“Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planets of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe… Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Urras, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.”
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed alternates between two narratives across time and space. One revolves around the protagonist Shevek in the present as he travels to and learns about the world of Urras; the following piece looks at this story. The second narrative tells the story of Shevek’s past and his life growing up on the world of Anarres, an anarchic and egalitarian society – I’ll explore that in the next post. Finally, I’ll be examining the whole story in a third and final piece through one of the novel’s central theme: Reconciliation.
Fleeing an angry mob from his home of Anarres, Shevek boards the space freighter Mindful bound for Urras, the neighbouring sister world. Two centuries ago, Urrasti revolutionaries chose exile to Anarres and founded a society with no government, where the only law is the principle of mutual aid. Deciding to accept a prestigious prize in physics for his groundbreaking ideas on time, Shevek, the naïve anarchist, travels to Urras in part to learn about a world his xenophobic society has shunned for seven generations.
Celebrated upon arrival by his hosts, Shevek is astonished at the beauty and opulence of A-Io, his host nation with a vibrant capitalistic society. To Shevek, Urras appears to be a utopia, full of natural and technological splendour. In contrast, his Anarres is a barren wasteland, barely capable of supporting life. Unlike his own people, the Urrastis are enthusiastic and supportive of Shevek’s work; they offer him a professorship at a prestigious university and the intellectual freedom to carry out his life’s work, to find a theory that unifies the linear and cyclical nature of time.
But as time goes on, Shevek begins to realize that he has been bought by the government of A-Io, who seeks to use his findings to gain advantage over the neighbouring rival nation of Thu along with the interspatial powers of Hain and Terra. Feeling trapped, Shevek escapes from the university to the nearby city of Nio-Esseia, but ends up embarrassing himself and is dragged back to his gilded prison.
Ashamed but with his eyes opened, Shevek sits down in earnest to complete his theory. He resolves not to let it fall into the hands of profiteers, and escapes again, this time to the slums to join contemporary revolutionaries planning a public demonstration and general strike against the Ioti government. Shevek delivers a powerful speech at the rally, but the event is cut short by machine-gun fire as military helicopters arrive to quell the insurrection. Many are killed and more are arrested, but Shevek manages to secure asylum at the Terran embassy. Once safe, he gifts Keng, the Terran ambassador, his completed theory, knowing it will lead to an incredible new technology: The ability to communicate instantaneously across any distance. Shevek asks that his equations be broadcast to all nations and societies so that it benefits all of humanity. With that, he is ready to return home to Anarres.
On the way back to Anarres, Shevek meets Ketho, a Hainish alien officer onboard the starship Davenant. Like Shevek, Ketho wishes to travel to and learn about a new world. Shevek warns Ketho that there are those on Anarres who will not take kindly to returning traitors and strangers, that he cannot guarantee safety. The story ends with them about to set foot on Anarres, empty-handed and open to possibility.
Feeling at Home
“The otter sat up on its haunches and looked at him. Its eyes were dark, shot with gold, intelligent, curious, innocent. ‘Ammar,’ Shevek whispered, caught by that gaze across the gulf of being – ‘brother.'”
-The Dispossessed, p. 152. Image by Dmitry Azovtsev.
One of the things that struck me while rereading The Dispossessed through the Ekostories lens was the connection Shevek feels with Urras. Arriving from his desolate Anarres, Shevek is entranced by his ancestral home’s vibrancy:
“It was the most beautiful view Shevek had ever seen. The tenderness and vitality of the colours, the mixture of rectilinear human design and powerful, profligate natural contours, the variety and harmony of the elements, gave an impression of complex wholeness as he had never seen, except, perhaps, foreshadowed on a small scale in certain serene and thoughtful human faces… this is what a world is supposed to look like.
-The Dispossessed, p. 64
Later on, Keng, the Terran ambassador, expresses the same admiration, commenting that Urras is “the kindliest, most various, most beautiful of all the inhabited worlds”, that “it is the world that comes as close as any could to Paradise.” (p.347)
Shevek’s thoughts and Keng’s words remind me that our aesthetic roots lie in the non-human world. They highlight the innate yearning humans have for nature, of how we can be rendered spellbound and speechless when confronted with the majesty of landscapes, the sure grace of animals, the still grandeur of trees. Both Shevek and Keng come from biologically impoverished worlds; Anarres is a moonscape that lacks higher forms of life while Keng’s Earth has become an ecological ruin. When Shevek is confronted with Urras’ natural abundance, he senses that stirring kinship with life itself, knows he is at last home, part of a vaster community. Yet there this profound sense of connection is tinged with a sense of loss and bitterness:
“When he saw an animal, the flight of birds, the splendor of autumn trees, that sadness came into him and gave delight a cutting edge (p. 152).… It was an unjust beauty. What had the Urrasti done to deserve it? Why was it given to them, so lavishly, so graciously, and so little, so very little, to his own people?”
-The Dispossessed, p.207
Recently in Orion magazine, Christopher Cokinos wrote an article on the tragic tale of the North American passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird on earth before driven to extinction in the 20th century. Coming upon a preserved specimen, Cokinos contemplated the complex feelings of weariness and loss that accompanied each vanished species wiped out by human beings.
If I could travel back in time to a wilder world, back to a past when passenger pigeons dimmed the skies and great auks roiled the seas, when bluebucks bucked and quaggas roamed and just-missed life were still alive and abound, I have a feeling I would respond as Shevek did when he saw the vital world of Urras – with delight and a kind of grieving wonder.
The Dark Side of Urras
Despite the fact that Urras has the makings of a enduring utopia – successful resource management strategies, a stable population base with high standards of living, a technologically advanced economy – it is marred by systemic issues of exploitation, sexism and oppression. For Shevek, natural and technological wonders are not enough for a sustainable society – it must first and foremost be just, sustained by authentic human relations.
Coming from a society with no money, it takes Shevek some time to realize that behind every action taken in Urrasti society was the profit motive. Everyone wants something, and behind each of his host’s gracious hospitality lurked a price to be paid. Atro the militarist wants Shevek to wield his knowledge over the other nations for the purpose of prestige. Paile, the charming opportunist, works for the government and leeches off Shevek’s work to advance his own career. Chifoilisk is a Thuvian spy and tries to recruit Shevek to further his own nation’s cause. Even Oile, a colleague who genuinely admires Shevek, seeks the physicist’s approval as a superior and not an equal. As Shevek discovers and ultimately rejects, Urras is a society of walls – some visible and structural, others internal and entrenched. Nothing is as it seems.
The Woman in the Table
Coming from an egalitarian society and as a partnered man, Shevek is deeply disgusted at the sexist views held by many of the Urrasti elites. The first Urrasti he converses with, the doctor onboard the freighter, is astonished that the physicist considered women his intellectual equals. What is more disturbing to Shevek is that even women seem to accept this line of thinking. Conversing with Vea, Oile’s sister, he is dismayed at how she deludes herself with the notion that women are actually empowered instead of being treated as property.
“She incarnated all the sexuality the Ioti repressed into their dreams, their novels and poetry, their endless paintings of female nudes, their music, their architecture with its curves and domes, their candies, their baths, their mattresses. She was the woman in the table.”
– The Dispossessed, p. 213. Image from trendhunter.com
Vea’s a fascinating character. Beneath her manicured and sexualized exterior is a mind capable of subtlety and depth, yet she repeatedly confuses freedom as the means to indulge her impulsive desires and be happy with the power of personal initiative. To Shevek and to Jordan Peterson in the CBC Ideas documentary “Say No to Happiness” , one is trivial and insatiable while the other is the most precious and meaningful journeys one can embark on. After several readings, I’m still unsure whether Vea is truly self-content.
Wrappings in a Box
“Even as the crowd noise rose up in tumult the clack of the helicopters was still audible through it, the mindless yell of weaponry, the meaningless word.”
-The Dispossessed, p. 301. Image from wikimedia commons.
Shevek also comes to understand why his ancestors chose to exile themselves to Anarres. Gaining the trust and sympathy of Efor, his assigned servant and a non-property owner, he learns of the gulf of inequality between the rich and the underclass. Standing with others against the Ioti government, he comes to know the violence those in power use to exert control over others. Shevek’s frustrations with Urrasti society finally culminates in one of the most intense exchanges in the book:
“There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, and fear of loss, and the wish for power. You can not say good morning without knowing which of you is ‘superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them. You cannot touch anther person, yet they will not leave you alone. There is no freedom. It is a box – Urras is a box, a package, with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man. A man whose hand was shot off because he held it out to others. I have been in Hell at last. Desar was right; it is Urras; Hell is Urras.”
– The Dispossessed, pp.346-347
Desire for profit. Fear of Loss. Wish for Power. Not being naïve anarchists from the moon, these are motivations we all harbour to some degree. Because they are so engrained within our culture and our personal identities, it is very difficult to face and control these impulses. But I believe it essential if we wish to better ourselves, the relationships we have with others, and the world. Who could we be if we possessed the courage to let go? What would society look like if we valued human and communal relations over monetary profits? How would our relationships change if we rejected games played for politics, prestige, and power?
These may sound like glib questions designed to go on t-shirts, but taken from the context of Shevek’s experiences, they take on real meaning and impact. Because Shevek’s vantage point is so alien, so removed from my own, his provocations offer me a place to step back and reflect. As I wrote in an earlier essay exploring another revolutionary, do we have to reconsider human nature to affect true change?
To Include and Connect
“You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.”
-The Dispossessed, p. 190. Image from badmetaphor.net
Despite all his condemnations, Shevek acknowledges that Urras is not the sum of its ills and evils. He comes to realize the lure of profit is just as effective as natural initiative for getting things done. He remains in awe of Urra’s prowess in coordination and production, the greatness of its enterprise and endeavours. Most importantly of all, he learns that the Urrasti were not the “gross, cold egoists” Anarresti propaganda painted them all to be, but rather a complex people capable of both great acts of kindness and cruelty. His trip, even to Hell, had not been in vain:
“The dignity and beauty of the room he and Efor were in was as real as the squalor to which Efor was native. To him a thinking man’s job was not to deny one reality at the expense of the other, but to include and to connect. It was not an easy job.”
– The Disposessed, p.284
It is this acceptance of multiple and contradictory perspectives, a key theme that is woven into the very fabric of the novel, that makes Shevek such a fascinating character and The Dispossessed such a compelling read. This notion of embracing contradiction is something I’ll come back to later on.
Next up: Anarres and the promise kept.
- Crossing the Wall: The Dispossessed
- Changing Planes: The Nna Mmoy Language
- Tao Today: A Sage’s Take on Modern Society, Part 2
Le Guin, Ursula K. (1974) The Dispossessed. New York: HarperCollins, Eos Paperback Edition, 2001.
Featured Image from desktopas.com
I enjoyed your take on this LeGuin classic. What struck me was Shevek’s recognition of the commonality among life forms. I feel this whenever I see a fish and realize that thanks to them…I have a back bone among other benefits. We simply are not that different. I’ve read Cokinos’ excellent accounts of extinct birds including the sad tale of what was once the world’s most common bird. At the Cincinnati Zoo, the aviary where the last Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet passed into extinction is preserved as a memorial to vanished species. It is a very sobering place to visit.
“What struck me was Shevek’s recognition of the commonality among life forms.”
Yes, that’s one of the things that comes up again and again in the book. It is not a trivial thing. It’s very interesting and personal because I was raised in the city in my early childhood without much exposure to living creatures, but when I immigrated to Canada I was exposed to the countryside, and I recall vividly that awe, of feeling more at home and connected to the surroundings. It’s something that has stayed with me.
I also heard about the passenger pigeon. How awful!
Thanks for this great look at The Dispossessed. This is such a sobering quote: “There is no freedom. It is a box – Urras is a box, a package, with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. . . . I have been in Hell at last. Desar was right; it is Urras; Hell is Urras.”
It is one of the many passages from the book that has stayed with me. I was thinking of maybe doing a post just on my top ten quotes. 🙂 We’ll see!