Ursula K. Le Guin: THE DISPOSSESSED (1974)

I (re)read this a year and a half ago, and took notes, now condensed a bit here. And I’ll add it to the Reviews/SF directory page.

Le Guin is best known for THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS in 1969, but this later novel is nearly as well known; both books won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Here’s the edition I read this time (and to which the page references refer to).

The Wikipedia entry for the book has the first edition cover; I own a book club edition of that.


A physicist, Shevek, from the barren, anarchist colony planet Anarres, travels to its home planet Urras, with its capitalist, patriarchal society. The Urrasians court him for a theory he is developing that could enable faster-than-light travel, or communication via an “ansible.” The narrative alternates Shevek’s experiences on Urras, as he becomes involved in a revolution, with his childhood and young adulthood on Anarres, as he struggles to learn Urrasian science and develop his own theory of transilience while being obliged to perform manual labor. The novel is impressive for its contrast of political systems and philosophies (with feminist and Taoist themes notable), and for the plausible variant physics that enables a different way of looking at the world.


Leisurely, solemn, often profound. Subtitled in some editions “An Ambiguous Utopia,” this is one of the most serious examinations rival cultures and ideas of the ideal culture to ever appear in science fiction.


The book takes place on a pair of sister planets, apparently of the star Tau Ceti. Urras has with a civilization millennia old; the language is Iotic; landscape is lush; the economy capitalist.

Anarres, the moon of Urras, barren and dry, was initially settled by miners.

Some hundreds (?) of years ago, a revolution on Urras led by Odo, whose followers (though not herself) eventually migrated to Anarres, and now speak Pravic; the culture is anarchist, Buddhist-themed, with individual ownership discouraged; to be selfish is to be egoist.

The two planets have no contact except for the cargo ships; those on Anarres have exaggerated ideas of life on Urras.

Chapter by Chapter Summary

Ch 1, A wall separates the spaceport on Anarres from the rest of the planet. Now, a man, who some call a traitor, walks through the gap in the wall toward the spaceship, a freighter taking cargo to Urras. This is Shevek. He’s taken to quarters, given a number of vaccines, and allowed to sleep. He has no luggage. He’s a famous scientist. An Epiphanist, 14b, an atheist? Not really. He and Dr. Kimoe have awkward conversations. Kimoe is shocked to consider men and women as equals; there are no female scientists on Urras. 17m.

The ship lands on Urras, and Shevek is put in a taxi and driven through the city directly to the University. He sees the forest, and animals. He’s obliged to attend an elaborate reception, meets many people. They are all short, and bald; he’s tall. They all dress in splendor. He’s taken to his room. He says, you have your anarchist now.

Ch 2, Flashback scenes of Shevek’s life: as babies, being selfish, “mine sun.” At 8 years old, he tries to explain a paradox [Zeno’s paradox] but is dismissed by the teacher as merely being clever, of egoizing. He realizes he is different; he admires cool numbers. His father Palat gives him a logarithm book. (His mother Rulag is away?) He reads of the life of Odo. He and some other boys play prisoner, locking one of them in a basement for two days…

Age 16, now at an institute, watching the moon, i.e. Urras. They talk about history, the revolution; but now, how do they know what Urras is like? Why do they both fear and hate it? Would any of them go there if they could?

There’s a large area called Dust with is being worked in a forestation project, planting trees grown up north. Dull work. A girl rejects him. Boys and girls at this age casually have sex, with both boys and girls, 51.7. Discussion of terms, how the Pravic language works, 52-53. Shevek ponders General Temporal Theory, 55t, thinks about ideas as he works. He submits a paper, that is rejected with a curt equation, 56b, exposing an error.

Finally he’s ready to go to Abbenay, the major city. There’s a big party the night before. He has a long discussion about suffering—is it just misunderstanding? 60ff. The issue is to get through it. Brotherhood begins with shared pain, p62.

Ch 3, Urras. Shevek wakes in his room, quite luxurious; admires the view. A servant comes in with clothes; Shevek doesn’t understand who this person is. Four other men come later, all distinguished scientists; one of them gives Shevek an award he won some years before. Quickly Shevek is gratified that he is conversing with equals. Again, there are no women scientists; women keep their place. Shevek reflects that these men are possessed by their women, 75.0. Is he an emissary? No, not officially. He is here on his own initiative.

He’s given books to read, also tabloid-like newspapers. After three days he’s let out, and taken on travels. He’s impressed by what he sees; it’s not as bad as what they imagined on Anarres; perhaps the lure of profit isn’t so bad after all 82. They visit a city called Nio Esseia, where he sees Odo’s tomb. He gives a speech which gets little reaction; he sees their space research center, and speculates at FTL, about transilience, 86. They pass the fort where Odo was a prisoner. Later he’s back in his room, lonely, seeing…the moon.

Ch 4, Anarres, his trip to Abbenay by dirigible. It passes the space port. Discussion of mining, Defense, green. They arrive in the city, he wanders, sees a statue of Odo, recalls how excess is excrement. He finds the institute, is given a room—his own room, for the first time.

He meets Sabul, his mentor. First he must learn Iotic, to read the science from Urras. Sabul disciplines him over his interest in some other scientist—no mysticism! Also, don’t share what he learns from Urras, an idea that troubles him (everything is shared).

He’s aware of his curse of difference, p106, and how he is thus aloof, needing no friends. He reads a Urrasti text, also takes a course from Gvarab. There is no privacy anywhere except for sex. He works hard, finishes a book that challenges Atro, 114, and bickers with Sabul about how to publish; Shevek is afraid Sabul will take credit for others’ work.

He becomes ill, is taken to a clinic, and visited by his mother! Leaving him weeping when she departs.

Ch 5. Urras. Shevek teaches a couple seminars and does an open lecture course, but has no other duties. He’s bothered by the exam system. He’s repelled by the local economics, e.g. a shopping street p131f. One of his scientist hosts, Chifoilisk, insists that Shevek understand he’s being bought; Ch, loyal to his own country Thu, invites Shv there. It may be dangerous here; Pae is reporting to the secret police on them.

Shevek understands that the locals want his theory. It’s not written down; he’s not even sure he can complete it.

He visits the elderly scientist Atro; they discuss contact with the Hainish, mention a creation story…

Shv is invited to dinner by Oiie, and meets his family, his kids. What keeps people in order 148b, on Anarres, he wonders; Shv describes how work is done on Anarres. He sleeps over, and dreams.

Ch 6. Anarres. Recovered, Shv returns to his room, chats with his neighbor, a mathematician. Shv, now 21, tries to reform himself, making friends, attending concerts. He takes to music. But he basically remains alone. He tries mailing letters to Urras, but gets no replies.

After 3 years he feels burned out. He talks with his old friend Bedap; about the power structure, and public opinion, how they undermine the ideals of this society. It’s easier not to think. Are there really people “behind the scenes”? Well, yes, like Sabul.

He has a couple brief affairs, including a composer, Salas, who works manual labor because the syndicate doesn’t like his music. On a hike he meets a woman, Takver, who is looking for a bond, not just sex. They move in together. She’s a marine biologist. They grow old together.

Ch 7. Urras. Shv gets an anonymous letter as if from some revolutionary underground. He speaks with his servant Efor. On another visit to Oiie he meets the latter’s sister-in-law, Vea, and expresses interest in seeing the ‘real’ city. She invites him to call her.

Then there is news of a revolution, in Benbili, and a military response. Shv has no one to talk to; politics of reality 203. He’s still polishing his theory. Can he escape? He takes a train to Nio Esseia, walks the streets, is offended by the prices in an art gallery. He calls Vea and they meet for lunch, and spend the day together. Shv wonders if she’s inviting his advances? He’s invited to a party that evening, and talks physics 221, and later is honest about the conditions on Anarres 228b. Later makes advances on Vea; she struggles; he climaxes; then gets sick all over the buffet table. His associates come to take him home. He wonders if he’s a fraud.

Ch 8. Anarres. Drought, winter. Takver is pregnant. Shv finishes a paper, but Sabul won’t approve its publication. Unless he allows Sabul to be a joint author? Then it could be sent to Urras.

Takver has a daughter, Sadik. Discussion of monogamy and sexual mores, note 245.4. Shv gets a new assignment, far away. He exchanges letters with Takver. On a return trip his train is stuck with no food. He returns home, to find Takver and the baby gone—now she’s been assigned a remote post. And Shv gets another one.

Ch 9. Urras. Next morning Shv is sick and ashamed. He realizes the state owns him. Pae reveals that there are plans for an “ansible”—based on his unfinished theory! 276. Discuss “Aisentain” the Terran with the theory of relativity. Thinking of it, Shv has an insight into his own problem, and works for days.

Atro visits, calmly insisting that the people will be willing to fight, 287t.

Shv shows the note to the servant, Efor, who reluctantly gives Shv the name of someone in Old Town. Shv takes a taxi there, looking for Joking Lane, and finally meets Tuio Maedda, 295t, members of a group who dream to emigrating to Anarres. Shv agrees to write a statement supporting them. A General Strike ensues, with songs, speeches, p300, about shared suffering, about what Anarres does not have… Copters come and fire on the crowd. Shv flees with the crowd, hides in a basement with another man for 3 days; the other man dies. He can’t believe anything gets done with this kind of military organization—except for killing people.

Ch 10. Shv works in the Southwest, and eventually gets to Chakar, with Takver and Sadik, now 4. The girl stays in a dorm. The talk about Tirin’s play, how he was a rebel. Shv regrets compromising on his book with Sabul. He decides to start a new syndicate and print his own books. He wants to unbuild walls.

Ch 11. Urras. Shv arrives at the Terran embassy (!) in the city. He takes refuge there for days, then he explains to the ambassador that he wants to give his theory away, to everyone. As he talks about what he thinks about Urras, the ambassador replies that, from the perspective of Terra, a ruin, Urras is paradise! It’s alive! He gives the equation…

Ch 12. Anarres. A council meeting; they discuss having received a message from Urras, people from Benbili who want to come to Anarres. Shv is there; Rulag, the mother he seldom saw, is there too, objecting to everything. Shv floats the idea of going to Urras himself. But if he did, could he come back? Not per the terms of the settlers here.

Later, he’s had a second daughter, Pilun. Takver is having trouble at work because of sentiment against Shevek as some kind of traitor. So what then, does he go to Urras? Can he come back?

Ch 13. Now on an interstellar ship, run by both Terran and Hainish, Shevek returns to Anarres. He talks with the first mate, who wants to land too, even if he can’t return. So they prepare to board the landing craft. Shv thinks how he will sleep on Anarres that night, and see his family, even though he has brought nothing—“His hands were empty, as they had always been.”


There are references to Terra 70b, and to “Aisentain,” so these planets are presumably human settlements that have forgotten their homeworld; but there is also the Hain, or Hainish, which feature in several other Le Guin works. The term “all-Cetian” suggesting that Urras and Anarres orbit Tau Ceti, 78,79.

Le Guin wrote, some of them before this one, several novels and stories set in the Hainish universe in which the ansible allowed FTL communication. By internal chronology, this is the first.

Interesting words:
Occiput 312.9
305 about the military org
Divagation 238.7
Apocopations 193.7

Full text at http://libcom.org/library/dispossessed-ursula-le-guin.

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