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This review is from: The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (Hainish Cycle) (Kindle Edition)
Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974) is a Utopian Science Fiction novel that explores the odd-couple societies of twinned planets; one a capitalist democratic paradise, the other a haven of anarcho-socialism. The protagonist, Shevek, is a brilliant physicist from the anarchist desert planet of Anarres who's developed a method for `Simultaneity' - instantaneous communication across vast interstellar distances. Shevek finds that the technologically basic and bureaucratically corrupt anarchist administration obstructs the development of his revolutionary idea, but when he travels to Anarres' twin planet Urras, he is confronted with a politically conniving capitalism that's more interested in *owning* his ideas than making them a reality. What follows is a sometimes theoretically dense but always readable extrapolation of two very different political approaches to the individual, to genius, and to human relationships in general.
In a recent review of Patrick Ness' The Crane Wife, Ursula Le Guin laments modern literature's penchant for brief, quippy dialogue predicated more on wit and style than realism or meaning: "for me these dialogues, even when clever, fail to work as part of a novel. But expectations change with generations, and the reduction of human relationships to a back-and-forth table-tennis bounce of bodiless voices may be perfectly satisfactory to readers who spend a lot of time on a mobile phone." The Dispossessed, then, definitely offers the antithesis to this post-mobile phone rendering of dialogue. The greater part of the novel comprises very long, politically charged exchanges between Shevek and various characters (notably his partner Takver, a beautifully realised character piece who epitomises the contradictions inherent in, on the one hand, fierce loyalty to her social ideals and, on the other, to her lover and family). But such is Le Guin's ear for realistic speech and characterisation that these long cogitations on politics and morality never feel text-booky or robotic, always coloured as they are by an incredible empathy for human emotion, and enlivened by Le Guin's characteristic wit, "It's hard to swear when sex is not dirty and blasphemy does not exist".
I'm finding it difficult to describe, in the compass of this small review, quite how detailed Le Guin's descriptions of the finer workings of these two societies are. It's extraordinary, and made more so by the human interest that tempers any potential for cold politicising. The book's ending is a tad out-of-the-blue, and there's a revolutionary riot scene on the capitalist planet that takes place in sympathy with the plight of the anarchists and which we would probably now call Miévillian in its tone (sorry, I know that's an awful neologism... alternative suggestions on a postcard, please), but ultimately The Dispossessed is a captivating, ferociously intelligent and deeply moving epic. The book's imagery is dominated by descriptions of walls, of boundaries and their violent breach, and this forms a very successful visual and metaphoric subtext for the more violent events of the plot. It's amazing, is what I'm trying to say...