Shevek and his planet of Anarres are as real as any author can make a person or place. This story is told exclusively from Shevek’s perspective, and alternating chapters are flashbacks to Shevek’s earlier life on Anarres. During his visit to the twin planet of Urras we experience all his confusion and wonderment through him. However, the capitalist democratic society (really plutocracy) on Urras is much more familiar to us, the reader than to Shevek. Anarres is a poor planet that seems like a successful social experiment in anarchism and collectivism (known as Odoism) over the last two centuries. Learning about how this society functioned without any kind of central authority, rule of law or even money was fascinating. It seemed to me a balanced look at an “ambiguous utopia”. There were problem makers, non-conformers. Life was spartan. Though there is no government, the PDC did act as a central authority with respect to work assignments. Individuals (such as Sabul) did hold influence over the lives of others, particularly Shevek. Participation in society was voluntary though social pressure played an important role in asserting authority.
Basically, Shevek is a very talented temporal physicist who reaches out to his colleagues on Urras in order to further his work. Until Shevek’s overture, Anarres and Urras remained isolated from each other. He volunteers and is invited to a university on Urras in the powerful nation of A-Io (analog to the United States). For the better part of a year he explores A-Io, while not able to complete his temporal theory. He realizes that A-Io intends to keep his work to themselves for strategic advantage which is the antithesis of Shevek’s moral beliefs. After an embarrassing episode at a party Shevek reaches a personal low from which he renews his focus to complete his work. At the same time A-Io and Thu (analog to USSR, though I feel it seems closer to China of the ‘70’s) fight a proxy war in Benbili. The nation of Thu was where the original settlers of Anarres came from, so Shevek has a natural affinity to them. During this war, Shevek becomes a spokesperson for peaceful demonstrations that are forcibly quelled by A-Io. Shevek, his theory completed, is granted refuge at the Terran embassy and is provided transport by the Hainish back to Anarres. Shevek’s temporal theory is shared with humanity and the end result becomes the ansible. The ansible is an instantaneous communications device that functions across vast interstellar distances. This places The Dispossessed as the first book in the Hainish Cycle series.
This is a very good book. Shevek feels like a real person living in a society foreign to us, though every bit natural to himself. He is the manifestation of an anarchist society, in his actions (publishing his own work under his own syndicate; exiling himself to Urras) and thoughts (discussions on the central role of pain in all relationships). The depiction of Anarres society appears to be fair – people have little and many do work not suited to them. The PDC prioritizes practical work over the arts (or theoretical physics). Non-conformers appear to be punished by never getting work assignments to their liking. Pairing and familial child rearing, while not unusual is not exactly encouraged by society as it is contrary to collectivism. So Odoism isn’t white-washed into being completely utopian, but it does certainly seem preferable than the lives of the underprivileged in A-Io. So this book leaves you thinking about what is important in life.
(Amazon) The Dispossessed