When I recently returned to the story through the audiobook narrated by Don Leslie, I found the infatuation that had so arrested me had faded. The ideas, once so vivid and vital in my mind, had lost their lustre, becoming old-hat and common sense. At the same time, I began to notice the novel’s shortcomings, despite my best efforts not to: There was an awful lot of exposition, its real world parallels were obvious and dated, and Le Guin’s prose, while still beautiful, contained neither the mythic flourish of The Left Hand of Darkness nor the practiced grace of later works like Lavinia. I had to face the painful possibility that I was perhaps outgrowing one of my most treasured tales.
But as I re-immersed myself in the book, I discovered that my love for it had not diminished, but had simply grown more complex. For the first time, I came to see the story without idolizing its strengths or justifying its worth, and so discovered it as it was, flaws and all. The appreciation that stems from this acceptance of the whole is less absolute than before, but I think more durable. And underneath the constructed societies of Anarres and Urras, past the complex philosophies and ideologies, beyond from the book’s dual-narrative structure, I finally discovered the thing I was and had always been drawn to – the thoughtful, ethical, naïve, wonderful human being and protagonist at the center of it all: Shevek. My Shevek.
By Le Guin’s own judgement, The Dispossessed was not a complete success. She believed that she did not entirely succeed in creating a work that transcended moralistic condemnation. “The sound of axes being ground is occasionally audible,” she wrote in her essay Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown (Language of the Night, p.102). But at the same time, she also noted that writing the novel helped her get to know Shevek. “If I had to invent two entire worlds to get to him, two worlds and all their woes, it was worth it.” (p. 102) I am eternally grateful for the introduction.
Four decades after its publication, many people value The Dispossessed primarily as a political manifesto for anarchism. I don’t. For me, it is first and foremost a tale about one man’s lifelong struggle to find meaning and joy. It is Shevek’s journey I identify with. It is his story that resonates. It is his narrative that I wish to explore. Come cross the wall with me, if you like.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Language of the night: Essays on fantasy and science fiction – Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown. New York: Berkley edition, 1982.
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