The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Social Concerns / Themes

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The Dispossessed, which the author calls an "ambiguous Utopia," is more concerned with social and political issues than most science fiction. It is set in two contrasting worlds, a colony on the moon called "Anarres" ("without things"), and its neighboring planet Urras. The colony is an experiment in total socialization, with no private property, no class or rank, with even names of the new-born chosen by computer. This experiment in idealistic anarchy contrasts with the older society of Urras based on wealth and class. A physicist from the austere colony, lacking in even basic resources, visits the capitalistic world in order to discuss the implications of his new temporal theory for all settled worlds. The result is not a clear-cut preference for either world but rather a thoughtful comparison of the weaknesses and strengths of each.

Along with the theme of capitalism vs. socialism, the novel deals with the role of the scientist in society. The physicist-protagonist finds the tyranny of public opinion and of bureaucracy on Anarres as threatening to the freedom as the power politics of Urras. The physicist Shevek is in effect exploited by both worlds, in Anarres as a gifted individual in an egalitarian society and on Urras as a pawn of rival states.

The anarchistic ideal explored here is influenced by the philosophy of Taoism, which posits a social system in keeping with nature. There are no unequal classes in nature, where harmony and balance prevail over hierarchy. The goal of social harmony inevitably creates tensions with the needs and desires of individuals, and a major weakness of society on Anarres is the tyranny of social approval and disapproval. The Taoist doctrine of inaction is also evident on Anarres, where all aggressive action is disclaimed. Throughout the work Le Guin maintains the dialectic, and both worlds are revealed as having serious flaws as well as strengths. Although Urras allows inequities in its class structure, its society allows art and culture to thrive, unlike Anarres, where the gifted individual can be crushed by public opinion and bureaucracy.

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