Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a complex novel that can be approached either as a work of literature or as a statement of social philosophy couched as fiction. It occupies a position somewhat intermediate between a work of pure science fiction—such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (1951-1993), which is set in the distant future, involves a plethora of inventions critical to the plot, and is populated by characters who think and behave like American men—and a philosophical work such as Thomas More’s De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia (1516; Utopia, 1551), which is couched as fiction but has minimal action and characterization and is mainly a vehicle for ideas.
The Dispossessed is as much about the process by which new ideas develop as about the ideas themselves. The narrative framework of the novel consists of pairs of chapters, the first describing Shevek’s upbringing and scientific career on Annares, the second his life during the time (roughly a year) he spends on Urras. The chapter pairs portray Shevek undergoing parallel odysseys of discovery, thwarted aspirations, and finally a personal breakthrough under extremely adverse conditions that translates into scientific revolution.
Much critical analysis of the novel focuses on the details of the social structure represented by Annares, arguing whether the author intended to provide a sort of blueprint for an ideal society, or, alternatively, a warning about how egalitarianism stifles individual creativity. Such critiques sometimes overlook the facts that the novel is about two different societies, each one unlike actual Earth societies in different ways, and that it portrays the relationship between these societies as much as it portrays each society in itself. Le Guin herself downplays the importance of specific ideas. In a somewhat...
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