You can go home again, as long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.
Shevek is a physicist from the Cetian planet of Anarres, a desert planet (much like Dune 😀 ), moon to Urras (and vice versa). The population of Anarres is composed of settlers from Urras who had left their home planet some 200 years before, following the revolt led by Odo. She never made it to the new planet, but the inhabitants of Anarres and all those supporting her ideology are still called Odonians. Shevek is the first man since this revolution to return to Urras and, in alternate chapters set in each of the two planets, Ms. LeGuin takes us through the chain of events that drove Shevek to leave and through what happens once he arrives on Urras. Right off the bat I should say that I didn’t get the physics – the Principle of Simultaneity he’s working on is supposed to be at the base of the ansible, a device which would allow instant communication – nor did I try too hard (I’ve fostered an intense dislike towards physics eversince middle school). Anyway, to me, the ideological and social aspects were much more interesting.
Anarres has a kind of utopian organization, with communist undertones, founded by anarchists – where the accent is put not on individual achievements or blood relations, but on community, on working together, living together, with no formal laws or leaders but with very strong customs and councils in charge of all aspects of life (such as DivLab – which will basically issue assignments to all adults, theoretically based on their skills & requests). In fact, it’s nothing but a bureaucracy controlled by few – in the way that Sabul, at Shevek’s university, controls all publications in his domain through the PDC – and opinions that go against the grain are frowned upon while the individuals spouting them are ostracized.
Of course, the ‘devil’ of this society, its antithesis, is Urras, a planet divided in several countries , chief among them A-Io, a world much like our own in terms of social organization (in fact, A-Io mirrors USA, in the same manner that Thu mirrors USSR).
What they were free to do, however, was another question. It appeared to Shevek that their freedom from obligation was in exact proportion to their lack of freedom of initiative.
Different as they may be, Shevek ends up being a foreigner in both worlds – hated for his desire to open the borders and share knowledge on Anarres and unable to adapt to the mercantile lifestyle of A-Io. In the end, Shevek realizes that he stands truly alone, self exiled as he puts it, in the same manner in which his home planet had exiled itself from the world. Even his part in the revolution on A-Io (which precipitates his return to Anarres) is not a moment of finding brethren; here, as elsewhere, he is used as a symbol, for his name, his fame, his origin. Le Guin is, of course, an omniscient narrator but, as she describes the rise of Shevek’s social conscience on Anarres and his realization that what he can do for society is to unbuild walls, she’s almost clinically detached in her observations. There’s a whole section where I could hear, in the back of my mind, a narrator on Discovery commenting on the behavior of some odd species – and this turn what could have been a more emotional, elated moment into nothing more than the stating of conclusions.
In the end, I guess you can see the book both as commentary and criticism of contemporary societies and as an exploration of the genius, of the rejection the unique faces in all forms of social organization. Towards the end we also get a glimpse at the fate of the Earth which, overpopulated, managed to self-destruct and become a desert planet, with only half a billion inhabitants.
The Dispossessed is, of course, part of The Hainish Cycle – and I definitely will come back to this universe. At least for The Left Hand of Darkness.