“The Dispossessed” by Ursula le Guin

There’s a book on the politics of The Dispossessed which, if I get round to reading it, might help me think and write about that aspect of this novel.

In (that and) other respects it’s a very good book indeed, particularly in having a strong ending (precisely in that it isn’t, as in so many novels, a let down). It also shares the characteristics of very good novels in cleverly mirroring in its ideas the structure of its plot: the separations in space between Shevek and his wife, while both on Anarres, and that between Shevek while on Urras and Shevek on his home world, are paralleled by Shevek’s research into action-at-a-distance in Physics: his Principle of Simultaneity. With le Guin science fiction is properly fiction.

In some respects the novel shows its time: it’s clearly written in a post-hippy world, where the excitements of the Vietnam and civil rights protests have become the disillusion of the Cold War. That helps le Guin avoid trite one-sidedness: the interesting side to the book’s politics is the reader’s wavering sympathy between the two worlds’ political systems. Perhaps she is expressing her own development from sixties to seventies, and asking us to share in her journey? But it’s not a journey, in that she doesn’t want us to end up contented with the later, latter, position, but to be genuinely unsure, convinced of the rightness, and feasibility, of Anarres’ anarchy, yet simultaneously knowing its limitations, of the greater achievements possible in a less egalitarian system. This can be illustrated by an example of an area of life not obviously political, and even more personal – sexual mores.
The free love among the young on Anarres, so genuinely and authorially celebrated in the accounts of Shevek’s youth, contradicts so strongly with the (equally authorial) musings by Shevek in Chapter 10 (p. 275 in the 1999 Millennium edition)

The variety-seeking of the spectator, the thrill-hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not a journey and return, but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.

Here Shevek is with his wife Takver, reflecting on the length and strength of their relationship. With sex, le Guin seems to be saying that youth and age are best suited by opposed but equally valid moralities; with politics, although the two opposed systems come from le Guin’s youth and (relative) age, there’s no such simple answer.

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