This was my introduction to Le Guin. I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick her up, other than a general aversion to science fiction that’s been with me since I was a kid. Turns out I was confusing a dislike of science fiction for a dislike of story-driven plots. Character-driven plots are what keep me turning pages.
I guess that’s a way of saying I like good science fiction, but can do without mediocre sci-fi. I can’t imagine anyone being better than Le Guin.
Le Guin is a writer in the same way that Michael Jackson was a singer. It’s a technically accurate description, but it undersells Jackson as a performer, which is arguably a more telling description. In the same way, Le Guin is a philosopher as much as a writer. The Dispossessed is an exploration of two very different kinds of society. Urras is basically Earth in this scenario: a capitalist wonderland and wasteland at the same time. (The kings and queens of this wonderland, pejoratively described as “propertarians” throughout the book, go to great lengths to hide the wasteland from prying eyes.)
Anarres, an infertile moon orbiting Urras, is home to rebels who fled Urras in search of a more egalitarian society. The book takes place roughly 160 years after the establishment of that society—plenty of time for the lustre to wear off and the hardships of creating a truly property-less society to take a toll. That’s a deliberate choice, of course: Le Guin doesn’t shy away from those hardships, but she does weigh them against the freedom and camaraderie that characterize life on Anarres.
Le Guin tells the story through the eyes of a brilliant Anarrestian physicist who’s been invited to Urras to share his work. He’s the first Anarrestian to do so—citizens of the two worlds mostly loathe each other—and so he’s a perfect vehicle through which to compare the two societies.
It would’ve been easy to let the philosophical backdrop dominate the book, but luckily Le Guin has a masterful understanding of the human condition. Her characters are flawed but admirable. The storytelling leaves nothing to be desired.
All in all, The Dispossessed is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I’m grateful that so much more of Le Guin’s work is ahead of me.