Review: The Dispossessed

“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.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed 

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
311 pages
Published by Avon Books, 197
Genre: Science fiction
Re-readability: I may revisit certain scenes, but I wouldn’t read this one again.
Rating: 2 out of 5 star

Reviewed by Pete
Spoiler-free review

I am of the belief that fantasy and science fiction books don’t need to justify their genre. Impossible or unearthly elements can be used to put characters in situations that would otherwise be impossible—or these elements can simply be there as a backdrop, and it’s fine either way. To me, the speculative fiction genre is about exploration, ideas, and escapism.

The Dispossessed makes me rethink this, however. It takes place on both a capitalistic planet known as Urras and a socialist, government-free moon called Anarres. These places have their cultural peculiarities, but they are otherwise not too different from Cold War era Earth.

Shevek is a physicist and philosopher from Anarres who accepts an offer from Urras to visit and share his studies there. Few people travel between the moon and the planet, so Shevek is treated as an ambassador and celebrity upon arrival. He find himself disagreeing with many of the ideas of his contemporaries on Urras, and comes to resent its capitalist society.

I had a really hard time grasping this one. The plot seemed to slip through my fingers, and though by the end of the book I thought I had it mostly figured out, I read a plot summary before writing this review and discovered that I really, really missed the gist. The chapters are not presented chronologically. I think I figured this out on occasion, but I generally assumed that Shevek was simply flying home (a massive feat that I questioned quite a bit since his arrival (and departure) was such a big deal).

This huge oversight makes me hesitant to criticize this book too deeply, but much like with The Left Hand of Darkness, I am entirely bewildered by this book’s legacy and renown. Its ideas may be progressive, but its plot was meandering and dull, and I understood and sympathized with Shevek very little. Neither Urras nor Anarres seemed like great places to live, and Shevek’s philosophizing felt tiring and flat.

I loved the first three books in Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle—and as soon as I get to the Hainish books that have won countless awards, I stopped grasping the plot and understanding the characters.

The fact that I entirely missed the book’s structure shows just how unengaged I was and how little I wrapped my head around this one—but there wasn’t enough sci-fi here for me, nor was there enough drive and direction in Shevek for me to feel much for his vague, complicated struggles. This felt like a book that was meant to be studied, not enjoyed.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Dispossessed

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  1. ” there wasn’t enough sci-fi here for me” — I find comments like this confusing. It reduces “SF” to something that doesn’t include societal extrapolation — which is just as much a part of “SF” as technology….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A great point. I don’t mean to reduce SF in any way, and I view any experimental fiction that explores alternative settings or societies as SF. It would be more accurate to say that I wasn’t interested in the dual societies presented in The Dispossessed and would rather read about the impact of Shevek’s findings. These worlds didn’t interest me, and I got lost in the time-jumps.


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