By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is another exploration of science fiction in the Hainish Cycle. The Cycle deals with different worlds, including a future Earth, all of which are the product of experiments by the Hainish culture. In this novel, Le Guin explores capitalism on the planet Urras and anarchy in a colony named Anarres.
This is how The Dispossessed begins:
There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
And then, the second paragraph of the novel reads: “Like all walls, it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.” We realize that it’s ambiguous, it’s all a matter of perception. And even though that’s a very different idea than the first, an almost contradictory idea, it’s understandable.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Urras and Anarres
We are first introduced to the protagonist, Shevek, by his role rather than his name. He is The Passenger. We learn that he is crossing the wall in order to get onto a spaceship. This spaceship travels regularly between Urras and Anarres, but hasn’t taken a passenger in almost 200 years.
Two centuries before Shevek, led by the philosophical writings of an anarchist woman named Odo, a group of people from the planet of Urras became so frustrated by what they saw as a corrupt capitalist system that they emigrated, permanently, to their moon, Anarres.
Ethical Anarchy on Anarres
The colony on the moon was set up, not as an experiment, but as a community-based way of life putting into practice the principles of ethical anarchy. Here there is no leadership, no government. There are only community members who act ethically out of their own human instinct and a desire to be accepted by the community.
And, as we see in times of strife caused by a moon-wide famine, the people act ethically because they understand that the only way they can survive is to all work together as a community. If any of the members don’t contribute, the entire social organism may not survive.
Learn more about real-world utopias.
Shevek: The Anarchist
Shevek is a brilliant physicist. He is a tall, thin guy with long blond hair who likes sweets and manual labor. When he’s young, he’s a perfectly well-regulated member of the social organism.
Shevek volunteers for various work details, he helps other people with their math and physics homework, he copulates with other young people, male and female, although he has a preference for girls. On Anarres there’s no religion and no taboo around sexuality, and consequently no cuss words.
On Anarres, people wouldn’t say ‘my T-shirt’ but ‘the T-shirt that I use’ since clothing is made communally for the community by people who have volunteered on a clothing-making assignment. In the same sense, ‘the mother’ and ‘the father’ are people you may interact with more than others, but you don’t feel possessive toward them.
The Alternate Utopia
Shevek grows up, becomes permanently partnered with a woman, has two children, and creates a whole new theory of simultaneity, an extension of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. To the consternation of many on Anarres, he decides to go to the planet Urras, to eventually share his theory with the whole of the Ekumen. It becomes the basis for the ansible that allows instantaneous communication between all those planets.
The conflicts in this novel are subtle and beautiful, as are the relationships. Anarres is one utopian model. The moon where the environment is so harsh it brings out the best in people. There people own virtually nothing but have really important relationships with each other and with their work, because they feel no possessiveness.
Learn more about gender equality and utopia.
The Inequity on Urras
Urras is a wealthy planet, that’s been inhabited for hundreds of thousands of years. There’s lots of agriculture and industry, big cities, excellent universities, lots of different cultures. But Shevek has a lot of trouble accepting two things about the planet, even though they’re the reasons why Odo and her followers founded the colony on the moon in the first place.
First, there’s a lot of inequity on Urras. People go hungry even when there isn’t a famine. The people who have food just don’t share it. Second, he goes to a university to work with other physicists and finds himself surrounded by men. His male colleague gives a startling response, saying what Shevek knows from experience to be untrue—that women aren’t intellectually equal. He keeps thinking about that, wondering at the consequences of this lie.
Lessons for Earth?
There’s also, perhaps, a predictive portion of this ambiguous utopia. The more we learn about the planet, the more it feels like Earth, our Earth.
At the end, Shevek flees to an embassy on Urras, and there he meets the Ambassador from Earth. To her, Urras is Paradise, because the people of Earth have destroyed their planet, and they survive only because the Hainish saved them. But things on Earth are very hard, since the planet is just as stark as Shevek’s moon, but without the ethical anarchy that makes it work.
Is that gutted Earth a prediction? Is Urras the prediction? Or is Anarres? Or is each a different description—a description of the ways we can imagine ourselves, our relationships with each other?
Common Questions about The Dispossessed and Anarchist Utopia
In The Dispossessed, there are two societies. One is Urras, a rich capitalist planet with a large divide between the rich and the poor. The other is the colony of Anarres, on the moon of Urras. The society in Anarres is based on the principle of ethical anarchy in which no one possesses anything, and everyone works for the common good.
The anarchists of Anarres left Urras because of the inequality between rich and poor, and the social inequality that sees women as inferior to men.
In The Dispossessed, the people of Earth have destroyed their planet, and they survive only because the Hainish saved them. But things on Earth are very hard.