Shevek, a physicist who studies time. Tall, lean, and long-haired, Shevek is a citizen of Anarres, a world populated seven generations earlier by the followers of Odo, a woman who developed and organized a syndicalist anarchist movement. Shevek, as a genius in a society that has become increasingly conformist to a collective will, has difficulty pursuing and publishing his work, a General Temporal Theory that promises to open possibilities for faster-than-light communication and travel. Against the objections of his society, he travels to the sister planet of Urras, from which the Odonians emigrated, hoping to find there the freedom to present his discoveries. On Urras, however, major discoveries become military secrets to be used to acquire and hold national power. He finally evades the restrictions of both planets by broadcasting his discovery to all the known worlds, making possible instantaneous communication between distant planets. He is nearing the age of forty when he returns to Anarres.
Takver, a fish geneticist. She is tall, dark, intelligent, and not very pretty. Marriage does not exist on Anarres, but she becomes Shevek’s permanent sexual partner. Although their work and the social needs of Anarres often separate them, they have children and support each other in their careers. She encourages him to compromise with the conservative scientific establishment to have his works published off-planet. Later, she helps him form a group to support the sharing of knowledge with other worlds.
Vea, a wealthy and attractive socialite on Urras. In private visits with her, Shevek learns to understand the spiritual inner workings of Urras society, especially with regard to the relations between the sexes and the psychological and social effects of the private accumulation of power and wealth.
Rulag, an engineer. Although Shevek rarely sees her, Rulag is his mother. When he proposes opening communication with and then traveling to Urras, from which Odonians have separated themselves as if from a source of infection, she becomes the leader of his political opposition.
Sabul, a physicist. He dominates the practice of physics on Anarres, even though it is supposed to be controlled by a syndicate of all physicists. Playing on fear of “infection” by anti-Odonian thought, he achieves power and status by regulating scientific communication between Anarres and Urras. When Shevek produces a major treatise on time, he must publish it off-world under his and Sabul’s names.
Dr. Atro, a Urras physicist. The aged Atro, the founder of modern physics, recognizes the importance of Shevek’s work and invites him to Urras. Shevek finds him to be a genial old genius but caught up in nationalist, propertarian, and sexist attitudes that restrict the freedom of his thought.
Efor, Shevek’s servant in his Urras quarters. By observing Efor, Shevek learns about attitudes of the working classes. Efor eventually provides the contacts that put Shevek in touch with revolutionary forces on Urras and that take him to the Earth embassy from which he broadcasts his theory.
Shevek as protagonist provides the unifying point of view. To a certain extent he is an idealized physicist, brilliant but dedicated to humanity. His own vulnerable human nature is revealed in his touching relationship with his partner, Takvar. She is also an appealing character, willing to sacrifice for what she loves, spunky, lively, and loyal. Also a fish geneticist, she is passionately involved with organic life, feeling at one not only with her fish but with all living things. Some critics have found Shevek somewhat too passive a protagonist, but others find him an effective blend of naivete and intelligence, with a mind open to receive new experiences. As a gifted individual, he is a misfit on Anarres, but he also feels alienated by the luxurious life style on Urras. He recognizes himself as doubly exiled from both worlds. As an interplanetary voyager, he is eager to learn and willing to change. His self-confidence is bolstered by his knowledge of his own strengths and weaknesses. Although Shevek and Takvar are effectively drawn, some of the lesser characters, including Shevek's colleagues, are less well-drawn and tend to represent differing political points of view.