I just finished The Dispossessed, one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Nebula-winning novels. As usual when reading Le Guin’s work, I was pretty much blown away. This is not a comprehensive review of the book, but rather some scattered thoughts I wanted to record; spoilers are minor if at all.
I picked my copy up at Powell’s in Portland, OR (the best place in the world, or the worst place if you’re liable to overspend on books like I am!). It’s clearly been through many a reader and many a used book store prior to this; there’s a stamp from “Paperback Exchange” in Salem, OR inside the front cover. Also inside the front cover, someone has taped a small square of paper clipped from a newspaper. It says “What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy? – Ursula K. LeGuin”. This is one of many things I love about used books: the little treasures that offer a tenuous connection to someone who’s enjoyed the book before.
The story contrasts a stable anarchistic society with a capitalist society obviously meant to reflect our own. This could easily come across as cheesy or dogmatic but it doesn’t. And Le Guin uses some potential clichés masterfully, twisting them ever so subtly so that they aren’t parodies but organic components of the plot and character development. Vea Oiie is the best example of this. She’s set up as a seductress and as (it seems at first) a shallow socialite–a woman who bows to all the societal norms of femininity. Yet she holds her own in philosophical discussions, and she is ultimately a victim rather than a seductress.
One bit of dialogue from the book that truly made me happy, incidentally, also involved Vea. Here are Shevek (the main character, from the anarchistic planet of Anarres) and Vea (from capitalist and “archist” Urras):
VEA: The same old hypocrisy. Life is a fight, and the strongest wins. All civilization does is hide the blood and cover up the hate with pretty words!
SHEVEK: Your civilization, perhaps. Ours hides nothing. It is all plain. […] We follow one law, only one, the law of human evolution.
VEA: The law of evolution is that the strongest survives!
SHEVEK: Yes, and the strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical. You see, we have neither prey nor enemy, on Anarres. We have only one another. There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness.
Finally, a writer who gets evolution! And not only that, but gets that natural selection isn’t really all about survival and reproduction (sometimes I wonder if all evolutionary biologists get this). The social environment of an organism is also something it must adapt to.
Bonus commentary for evolution geeks: Notice how she described an anarchistic, egalitarian society that obeys “the law of human evolution” without appealing to group selection? Or even kin selection, for that matter, if you’ve read the book in its entirety.