Book Review – “The Dispossessed”

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote an ambiguous utopia with non-linear story
structure. Does it work?

General Information

Title: The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

Author: Usrula K. LeGuin

Original Publication Date: 1974

ISBN: 0-06-105488-7

Cover Price: $5.50 US, $6.50 Can (although it looks like later
reprints have increased that price)

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A man who doesn’t fit into the pseudo-anarchistic society he was
raised in travels to his society’s planet of origin to exact change on
both worlds.

This novel received both the Hugo and Nebula awards for science

High Point

“You ask questions like a true profiteer.”

Low Point

The early pages of chapter four are little more than exposition on the
politics and function of Anarres. It gets rather dry.

The Scores

This story is original in several ways. From a
re-interpretation of Einstein’s relativity, to the non-linear
narrative structure, to the distinct “utopian” societies, it was
loaded with concepts and elements I hadn’t seen before, while still
populating the world with distinct, but understandable characters. I
give it 6 out of 6.

The imagery is clear enough to get the job done without
getting in the way. Major characters are physically described in
detail, while the secondary characters are described quickly and by
archetypes. Descriptions of the architectures come across as social
commentary. In fact, the social commentary reached by placing
Shevek’s early childhood experiences near his early experiences on
Urras makes the descriptions of the worlds interesting and natural, by
placing them in the internal monologues of a man who is familiar with
one and living in another. I give the imagery 6 out of 6.

The story is compelling and thought-provoking, while
remaining entertaining in its own right. The parallels drawn from the
two time periods are emphasized by the narrative structure (with the
even numbered chapters covering the first thirty years of Shevek’s
life, and the odd numbered chapters covering his life after leaving
Anneres.) It plods on a bit in early chapter four, though. I give it 5
out of 6.

The characterization is very well done. We really see
grow, becoming a completely realized character as the book
Characters around him often exhibit depths in their own rights, as
well, although some (such as Sabul and Rulag) are still fairly flat.
I give it 5 out of 6.

The emotional response this produces is only marginally
dulled on later reads. The exploration of two distinct cultures is
compelling, particularly when one asks oneself which of this cultures
is meant to be the utopia. Shevek is a character worth caring about,
in any of these cultures. I give it 5 out of 6.

The editing is where the book starts to falter.
Typographical errors are common, particularly in chapters 2, 3, and
12. The exposition in chapter four could have been reduced by cutting
out the redundant portions; we’d already learned a fair portion of
this material from the earlier chapters. The focus was most likely on
maintaining the integrity of the non-linear narrative structure, which
was done well. I give it 4 out of 6.

Overall, it’s a compelling book that I’d recommend to
who likes to think about what they read. I give it 5 out of 6.

In total, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia receives
out of 42.

One reply

  1. Blast From The Past
    I read The Dispossessed in college when it first came out and although I remember precious little about it now, I remember being completely blown away by it at the time. I’ll have to re-read it, thanks for the motivation.

    For those who want to get the gist of what The Dispossessed is all about, I recommend reading Le Guin’s similarly-themed short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” which she wrote around the same time as Dispossessed.

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