Dispossessed, The

by Ursula Le Guin

8/10 (Ideas subvert story)

At nearly 400 pages it’s still a quick read, with compelling characters and accessible writing. Le Guin does a good job of naturally weaving socio-political theory into the story. Though it’s a little clunky in parts (especially at the beginning), once you get into the flow all of the commentary seems quite smooth and organic. In this genre, the success of a book or author is usually determined by how well they can integrate their ideas with the narrative. In that sense, Le Guin mostly succeeds with Dispossessed.

Some of the ideas are dated, especially with the feminist commentary, but a lot of the political and ethical dilemmas are still relevant. I was impressed with the nuance with which Le Guin described each government. There was no monolithic “good” government doing battle with a uniformly “bad” one, although we are probably meant to believe that the Anarresti anarcho-syndicalism is more or less “better” than the Urraisti oligarchy. Still, the effort that Le Guin utilized to parse the disadvantages as well as the benefits of the Anarresti way of life was commendable. Her cautionary point on the tyranny of even a non-governmental society was important and well-taken.

Though I respect the book and quite enjoyed it, it seems fundamentally flawed in that not much actually happened. In other words, Le Guin inappropriately subordinated the narrative to her ideas. Most events take place in flashbacks, and even the bulk of those are simple retellings. As far as what happens on Urras, besides a short, not-particularly-well-told battle, it’s mostly just Shevek doing his own battle with inner demons. This is not the stuff of particularly compelling fiction. For instance, just when I thought the narrative was really taking off, with the protest and the crackdown and the war in Benbili, it was pretty much the end. I would have liked to see more emphasis on the planetary politics and the resolution to those conflicts, although I understand that these questions weren’t really the point of the novel.

That said, I still cared for the characters and enjoyed reading about them. I also liked the alternating present-flashback structure, which made the end more powerful as Shevek’s original motives finally come into focus.

I’ve only ever read The Lathe of Heaven by Le Guin, which I liked, so I’ll have to check out more of her stuff. Out of the science fiction authors I’ve read (Dick, Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, Card), Le Guin might be the most complete writer, with the exception of Philip K. Dick who is my absolute favorite and also the least science-fiction-y, so not a fair comparison!

Original Review

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