The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula Le Guin (Italian edition)
The novel “The Dispossessed” – subtitle “An Ambiguous Utopia” – by Ursula Le Guin was published for the first time in 1974. It won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards as the best science fiction novel of the year.
Shevek is a physicist on the planet Anarres who is developing a new scientific theory. Frustrated by the difficulties he encounters on his planet, he leaves for Urras, the twin planet. His act is considered by someone a betrayal because Shevek leaves the anarchist society of Anarres to go to A-Io, a capitalist nation of Urras.
In A-Io, where for years he’s recognized as a great physicist, Shevek tries to continue his research but can’t help getting involved in social and political issues both local and international. Over time, he realizes he’s always controlled in order to limit to the minimum necessary his contacts with people of the lower classes. Shevek can’t help wondering if he made a grave mistake by leaving Anarres.
“The Dispossessed” is part of the Hainish cycle. However, the events of this novel are autonomous from those of the rest of the cycle so it can be read independently from the others. It’s set in the Tau Ceti system, according to some unofficial estimates around the year 2300.
The novel follows the story of Shevek, a mathematician on the planet Anarres who goes to Urras, its twin planet. His effort isn’t just scientific aiming to develop a new theory but also political and social that aims to overcome the barriers created over time among the societies of the two planets.
“The Dispossessed” is first of all a political and social novel that, mailny through Shevek’s experiences, examines the anarchist society of Anarres and the capitalist – aristochratic one of A-Io, one of the most powerful nations of Urras.
Ursula Le Guin tells in alternating chapters Shevek’s story in his journey on Urras and his past on Anarres until he reaches his decision to go on the twin planet. Gradually, the reader can discover the characteristics of these societies and their dark sides.
Anarres is a planet where with harsh climatic conditions and about 150 years before the events of “The Dispossessed” a group of anarchists led by their leader Odo colonized it. The Odonians created an anarchist society of the collectivist kind and the relationship with Urras are almost non-existent as the most powerful nations are A-Io, a capitalist nation, and Thu, a communist regime considered a betrayal of the Odonian principles.
The Odonian society is anarchist so in theory there are neither authority nor laws. As a consequence everything is decided collectively by its members. Even the language of Anarres, the pravic, was artificially designed to reflect the foundations of utopian anarchism. However, Shevek realizes that in fact there are power structures and that the individual is crushed by the collective.
In his work as a physicist, Shevek works with Sabul, the most important physicist on Anarres. Thanks to his prestige, Sabul actually exercises power, something theoretically impossible on Anarres. In an egalitarian society, Sabul is more equal than the others and his decisions are accepted without question.
Shevek, who continues to question everything, has problems in his work as a physicist but things can get much worse for artists. Art can be too genuinely anarchic for the majority of Odonians, who ostracize artists who demonstrate excessive inventiveness. In essence, the Odonians are mostly sheep who have strayed from true anarchy to embrace conformism.
On Urras, Shevek can clearly see the contradictions of the A-Io society, connected to a system in which there are various inequalities. Those of the Odonian society are more subtle, connected to the pettiness and shortsightedness of the majority of its members.
It’s for this reason that Ursula Le Guin gave his novel the subtitle “An ambiguous Utopia”. The Odonian society was created to try to achieve the anarchist utopia but the line between utopia and dystopia is sometimes very thin. In the end, it seems that the anarchist utopia, or at least that collectivist kind, is impossible to achieve.
The result is a truly extraordinary novel. The political and social analysis is the basis of “The Dispossessed” but the characters are also well developed. This reinforces the story because the reader gets the impression that the examined societies are formed by real people with understandable desires and motivations.
“The Dispossessed” is a novel of reflection and introspection that can be a great food for thought. Inevitably, the pace is generally slow. Even the occasional moments of action are intended to stimulate reflections illustrating some political and social themes.
For its themes, “The Dispossessed” is a novel that keeps on being analyzed and discussed forty years after its publication. Its fame has gone far beyond the science fiction genre and even beyond literature becoming a source of discussion in various fields.
In my opinion, the fame of “The Dispossessed” is well deserved and it’s one of Ursula Le Guin’s masterpieces. It’s a must-read novel to reflect about it, especially because it allows everyone to get a personal impression of the themes it covers.