It is very difficult to review this novel, because it is not just merely a science fiction novel, but a political commentary. In order to give this novel a proper reply, I might have to do a thorough research (which I might do someday, given the circumstances) and write a full-length thesis.
This novel is a political commentary, comparing two opposing ideology: ‘propertarianism’ in planet Urras, which is based on ownership, and anarcho-syndicalism in planet Anarres, which is based on no ownership, hence the title “The Dispossessed”. The story is told from the point of view of Dr. Shevek, a physics scientist from Anarres, which is invited to witness the life of their counterpart in Urras.
The plot is not the strongest point of this novel, even it is engaging at some points. So if you are a plot junkies, you might get disappointed. This book is about ideas, and you can find ideas are debated, rebutted, crushed, defended along this novel. It is the ideas that make this book alive. And once I read it, it kept ringing in my head and haunt my dream. At some points it answers some of my questions, but most of the time, it gives me new questions to ponder.
Here are some of them:
1. Is it possible that a society exists without ownership?
Ownership is so engrained in our modern society, so that we cannot possibly think of a society without it. So does with money. (I am doing a thesis on the philosophy of money, and struggle with it). What we have here is a thought experiment. What if… it is possible. In here Le Guin gives us a possible working anarcho-syndicalist society, a society without ownership and without sovereign power. We govern ourselves. The government bodies is voluntary, and rotated. The job is also rotated via DivLab (division of labor) department, which is a database computer. Manual job is rotated also for everybody, because we need to give our muscle a chance to work (not just in gym like hamsters playing wheel).
2. What is education? What is ideas?
What is the best way of generating ideas. By gaining profit on it like a ‘propertarian’? Or simply because the love of it, like a pure amateur. What is university? There is one quote that I love about university:
In feudal times the aristocracy had sent their sons to university, conferring superiority on the institution. Nowadays it was the other way round: the university conferred superiority on the man.
And this one:
It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.
The idea of ‘owning’ and idea is a crap, unthinkable. How can you own an idea! Unfortunately Le Guin does not go at length at this, given this novel was first published in 1974, before intellectual property right regime is so strong to a point of bullshit like nowadays.
3. What makes a brotherhood (or sisterhood to make it fair) possible?
Le Guin’s argument has a hint of Buddhism. Here is what she said:
“The reality of our life is in love, in solidarity,” said a tall, soft-eyed girl. “Love is the true condition of human life.”
Bedap shook his head. “No. Shev’s right,” he said. “Love’s just one of the ways through, and it can go wrong, and miss. Pain never misses. But therefore we don’t have much choice about enduring it! We will, whether we want to or not.”
The reality of this life is pain, or in Buddhist term called ‘dukkha’. Like the Buddhist said, it is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, merely realistic.
And pretty much more…
But two things especially capture me. It is the question of manual labor and the law of inheritance.
1. Schooling has been a way of avoiding manual labor; so the least fortunate of us, which are not bright enough or wealthy enough to get a degree are doomed to do manual labor, that everybody abhors.
This thought has haunted me very long. In Anarres, manual labor is rotated for EVERYBODY. Everyone needs to do the share. No one has the privilege to avoid manual labor, even the brightest one (the wealthiest one does not count, because there are simply no ownership).
2. Law of inheritance has made an uneven starting point in the beginning or their life, especially if you don’t live in a welfare state. In Anarres, even a child is not a property. A child belongs to the society, so the society will take care of it. Sound like Sparta, right? Actually there are primitive societies that practice this. So if you are a child in this primitive society, you can have your lunch in anybody’s house, because you are the child of everyone.
I am not going to answer those question. Simply to think about it is hard enough. Those are questions for a life time.
This is the reason why I give this novel a FIVE STAR. It gives you enough material to think for your entire life time. The one that I mention here just some of them, there are plenty of others. Like I said, I might need to write a thesis about it, someday.