Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ursula K. LeGuin: The Dispossessed

I’m on a bit of a Le Guin kick at the moment I think. She’s pushing all the right buttons for me: credible secondary universes, moral dilemmas, excellent characters, wonderfully evocative environments… I especially liked that this book takes place a long time before The Left Hand of Darkness, since the ansible which is used to communicate over the distance of many light years in that novel is only just in the starting blocks of invention in this one. The universe is in other words the same, with the same people, even though the Ekumen is not that advanced yet. I was very pleased with that, and it spurs me to read more, because I want to learn more about the different species in the Le Guin worlds.

Our main character is a physicist named Shevek, who lives on the barren planet Anarres in an anarchist society, where humans are bonded together to live without laws and instead work together for survival. The Anarresti left their home, the sister planet Urras seven generations ago. Urras is a a pathriarcial class society with strong state control and a history full of horrible acts of cruelty. (In one memorable scene Shevek sees the cloak once worn by an Urrasti queen - made from the skin of executed rebels, she wore it in public to humiliate, terrorize and shame the survivors.) Shevek now finds that his own world is developing unwritten laws of its own, despite having no structured government. When his own highly innovative research is thwarted by jealous and power-tripping colleagues he becomes the first to return to the home world, in an attempt to broaden and share his research.

There is a little too much theorizing in the book, with Shevek and others holding forth at length about the ideas behind a lawless world where personal responsibility is the only moral code – that, and the overall rule of sharing. Since I’m snatching reads between patrolling at work etc. I found it a little hard to concentrate. Nevertheless it’s thought-provoking and maybe a little provocative. I love stuff like this, heartily recommended!

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