Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The dispossessed

Ursula K. LeGuin
Harper, 1974 (my copy is from Eos, 1994)
Size: Average (my copy has 387 pages)
Theme: Interplanetary social drama
Narrative: third-person
Main character: Shevek
Recommended minimum age: Teenager
Would purchase as a gift to any sci-fi reader: YES

Orbiting each other, Anarres and Urras are two very different worlds. Anarres is a barren planet, with very limited resources, limited water and sparse vegetation. Some generations ago, anarchists from Urras abandoned the strict and settled Anarres. Since then, they have managed to make this new society work, by creating a strong sense of responsibility and common good. Personal and family relationships, ownership of goods, salary, and many other aspects of life are entirely different, and a xenophobic gap has grown between Urras and Anarres. There is a single spaceport that enables a measure of trade between the two societies. However, since the settlement, no one has ever travelled between the two worlds beyond the wall encircling the spaceport.

This is the story of Shevek, a brilliant physicist, and the first person from Anarres invited to visit Urras. After struggling for many years to fulfill his role in the Anarres society, his work is finally recognized in that alien world. Decided to take this opportunity to share his knowledge to the benefit of the entire universe, Shevek will have to contend with the Urrasti greed and desire for power.

The plot does not unfold sequentially; it skips from Shevek’s childhood, to his time in Urras, to time he spent with his family before travelling to Urras, and so on. The novel is very interesting, both in how it showcases core issues in the human nature, and also in addressing how a split faction of a society could evolve under radical conditions. The main character is innovative and complex; yet simultaneously, endearing. The secondary cast fills in quite well, although always with a clear focus on Shevek. The pace is appropriate and the descriptions manage to retain your attention. I enjoyed reading it.

*** Spoiler Alert ***
(Warning: the following text contains information that may hamper/ruin how much you enjoy the book):

Still before going to Urras, Shevek had visualized in his mind the answer everyone wants, a general temporal theory, unifying sequence and simultaneity. However, he had been unable to bring it to fruition. Having the potential to enable instantaneous travel across the universe, the Urrasti power structure attempts to coerce him, but in the end he is able to escape to the Terran embassy. The book ends with his return to Anarres, accompanied by a Hainish (one of the space-faring races).

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