Novel Review - The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Leguin
by Ursula K. Leguin, 1974, 341 pages
TLDR: 5 out of 5 for top notch social science fiction, well written and with beautiful characters that somehow reveal the soul of SF.
This was our February pick in 2016, and it was nominated by @dr_mitch who thinks it is one of the best SF books he's ever read. And truly, I now love this book, too.
The Dispossessed is pure social science fiction. It follows the character of Shevek, a physicist who lives on arid planet of Annares, as he matures into his field and tries to develop a theory of the simultaneity of time. It's told in alternating time sequences, so the first chapter has us meet Shevek halfway through the story, while every second chapter is a sort of flashback in which the first half of the story is told.
The earlier part of Shevek's story takes place on Annares, which we learn is the smaller of two inhabited planets in a twin-planet system in Tau Ceti. The other planet is Urras, which considers Annares to be its moon. The two planets are very different. Urras is very earth-like, while Anarres is set up as a sort of socio-anarchist utopia.
The second part of the story is set of Urras, which Shevek is sponsored to visit and teach on by a university. He is the first person to cross the void between the two planets in nearly 200 years, because the people of Anarres largely shut themselves off.
The real strength of this book is in how these two very different cultures are revealed to us, and then contrasted. It really loved exploring life on both planets. On Anarres, we see something that, on paper, functions so differently, and yet somehow we get the sense that this is what resides in our soul. It is, perhaps, a society built around how people actually treat each other. In our time on Urras, by contrast, we get to look at ourselves from outside. Both studies were a real pleasure.
The book is also filled with wonderfully developed characters, not least of which is Shevek himself, noble but flawed. 5 out of 5 stars.