In The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin presents a convincing and realistic portrayal of an anarchistic society. The novel is in part an answer to the many dystopian works of the twentieth century, the most famous of which are George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). In these dystopian novels, the centralizing tendencies of modern governments are extrapolated to their logical extremes: In Nineteen Eighty-four, the government exercises absolute control through surveillance and torture; in Brave New World, the opposite tactic, the cultivation of drug addiction and hedonistic practices among the population, contributes to the pacification of the population. In addition to the use of extrapolation, a traditional rhetorical tactic of science fiction, Le Guin utilizes two other techniques in the construction of her fiction, analogy and “world-reduction.” By including the utopian and anti-utopian worlds in her fiction, Le Guin makes explicit the comparison left implicit in other utopian and dystopian works.
First, the government of Anarres is a combination of the theories of turn of the twentieth century anarchists and the technology of the second half of the twentieth century. Odo, the female theorist upon whose work the Anarresti society is based, bears many similarities to the American radical Emma Goldman. Likewise, Shevek resembles atomic bomb inventor and family friend J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was eventually relieved of his duties for political reasons. Le Guin defamiliarizes these recognizable historical figures by exaggerating their traits and placing them in an alien setting. Thus the plot rests on the answers to the questions often addressed by alternate-history fiction writers: What would have happened if Goldman and her comrades had the necessary technology to be successful? What would have happened to Oppenheimer had he directed his talents away from the invention of weapons of mass destruction? On Anarres, the presence of the computer helps provide the logistical support that makes anarchy possible. It also highlights the contradictory aspects of the ambiguous utopia. In a society allegedly free of masters, who controls the machine that controls people’s lives? Shevek helps provide the answer to this question and becomes an effective proponent of the Anarresti philosophy of “The Circle of Life.”
Whereas Anarres serves as an extrapolation of particular political philosophies, Urras is clearly analogous to twentieth century Earth. Urras is a planet rich in resources which supports a dense population. It is plagued, however, by a continual Cold War perpetuated by nationalistic governments intent on controlling the entire planet. A-Io, the dominant nation on the planet, is a capitalist state characterized by gross inequalities of wealth. When the working class of A-Io, with Shevek’s help, attempts to assert its political will, it is repressed violently, leading to Shevek’s flight from Urras. Thu, A-Io’s main rival in planetary politics, is a centrally controlled Stalinist state similar to the former Soviet Union. Its paper-money rhetoric concerning equality and brotherhood conceals a strictly hierarchical and totalitarian society. The two major nations rarely risk direct conflict, preferring the use of proxy nations in the Third World as their agents. Benbili, one of the more independent Third World nations, is a major reason for Shevek’s visit. He and the Syndicate of Initiative have been in radio contact with a group of Benbili citizens who claim to be followers of Odo and who request the right to immigrate to Anarres. While Shevek is on Urras, the Benbili rebels overthrow the country’s dictator. A-Io intervenes in the conflict, naturally on the side of the dictator.
The technique of “world-reduction” in Le Guin’s fiction was first introduced by the critic Frederic Jameson in...
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his discussion of the novelThe Left Hand of Darkness (1969). In that novel, Le Guin explores the possible nature of an androgynous planet, where the inhabitants are alternately female, male, and neuter. To highlight the contrast between the androgynes and the Terran ambassador, Le Guin alters and simplifies the ecology of the planet. She takes this tactic one step further in The Dispossessed by illustrating the struggle for survival on the desert planet Anarres. Anarres will not support the levels of wealth found on Urras; either the inhabitants share equally or a large number starves.
Shevek notes the importance of this sharing in scarcity. In the middle of a discussion of freedom and brotherhood, he relates a story to one of his fellow Anarresti. He explains how he continued to help a mortally burned victim while on work detail in a remote desert. Shevek asserts that “I’m trying to say what I think brotherhood really is. It begins—it begins in shared pain.” Such an anti-self-interest or anti-utilitarian view is not embraced on Urras, as the ambassador of a decimated Earth of the future comments while giving asylum to Shevek: “I don’t understand—I don’t understand. . . . You are like somebody from our own past, the old idealists, the visionaries of freedom; and yet I don’t understand you, as if you were trying to tell me of future things; and yet, as you say, you are here, now!” Shevek brings the philosophy of liberation to the luxurious world of the Urrasti, as well as to the ecologically devastated world of Earth’s future.