Though her reputation preceded her, I had never read a book by Ursula K. Leguin before this one. I’ve always been a fan of the old-guard of science fiction and fantasy writers, of whom she is a much revered member, so when I spotted this book for a bargain and the synopsis seemed thoughtful and intriguing, I jumped at it.
It was only when I got home with my new acquisition that I actually opened the book and decided to dip in, as I often do. The book started thus:
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 as important as that wall.
Ten pages later, I managed to stop reading. It was clear I had to read this book as soon as I could, so I dropped the other novel I had been suffering through in slow agony and took up this one instead.
In The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin tells us the story of Shevek, a brilliant theoretical physicist, born and bred on the world of Annares. It is sometime in the far future when human beings live on other worlds around other stars, with Earth reduced to a marginal existence. Annares is the rugged and mostly barren moon of the planet Urras, the prize of human civilisation. Almost two centuries ago a revolution occurred on Urras led by the anarchistic philosopher Odo, who envisioned a utopic society free from the evils of possessions, profiteering and hierarchical leadership. The revolutionaries were finally allowed to leave in peace and set up their own society on the barren moon Annares, and there they had stayed, completely cut-off from the rest of humanity except for essential trade. The story starts with Shevek breaking this embargo by leaving for Urras on a ship, to continue his work and learn more about Urras while showing them the human face of Annares. The rest of the novel tells of Shevek’s experiences on the wondrous world of Urras, and also the circumstances of his life on the bleak world of Annares that result in his departure. These two threads of the story are played out in alternating chapters of the book till the conclusion.
While I never managed to read this book in large gulps, it was no less pleasurable to absorb over the many weeks it took me to finish. In spite of the many gaps in my reading, the story of Shevek always remained fresh in my mind, and his thoughts and motivations always came flooding back whenever I opened the book again. LeGuin is a masterful storyteller and one who isn’t afraid to delve into the depths of her subject matter when required, while breezing over or cutting out years worth of events when their telling is unnecessary to the heart of the story. The drastic passage of time is hard-earned in the minds of the reader, but time well-lost such as this, is aptly rewarded with our complete attention.
There are pages of dense ponderings over the nature of time and the universe in this book, but it never seems forced and these ponderings are integral both to the character of Shevek and the way the story is presented. The crux of Shevek’s theories in the book are to come up with a grand unifying theory of Time that weaves together two seemingly contrary ideas, that of Simultaneity and of Sequence. The trope of presenting the story in chapters that alternate between past and present, with the two threads leading to the start of the other thread hints at the two visions of time itself, that of a straight line and that of a cyclical existence. It is a clever and effective device.
At it’s core though, The Dispossessed is a story of humanity, society and the struggle between the two. Shevek is unquestionably an individualist, an ‘egoist’, as the communal people of Annares would label him. This makes him an aberration in a society designed to make everyone feel equal, often at the price of people’s special gifts. On Urras, a world very much like our own, ruled by the pressures of politics, commerce and possession, Shevek finds himself equally at odds with a humanity that’s alien to his concepts of right and wrong. This is the story of how he reconciles those two alienations in some ways and also how he comes to realise that Utopia can be strived for, but it is hard work (which ties in pretty well with my piece on unrealistic expectations), and it is a constant struggle rather than a perfect destination.
I loved The Dispossessed, and like all good stories, I know I will want to live it again in time. It is a tale of surprisingly relevant social commentary. As with all good commentaries on life and the human condition, I doesn’t so much force a conclusion down your throat as much as introduce you to the vast vistas and let you come to your own understanding of how things work, and how they could.
The best stories are often simple, only littered with human complexities. In the best tales nothing much happens on the surface other than the inevitable, and yet minds and hearts change, and with them all of existence within the framework of the story changes. The best stories are not a reportage of facts but an interpretation of happenings from the view point of the character with whom the reader identifies. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin, is very much the story of that character, to whom nothing much happens but the inevitable, and yet minds are changed, and the Universe can never be the same again.