Two of the key phenomena in science fiction of the 1970s were the emergence of sophisticated forms of environmentalist science fiction and the appearance of a number of feminist novels by women writers of science fiction, typically with a strong utopian component. Ursula K. Le Guin was at the very center of both of these phenomena, which converge especially effectively in The Dispossessed. A complex political novel that draws upon a number of potential sources of utopian ideas, The Dispossessed draws upon sources ranging from Taoism, to anarchist and socialist political thinkers (like Kropotkin and Fourier), to the oppositional political movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed, Fredric Jameson calls Le Guin’s book the “richest reinvention of the genre” of utopian fiction to grow out of the politics of the 1960s (Postmodernism 160). It is certainly the case that The Dispossessed addresses, with its contrast between an affluent, but oppressive consumer-capitalist dystopia and a materially poor but personally fulfilling anarchist utopia, a number of fundamental social and political issues.
The Dispossessed is the fifth novel in Le Guin’s “Hainish” sequence, though its action is actually set at the beginning of the sequence. This sequence, which began with Rocannon’s World in 1966, deals with a far-flung interstellar confederation, the “Ekumen,” which is in only the early stages of development during The Dispossessed. The Ekumen is held together largely by a common cultural and biological heritage derived from the fact that the galaxy was “seeded” with human DNA (and culture) thousands of years earlier by colonial explorers from the planet Hain, whose empire is now defunct, though Hain itself is still a civilized planet. With travel still limited to sub-light speeds, the administration of the Ekumen is enabled by the availability of instantaneous communication across vast interstellar distances, thanks to the invention of a device known as an “ansible,” which is ultimately developed from the fundamental scientific principles discovered by Shevek, the protagonist of The Dispossessed.
Shevek is a brilliant physicist who begins to feel that the development of his work has been limited by conditions on his home world, the impoverished moon of Anarres, so he arranges to travel to the comparatively rich neighboring planet of Urras, hoping thereby to further his work and to initiate communication between the two societies, which have been sealed off from one another since dissidents from Urras (inspired by the teachings of the woman philosopher and political activist Odo) settled on Anarres generations earlier. Shevek, already famous on Urras for his scientific work (much of which has already been smuggled to the planet for publication there), is greeted as a celebrity, but he soon finds that the immense wealth of the society of A-Io (the country that hosts him) has not prevented that society from developing huge economic inequities, leading to a variety of social problems, including the oppression of women.
We are not given a detailed look at the scientific work Shevek is doing (because it is beyond anything yet developed in our world), but a great deal of The Dispossessed is devoted to Shevek’s attempts to find the most productive way (and place) to do his work and realize his vision. In this sense, the novel is an example of a science fiction work with a scientist protagonist. However, as Graham Jensen has noted, Shevek is depicted in the novel as pursuing his work in the creative mode that we might typically associate more with an artist than with a scientist, making The Dispossessed a sort of artist novel. As a result, for Jensen, this novel helps to heal the rifts between the arts and the sciences famously decried by C. P. Snow, while at the same time serving “as an affirmation of the ongoing necessity and transformative power of art and artistic process” (110)
The Dispossessed is structured via chapters alternating between those that describe Shevek’s earlier life on Anarres and his experience on his trip to Urras, thus setting up an illuminating contrast between the two societies. This contrast causes Shevek to be horrified by the inequities in the society of A-Io. He thus becomes involved with an Odonian-influenced underground resistance group there and is nearly killed when the government attacks a peaceful demonstration with extreme violence. This event makes clear the oppressive nature of the system and verifies Shevek’s judgment of it—while also echoing the violent official attacks that have sometimes been made on demonstrators in Western democracies of our own world—as at Kent State massacre in May 1970 in the U.S. Shevek survives the attack and makes his way to the embassy of the planet Terra (i.e., earth), where he is given asylum and then put on a ship back to Anarres, though he knows many there will meet him with animosity because of his trip to Urras. On the way, Ketho, the Hainish first mate of the Terran ship, asks to go down to Anarres with him. Thus, as the book ends, much is left open, but there is considerable hope that Anarresti society is about to experience an opening up to outside contact that will break it out of the stagnation that has begun to threaten it.
This warning against stagnation, of course, addresses one of the central difficulties faced by all utopian societies, fictional or real: with supposedly ideal conditions already established, there is little impetus for change, but if no change occurs, conditions tend to deteriorate. In The Dispossessed, Le Guin suggests that any society, no matter how ideal, must continually be ready to face new problems and challenges. Indeed, Le Guin implies that openness to a certain amount of change is part of what makes a society truly utopian in the first place, and the society of Anarres embraces change to the point that a belief in perpetual revolution is one of its central values. Of course, this emphasis on change implies that the book does not put forward a fixed model for utopia, thus the book’s subtitle. Indeed, the Odonian philosophy that informs this society includes an anarchistic suspicion of fixed structures of all kinds, so that the individual’s responsibility resides not so much in obedience to existing systems as in contributions to ongoing revolutionary change. In many ways, the principles upon which Anarres is founded can be read as a direct reversal of the principles of classic dystopian societies such as the Oceania of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or the One State of Evgeny Zamyatin’s We (1925): the responsibility of the individual is not to obey authority, but to reject it; freedom is valued over security; and the highest paradigm of the society is not stability, but revolution. As Shevek muses on the faults in his society he provides a succinct summary of the philosophy of Le Guin’s utopia:
“That the Odonian society on Anarres had fallen short of the ideal did not, in his eyes, lessen his responsibility to it; just the contrary. With the myth of the State out of the way, the real mutability and reciprocity of society and individual became clear. Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise: for though only the society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person, had the power of moral choice—the power of change, the essential function of life. The Odonian society was conceived as a permanent revolution, and revolution begins in the thinking mind” (333).
In addition to its warnings against stagnation, The Dispossessed is also aware of a variety of other problems that plague any utopian project. The most important of these is material wealth, which many thinkers (including Karl Marx, in his discussion of the historical conditions that would be necessary for the survival of socialism) have seen as essential to the building of a utopian society. One thinks, for example, of the universal affluence (thanks to technologies such as “replicators”) that seems to have facilitated the solution to most social and political problems on the future earth of the television series Star Trek.Le Guin, on the other hand, clearly regards material wealth as an inevitable source of corruption and spiritual impoverishment, its temptations so great that individuals are unable to avoid compromising their values in order to compete more successfully for material gain. As Nadia Khouri puts it, in The Dispossessed “material dispossession becomes the necessary condition for ethical wealth” (51).
Le Guin depicts Anarres not as a land of universal plenty, but as a dry and barren world on which a genuine community struggles for existence through toughness, dedication, and hard work. Further, the citizens of Anarres know that they must cooperate with one another if any are to survive, so that the difficulty of surviving on Anarres actually furthers solidarity amond its citizens, who must cooperate to survive. Thus, they are able to avoid the ethos of competition that is so central to the mindset of the citizens of A-Io. Of course, Le Guin’s positive description of Anarres may serve to challenge the assumptions of some readers that wealth is a necessary prerequisite for happiness. On the other hand, her exaltation of asceticism is also problematic. For one thing, it comes dangerously close to the romanticization of poverty that we have often seen in other cases (emphasizing such things as “the simple pleasures of the poor.” In addition, it also romanticizes hardship and struggle. For example, Tom Moylan, who is critical of the novel in a number of ways, notes the suspicious similarity between Le Guin’s Anarres and the Old West of American frontier days, concluding that
“the thematic strategy of scarcity is one way to negate the ostentatious affluence of modern America, but it also serves as a backward look to the “good old days” of the frontier more than it makes a serious attempt to appropriate productive surplus for the well-being of all humanity” (103).
As Moylan indicates, the politics of The Dispossessed are problematic in a number of ways. For example, the vast majority of the people of Le Guin’s book still live on Urras, while the strict separatism of the anarchists on Anarres ignores the continuing injustice on the world they left and lends Le Guin’s utopia an escapist aspect that runs counter to any notion of genuine revolution. Moreover, it is not at all clear that Le Guin’s novel is itself successful at escaping the prevailing ideology of the world to which it supposedly presents a radical alternative. Shevek, the strong male protagonist, bears many similarities to the traditional bourgeois notion of the autonomous individual, while his courageous, unselfish actions seem easily contained within the conventional bourgeois (masculine) myth of the hero.
Of course, Jameson has argued (especially in Archaeologies of Knowledge) that it is not literally impossible to imagine a genuinely utopian society, so Anarres should not be assessed on the basis of whether it is literally an ideal society. Instead, it simply stands as a sort of satirical contrast that points to certain deficiencies in the societies of Urras, especially A-Io. Indeed, it is important to recognize that The Dispossessed is fundamentally a work of satire and is certainly not intended as a blueprint to be followed in building an ideal society.
Peter Ruppert suggests that “the ambiguity of all boundaries” is “the central theme of Le Guin’s novel” (141), and this interrogation of boundaries in The Dispossessed particularly includes an examination of gender roles, a motif central to Le Guin works such as The Left Hand of Darkness. In the utopian society of Anarres the two genders are treated with complete equality, a fact reflected very clearly in their language (“Pravic”), which has been specifically developed as part of their efforts to create the ideal society. This motif thus draws upon the so-called “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,” which argues that the structure of a person’s principal language has a constitutive effect on that person’s perception of and attitude toward the world. For example, this language has no words for sexual intercourse that indicate possession of one partner by another or action of one partner upon another, except for one indicating rape. Instead, the language features plural sexual verbs, indicating mutual action: “It meant something two people did, not something one person did, or had” (53). Meanwhile, individuals have names that are entirely devoid of gender. Infants are given computer-generated names, ostensibly as a democratic gesture that avoids conventional patriarchal naming procedures. This computer naming may seem to echo the numbering of citizens in Zamyatin’s One State, but Le Guin’s narrator makes a point of contrasting these names, unique for each living individual, with the “numbers which a computer-using society must otherwise attach to its members” (250).
Pravic also contributes to the communal nature of society on Anarres in other ways, as in its use of the same word for “work” and “play” and in its deemphasis on expressions indicating possession. But, as Meyers points out, theoretical languages like Le Guin’s Pravic or the “Loglan” of James Cooke Browne’s The Troika Incident are seriously problematic in that normal historical evolution will tend to make such languages drift away from their original theoretical conception. Noting the isolationist measures to which the society of Anarres is thus forced to resort in order to protect its language from such evolution, Meyers concludes that Le Guin’s utopia is in fact a dystopia: “If the society of Anarres in The Dispossessed is not a dystopia, it has all the machinery of one, from a language designed to influence the thinking of its people through every weapon needed to keep that language from being changed” (208).
That Shevek is able to rebel against the expectations of his society, breaking a crucial taboo by establishing contact with the dreaded “propertarian” society of A-Io, indicates that the machinery of social and psychological control on Anarres is far from complete. On the other hand, Shevek’s strongly negative reaction to the conditions he finds in A-Io, including the shock and revulsion he experiences as a result of the class and gender inequalities that are central to the society of A-Io, suggests that he has, in fact, undergone a considerable amount of conditioning, though Le Guin clearly presents this conditioning more in the positive mode of having well learned the admirable values of his society. In any case, Shevek on Urras becomes a classic case of the sf staple of the stranger in a strange land, the cognitive dissonance that he experiences as a result of being immersed in a world that differs in fundamental ways from his own mirroring the cognitive dissonance experienced by readers of science fiction in general.
Le Guin’s depiction of Urras in The Dispossessed of A-Io takes advantage of this cognitive dissonance to produce effective social and political satire of a kind that is often achieved in the best and most powerful works of science fiction. As readers follow Shevek, presumably sharing (if in a less visceral form) his negative reaction to the inequalities he observes around him in A-Io, a gradual realization that Le Guin here is describing precisely the sort of inequalities that inform modern capitalist societies such as the United States can potentially be quite powerful. The separation of the genders in A-Io is particularly extreme; women are clearly regarded as second-class citizens and are strictly excluded from numerous professions (including science) and other realms of activity. Of course, for readers in the twenty-first century, the overt discrimination against women in A-Io seems archaic and obviously inappropriate. As a result, the satire of The Dispossessed is probably less effective in terms of gender than it was in the 1970s, even if gender discrimination has been eradicated much more thoroughly on Anarres than in the Britain or the U.S. of three decades after the publication of the book. What is more striking for readers in this later era is the book’s satirical treatment of capitalism, which has become more and more dominant on a global scale since the publication of The Dispossessed, to the point that many now see it as the only logical system, while any possible alternatives seem unnatural and nonsensical. However, to Shevek (who has had little exposure to capitalism or the ideology that supports it), it is capitalism and the inequalities it creates that make no sense. He is shocked, therefore, that the lust for profits (combined with a certain amount of coercion) is able to motivate anyone to work at all, having assumed that only a “human being’s natural incentive to work—his initiative, his spontaneous creative energy” could produce diligent workers (82). Finding the workings of capitalism totally strange, Shevek (intellectual that he is) endeavors to study the system, but finds it so bizarre that he is unable to concentrate on the economics texts he tries to read. After all, “the operations of capitalism were as meaningless to him as the rites of a primitive religion” (130).
On the other hand, if the unfamiliarity of conditions in A-Io to Shevek has an obvious satirical function, it is probably even more important to the satirical function of The Dispossessed that A-Io looks so familiar to American readers. Conditions in A-Io in the novel are quite clearly based on conditions in the United States in the 1970s—modified just enough to create the kind of cognitive estrangement that helps American readers to see their own society in new ways. Indeed, the entire planet of Urras is a sort of satirical reproduction of earth in the 1970s. Thus, if A-Io is clearly based on America, then its chief rival, Thu, is quite clearly based on the Soviet Union, while another country that figures in the novel, Benbili, very clearly stands in for the parts of earth that were not part of either the American or the Soviet bloc during the Cold War, thus becoming a focal point where A-Io and Thu, as part of their ongoing rivalry, struggle to gain influence. Moreover, A-Io and Thu compete for power in Benbili very much in the way the U.S> and the U.S.S.R. competed in Third World countries on earth during the Cold War. A-Io, for example, supports a military dictatorship in the state of Benbili, much as the United States supported numerous anticommunist military dictators in the years of the Cold War. When revolutionaries threaten the Benbili dictatorship, A-Io rushes to the aid of the dictators, while Thu supports the rebels, leading to a limited war between A-Io and Thu, though a war that is strictly confined to Benbili itself, thus limiting the damage suffered by either Thu or A-Io. This conflict again recalls the Cold War era on earth (especially the Vietnam War), though it is also reminiscent of the ongoing orchestrated wars of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
However, if Urras in The Dispossessed resembles the earth of the 1970s, it is also the case that the novel is set at a time considerably in the future, so that the earth (referred to as “Terra” in the novel) is not the earth of the 1970s, but the earth of the future. Indeed, in the course of the novel, Shevek becomes acquainted with the groundbreaking work in physics done hundreds of years earlier by a Terran physicist by the name of “Ainsetain,” who is, of course, Albert Einstein, who work on relativity theory was so important to the development of physics on earth in the twentieth century. At one point, Shevek (seeking sanctuary) goes to the Terran embassy on Urras. There, he meets with the ambassador from Terra, who tells him that, compared to her own planet, Urras seems like a virtual paradise, thanks to the fact that Terra has by now become a virtual hell due to the destruction of its natural environment. In a motif that derives from the environmentalist movement that was still young when Le Guin wrote the book, this ambassador (who refers to her planet as “Earth”) tells Shevek that this earth is now an environmental ruin, a desert planet destroyed by greed and violence. “There are no forests left on my Earth,” she explains. “The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world [Urras] is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert. … We survive there, as you do. People are tough! There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. The bones and bricks go to dust, but the little pieces of plastic never do—they never adapt either. We failed as a species, as a social species. We are here now, dealing as equals with other human societies on other worlds, only because of the charity of the Hainish” (348). Thus, if the depiction of A-Io in the novel comments on certain social problems in the United States of the 1970s, the description of a ruined Terra in the novel comments on the eventual environmental consequences of the kind of unrestrained capitalism that is described in the novel.
However brief, this inserted commentary provides an important engagement with environmentalist issues, a topic with which Le Guin was greatly concerned and which she addresses even more centrally in 1970s texts such as the novella (also set in the Hainish universe) The Word for World Is Forest (1972). Within the context of The Dispossessed, this vision of the environmental decay of earth provides a warning that even planets (such as Urras and earth) that are rich in resources do not necessary stay that way if the resources are not used wisely, while planets poor in resources (such as Anarres) can still support exemplary human societies if those meager resources are managed properly. As Changizi suggests, “what she extends to her readers is the audacity to aspire to imagine alternative ecologically-conscious lifeways hitherto restrained by social, political, economic, and even religious hegemony, as she does with her curiously dispossessed and ambiguous utopia” (135). In any case, this gesture toward environmental issues adds still another political dimension to The Dispossessed, joining its interrogation of issues related to utopia, dystopia, class, gender, and the Cold War to make it one of the richest political novels in all of science fiction. It also helps the novel to remain relevant half a century later, when many of the political situations satirized in it no longer exist (at least not in the same way) but when capitalism has gained an even firmer grip on the world’s resources and when the need to take action to protect the environment has become more urgent than ever.
Changizi, Parisa. “‘Permanent Revolution’ to Effect an Ever-Evasive (Ecological) Utopia in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. Elope, vol. 17, no. 2, 2020, pp. 117–36.
Davis, Laurence, and Peter Stillman, editors. The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.” Lexington Books, 2005.
Jensen, Graham H. “Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and the Künstlerroman Tradition.” English Studies in Canada, vol. 44, no. 4, December 2018, pp. 87-113.
Khouri, Nadia. “The Dialectics of Power: Utopia in the Science Fiction of Le Guin, Jeury, and Piercy.” Science-Fiction Studies, vol. 7, 1980, pp. 49–61.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia.” 1974. HarperCollins, 1991.
Meyers, Walter E. Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction. University of Georgia Press, 1980.
Moylan, Tom. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. Methuen, 1986.
Ruppert, Peter. Reader in a Strange Land: The Activity of Reading Literary Utopias. University of Georgia Press, 1986.
 Much critical attention has been devoted to the utopian aspects of The Dispossessed. See the collection edited by Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman.
 The entire Hainish sequence is available in a two-volume set published by the Library of America in 2017.