The Dispossessed (1974) by Ursula K Le Guin: Worlds apart
Rob Doyle on a book that made him wonder if capitalism wasn’t the best of a bad lot
Ursula Le Guin: bristled at the science-fiction label. Photograph: Dan Tuffs/Getty Images
Let’s break science-fiction into three broad and non-exclusive categories: there is the sort that deals with the truly Other; the “hard” sort that cleaves to actual science, and the sort that utilises the genre’s imaginative freedoms to comment on contemporary society. Ursula K Le Guin’s work tends to fall into the third category, though she bristled at the science-fiction label, telling a Paris Review interviewer: “My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.” Towards the end of her life, Le Guin championed younger trailblazers such as China Miéville, and campaigned against science fiction’s assumed inferiority to the genre of “literary fiction”.
Le Guin’s novels explored her manifold intellectual passions, which included Taoism, feminism, anthropology and political philosophy. The Dispossessed’s helical structure bounces us back and forth between two very different planets: Urras, with its cruel “propertarian” hierarchies; and Anarres, a parched moon run on anarchist principles. The set-up facilitates an enduringly profitable thought experiment: how would life under capitalism appear to someone who did not take its ideology and mode of living for granted?
Shevek is a physicist of Anarres, where renegades from Urras established independence more than a century ago. Stifled by the all-too-human pettiness of his Anarresian comrades, he travels to Urras to finish developing a means of instantaneous communication. Welcomed like a rock star and invited to live the Urrasian way, Shevek doesn’t like what he sees: down here it’s all hangovers and infidelity and contempt for the poor. It’s tempting to describe The Dispossessed as a classic of leftist science-fiction but, due to its integrity as a novel, it isn’t that simple. I read it when I still suspected that my anarcho-punk friends might be right about everything. While The Dispossessed rammed home the ways in which capitalism mutilates us, life in the anarchist “utopia” of Anarres – all hard labour, dust, and aggressively policed mediocrity – made me wonder if capitalism wasn’t the best of a bad lot.