When it came to my reading log, February was a barren month, but March is producing some pretty excellent finds. It all started with The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. It was recommended to me by my good friend Vincent. Actually, after having not seen Vinny for a year or so, he walked in the door during the Christmas holiday and barely even said hello before announcing that he had something for me and producing this book. I was instantly intrigued. Several times I picked up the book during those next few chaotic days, but I never got past the first two pages. It was all about some wall. It went on and on about this wall. I mean, this was rivaling the turtle crossing the road in The Grapes of Wrath. Geesh. What’s so special about a wall?
When I finally found the inner strength to make it past those first two pages (two months later), it turns out that nothing was really special about that old, low-lying wall on the moon-planet of Anarres. What the book really wanted to make me think about were the walls built between people.
The Dispossessed opens amid the descendants of a group of idealists who had left the neighboring planet of Urras two centuries before in order to form a communist anarchy on the barely habitable planet of Anarres. The people live in dorms, eat from a cafeteria, and work wherever the master computer tells them there is a need. Survival on the barren planet is brutal, but they endure because of a deep seated value of self-sacrifice for the sake of the community. They all universally hate the capitalistic, hedonistic, and more densely populated mother planet of Urras, a hate prompted by fear of war and violence, something that does not occur on Anarres.
Into this utopia is born Shevek, a genius physicist who chooses to risk his life to tear down the walls between Anarres and Urras. He boards a space ship for Urras, the first man from Anarres to leave the planet since it’s founding. When he arrives, he finds himself warmly welcomed, accepted into the highest circles of academia, and paraded through the finest parties. He soon finds out that these are not open handed gifts, however, and begins to suspect that what the country really wants is the theory that he has been secretly working on for years, a theory that will make instantaneous space travel possible. But he knows that if they claim the theory for themselves, they will have the advantage over every other civilization and that this will only build up more walls. Shevek wants the theory for everyone, for the entire Universe and so he escapes into the underworld of Urras where he finds a revolution waiting to tear down the walls that money and a love of power have built up.
Peppered into this story is the whole account of Shevek’s life, from his infancy when he is abandoned by his mother, to finding his life partner Takver, to finally coming to the place when he knows that the utopia must not be only for those on Anarres. The book see-saws from the account of Shevek on Urras, to stories from Shevek’s life, so that your understanding of the man and his world grows even as the plot thickens.
This is the kind of book that made me feel dumb. I would read paragraphs again and again, only to give up and think, “Maybe if I read the book a second time I’ll understand”. More than being a book propelled by plot or even by character, it is propelled by philosophy and the digesting of ideas. I kept reading, thinking that I wasn’t understanding a word, but by the end of the book I had absorbed so much that at the final climax, it all came into focus, like when the optometrist clicks the lenses and you can finally read E D F C Z P. There was understanding at the end.
A delightful portion of this book is spent in the presence of Takver, Shevek’s tall and proud partner who creates a home for Shevek when he finds no home in either his own culture or in the culture of Urras. He can always return to her, even as he is constantly searching through the Universe for answers to the mysteries of the human experience.
I really feel like I need a couple more readings to get to a place where my mind can contain all that’s in this book. Because of the list of awards that Le Guin and her book have garnered, I’m guessing that a more comprehensive understanding of The Dispossessed would pay off, but for now I’m willing to chew some science-fiction cud.