The setting of Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed presents obvious references to the political landscape of its time. Originally published in 1974, Le Guin’s anti-war sentiments during the Cold War shine through in this complex, ambiguous utopia. The novel follows the journey of Shevek the protagonist from the peaceful anarchist society of Anarres, a satellite planet of Urras. Urras, on the other hand, consists of three different authoritarian states: A-Io, a wealthy, capitalist society, Thu, a state under the rule of a socialist government, and Benbilli, an underdeveloped region. With A-Io and Thu waging a proxy war in Benbilli, Urras mirrors the shape of our own history, during which the United States and the Soviet Union generated proxy wars in Vietnam and many other countries around the globe.

Although the analogies and political messages encoded in the story may seem straightforward at first glance, this reduction of the story in no way describes Le Guin’s novel as a whole. In fact, Le Guin laments in her book Words Are My Matter that The Dispossessed was too often “read not as novel but as blueprint for social theory or practice.” The ambiguity and poetry fostered by the form of novel are precisely the elements that make this fictional world captivating. Anarres is not meant to be perfect in any way. Its people do not get to enjoy wealth as those on Urras do, and they take on intense labor shifts out of necessity, in order to survive on a planet that lacks resources. Le Guin is not trying to make a statement about the “best” political ideology here. Instead, she creates a world that threads together multiple themes and opens up the possibilities of different interpretations. She asks the readers to take a moment to ponder, not simply walk away with a lesson.

Le Guin has credited various anarchist thinkers for inspiring her work, including Paul Goodman. A well-known anarchist writer of the ‘60s, Goodman condones decentralism as the basis of an anarchist society that “increase[s] intrinsic functioning and diminish[es] extrinsic power.” He emphasizes the importance of both “freedom from restraint” and “the opportunity to initiate a policy, enterprise, or an idea.” These concepts are clearly reflected in the Odonian society of Anarres, where people are free to form any syndicate to lead an initiative or attend a PDC meeting to voice their concerns directly. More relevantly, Goodman poses that an anarchist society does not depend on the goodness of individuals but rather on the prevention of concentrated power. The character Sabul in The Dispossessed is a case in point: the egotistic character engenders various obstacles in Shevek’s career path but ultimately is unable to stop him from accomplishing his goals as an Odonian physicist.

Perhaps the most fruitful moment in the novel is when it helps us, as readers, see our own world through a completely new lens. During Shevek’s travels in A-Io, a scene describes a commercial street from Shevek’s point of view. He is bewildered by the flashy stores selling goods that had been manufactured elsewhere:

“And the strangest thing about the nightmare street was that none of the millions of things for sale were made there. They were only sold there. Where were the workshops, the factories, where were the farmers, the craftsmen, the miners, the weavers, the chemists, the carvers, the dyers, the designers, the machinists, where were the hands, the people who made? Out of sight, somewhere else. Behind walls.”

This shift in perspective, rooted in our familiar reality yet imagined in a radically contrasting frame of reference, is key to unlocking the potential of science fiction narratives. To borrow Suvin’s words, it is the power of “literature of cognitive estrangement.” It produces an eye-opening experience, a mirror of our past, present, and future, yet it never even takes place on Earth as we know it.

 

Sources

Herring, George C. “The Cold War and Vietnam.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 18, no. 5, 2004, pp. 18–21. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25163717.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. HARPER PERENNIAL, 2015.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Words Are My Matter: Writings on Life and Books. Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019.

Price, Wayne. “Paul Goodman’s Anarchism Has Meaning Today.” Anarkismo RSS, 2019, www.anarkismo.net/article/31563.

Suvin, Darko. “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre.” College English 34, no. 3 (1972): 372–82.