Urras and Annares are twin planets orbiting Tau Ceti, a star eleven light years from Earth. Roughly a million years ago, Urras, Earth, and a number of other planets were colonized by Hain. The Hainish abandoned their colonies, which subsequently evolved in different directions. The nation of A Io has become the most powerful on Urras. A highly class stratified society, it experiences an uprising by anarchists led by the revolutionary Laia Odo. The anarchists fail to bring about revolution, but they are permitted to colonize Annares, Urras’s barely habitable desert moon, where they are free to order their colony as they see fit. Once the colony is founded, the people of Annares and Urras have minimal contact. Eighty years later, the Hainish reestablish contact with Urras.
Seventy years after the Hainish contact Urras, an Annarean physicist named Shevek is invited to A Io to receive a coveted scientific prize and continue his work on the simultaneity principle, which his hosts believe holds the key to faster-than-light space travel. Shevek accepts the invitation, becoming the first person from either society to travel between the moon and the planet since Annares was colonized. Shevek sees himself as an emissary of reconciliation between Annares and Urras. Some of his fellow Annaresti consider him a traitor and attempt, unsuccessfully, to prevent his departure.
Shevek’s childhood has been spent in an “ambiguous utopia,” a society in which private property is virtually nonexistent and no individual has official power to coerce another. When he is two, his engineer mother abandons him to work in a distant city, and he spends most of his childhood in dormitories. The communal ethic, lack of family ties, and constant peer pressure to conform work tolerably well for the average child. However, others require a level of autonomy and individual expression that the regimented society theoretically allows but in practice discourages. These Annaresti include Shevek, whose mathematical genius is evident at an early age; Bedap, a profound social thinker; and other friends with artistic talents. Gazing up at the “moon” (Urras), the friends wonder whether what they have been told about the evil society their forebears rejected still holds true.
Despite the spartan communal existence and long hours spent performing menial labor, Shevek establishes himself, by age twenty, as a rising star in physics. He leaves the provincial community in which he grew up to work under Sabul, Annares’s leading physicist, at the National Institute of Sciences in Abbenay. There, he discovers that the institute’s scientists enjoy privileges that others on Annares do not: Shevek feels vaguely guilty, slightly tainted by the sin of being “propertarian,” when he is assigned his own sleeping room and allowed seconds on dessert at the institute cafeteria. Under Sabul, he learns Iotic to read the works of Atro, the leading Urrasti physicist, from whom Sabul has plagiarized most of his own work. At first, Shevek has free rein to correspond with Atro and produces important papers based on the collaboration. Sabul becomes increasingly jealous of Shevek, however, and he places barriers in the way of his publishing. The...
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