sentence is crafted so perfectly with Le Guin’s idea of morality in a fictional anarchy-communist utopia (which is then compared to a technocratic capitalist world). The Dispossessed reflects upon both a diversity and complexity of themes around science, politics, religion, time, human nature, yadayadaya. It’s not all in your face, and pokes you gently in as you follow Shevek’s journey through the utopian worlds.

What I liked

Content aside, I loved that…
  • Ideas are represented as a discussion rather than fact.
  • Book dialogue between intellectuals seems to be an outpouring of the points and counterpoints inside Le Guin’s mind.
  • The main character is sometimes wrong or flawed, but his thoughts are then supplemented those of his peers or intellectual enemies. 
And then the content is phenomenal. This book is not necessarily perfect”, but  it is absolutely special.

What you might not like

Of course, we already know that this novel is…

  • Slow, brooding, intellectual, etc so if you aren’t in the mood for that you’ll never finish.
  • I also wouldn’t say it is a satisfying” book.
  • If you have one scifi book to read, I wouldn’t read this to start off. Maybe I’d suggest Three Body Problem, Old Man’s War, or Snow Crash which are just as thought-provoking but much more fun.

Finally, there are several things to watch out for.

  • Commenters point out that Le Guin doesn’t really give a fair fight to capitalism and makes them look like quite a snobby, suspicious bunch.
  • Also, it still has some patriarchal overtones (published in 1974), and there is a sexual violence scene that is heavily debated.

In the end, its the quotes that I keep coming back to again and again. They are meaningful in their own right, but even more so in the context of The Dispossessed.

On suffering, pain, and brotherhood:

In an austere society anarchist society, pain and suffering is what makes the society work.

It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. 

On Pain:

“Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain.”

On possession and privacy

Privacy is something people have”, and thus don’t need.
…sexual privacy was freely available and socially expected; and beyond that privacy was not functional. It was excess, waste.
A goodreads review says it well  Possession isn’t just about capitalism and material goods. It’s more pervasive than that. Just think about how people refer to each other. My” son. My” girlfriend. My” mother.” When his wife is proud of him:
I confess to being proud of you. That’s strange, isn’t it? Unreasonable. Propertarian, even. As if you were something that belonged to me!

On freedom and promises in physics and society

What is freedom in a world where you have but one goal?
So he worked. He lost weight; he walked light on the earth. Lack of physical labor, lack of variety of occupation, lack of social and sexual intercourse, none of these appeared to him as lacks, but as freedom. He was the free man: he could do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it for as long as he wanted to do it. And he did. He worked. He work/played.
If a promise restricts your behavior, how can it be resolved with freedom?
though it might seem that her insistence on freedom to change would invalidate the idea of promise or vow, in fact the freedom made the promise meaningful.
How is a promise related to time and physics?
To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future.
(Full quote) How does ethics play into the causal reality of physics? 
“. . . chronosophy does involve ethics. Because our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just like saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.” 

On social behavior

On dealing with social outcasts in Annares (anarchist place)…
A person whose nature was genuinely unsociable had to get away from society and look after himself. He was completely free to do so. He could build himself a house wherever he liked (though if it spoiled a good view or a fertile bit of land he might find himself under heavy pressure from his neighbors to move elsewhere).
On being a potential social outcast:
“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
When discussing decision makers:
Intellectuals are always being led astray, because they think about irrelevant things like time and space and reality, things that have nothing to do with real life, so they are easily fooled by wicked deviationists.

On government

On revolution compared to capitalism (buying and making)
“You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”
As Shevek walks through a beautiful park with lovely trees:
Wasn’t all this extravagant foliage mere excess, excrement? Such trees couldn’t thrive without a rich soil, constant watering, much care. He disapproved of their lavishness, their thriftlessness.
In a social anarchy, customs rather than laws start to govern” behavior.
The only security we have is our neighbors’ approval. An archist can break a law and hope to get away unpunished, but you can’t break’ a custom;
On government and science:
“You put your petty miserable laws’ to protect wealth, your forces’ of guns and bombs, in the same sentence with the law of entropy and the force of gravity? I had thought better of your mind, Demaere!”
Snide and representative comments on freedom:
We have complete freedom of the press in A-Io, which inevitably means we get a lot of trash.
The Urrean (capitalist world) scientist’s view on Annares (anarchy world). In many ways he’s right.
The Odonian society called itself anarchistic, he said, but they were in fact mere primitive populists whose social order functioned without apparent government because there were so few of them and because they had no neighbor states.

On the meaning of life

When Shevek asks the Hanish commander(high tech civilization) why he wants to go to Annares (anarchy):
“My race is very old,” Ketho said. We have been civilized for a thousand millenia. We have histories of hundreds of those millenia. We have tried everything. Anarchism, with the rest. But I have not tried it. They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?” 
If you are into scifi, politics, science, anything, I wholeheartedly recommend The Dispossessed as a nice, slow, and thoughtful read.