Arguably my favorite book, unarguably my favorite author, The Dispossessed tells the story of a brilliant physicist born and raised in a colony established on Anarres, the barren red moon of Urras, a blue planet that bears a striking resemblance to late-19th-century Earth. LeGuin’s Hainish cycle often explores socio-political issues at play in our own society, and this book is no exception. The Dispossessed describes what might have happened if a group of anarcho-communists (Odonians) had been able to establish and develop a society in isolation from the hierarchical, capitalist world that rejected it. I appreciate LeGuin’s evenhanded presentation of each world: the egalitarianism and austerity of Anarres, and the lush abundance and injustice of Urras.
Shevek leaves Urras because his work as a physicist isn’t considered “central” by Odionian society, but he struggles to maintain his ideals and his identity on a planet that grants him luxury and wealth while forcing others to live in hardship and poverty. As Shevek travels between the two worlds, his journey sheds light on the wonders and flaws of each.
On Anarres, it is an insult of the highest order to call someone a profiteer. In her 2014 acceptance speech for the National Book Award, LeGuin used the word “profiteers” to refer to the increasingly money-focused publishing industry. Anyone who’s read The Dispossessed will recognize the philosophy of the Odonians in the following excerpt from that speech:
“We need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”
View the full speech via this link, or embedded below:
[A previous version of this review was posted on November 3, 2009 on Goodreads]