Ursula LeGuin: The Dispossessed (1974)

MARCH 23, 2005

A masterwork that talks deeply to us of our own world through the prism of one imagined. In contrast to the empty characters and superficial gimmicks of so much sci-fi, the worlds of Urras and Annarres are rich in philosophical and political detail. Furthermore, in Shevek we have a rounded and fully imagined character, and one through whom we can satisfactorily explore the otherness of her creation. Note: all quotes are from [Gollancz 2002] but original was published in 1974.

... but the principle of organic economy was too essential to the functioning of the society not to affect ethics and aesthetics profoundly. Excess if excrement, Odo wrote in the Analogy. Excrement retained in the body is poison. [84]

It was a very little walk: a slow ten-minute stroll over the grass, and then Vea collapsed gracefully in the shade of a high bank of shrubs, all bright with golden flowers. He sat down by her. A phrases Takver used came into his mind as he looked at Vea's slender feet, decorated with little white shoes on very high heels. A body profiteer, Takver called women who used their sexuality as a weapon in a power-struggle with men. To look at her, Vea was the body profiteer to end them all. Shoes, clothes, cosmetics, jewels, gestures, everything about her asserted provocation. She was so elaborately and ostentatiously a female body that she seemed scarcely a human being. She incarnated all the sexuality the Ioti repressed into their dreams, their novels and poetry, their endless paintings of female nudes, their music, their architecture with its curves and domes, their candies, their baths, their mattresses. She was the woman in the table.

.... She wore a filmy shawl or stole, under which the forms and texture of her bare arms showed softened and sheltered. Her breasts were covered: Ioti women did not go with naked breasts in the streets, reserving their nudity for its owners. .... [176]

[Shevek at Vea's dinner party on Urras] Everything is beautiful, here. Only not the faces. On Annarres nothing is beautiful, nothing but the faces. The other faces, the men and women. We have nothing but that, nothing but each other. Here you see the jewels, there you see the eyes. And in the eyes you see the splendour, the splendour of the human spirit. Because our men and women are free, possessing nothing they are free. And you the possessors are possessed. You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes -- the wall, the wall! [190]

[Takver to Shevek after the great famine] .... I'll tell you what was wrong. I was pregnant. Pregnant women have no ethics. Only the most primitive kind of sacrifice-impulse. To hell with the book, and the partnership, and the truth, if they threaten the precious foetus! ... [in text] It's a racial preservation drive, but it can work right against community; it's biological, not social. A man can be grateful he never gets into the grip of it. But he'd better realise that a woman can, and watch out for it. I think that's why the old archisms used women as property. Why did the women let them? Because they were pregnant all the time -- because they were already possessed, enslaved! [273]

Fulfilment, Shevek thought, is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal. The variety-seeking of the spectator, the thrill-hunter, the sexually promiscuous, always ends in the same place. It has an end. It comes to the end and has to start over. It is not the journey and return but a closed cycle, a locked room, a cell.

Outside the locked room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings. [275]

[Shevek to Keng, the Ambassador from Earth] Because there is nothing, nothing on Urras that we Annarresti need! We left with empty hands, a hundred and seventy years ago, and we were right. We took nothing. Because there is nothing here but States and their weapons, the rich and their lies, and the poor and their misery. There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart on Urras. There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter in, and fear of loss, and the wish for power. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is 'superior' to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them. You cannot touch another person, yet they will not leave you alone. There is no freedom. It is a box -- Urras is a box, a package, with all the beautiful wrapping of blue sky and meadows and forests and great cities. And you open the box, and what is inside it? A black cellar full of dust, and a dead man. A man whose hand was shot off because he held it out to others. I have been in Hell at last. Desar was right; it is Urras; Hell is Urras. [Later Keng goes on to explain that she sees Urras as heaven because her own world (Earth) was destroyed by pollution and overpopulation: 'we destroyed ourselves'] [285-286]