Friday, January 11, 2013

Kicking it Old School: The Dispossessed

I've been traipsing around in the annals of old school SF again, this time around I decided to explore the fertile ground that is the works published list of Ursula K. Le Guin.  I picked out The Dispossessed based on the back blurb, and a staff recommendation from my favorite local bookstore.

A few generations ago, the moon Anarres, with its bleak desert-like landscape, was settled by an anarchic utopian civilization.  Urras, the mother planet, is a planet much like our own. It has a capitalist system with extreme wealth and severe poverty, as well as it's fair share of warring nations, and savage inequalities.  On the surface, the two planets seem like night and day, and that discrepancy has led to hatred and misunderstanding between the two planets for years.

Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anarres is underappreciated and underutilized on his own planet. So he decides to undertake a most unheard of mission, and travels to Urras in hopes of pursuing his physics career, learning about this unknown world, to share his knowledge, and reunite the two planets.

The Dispossessed has a unique narrative style that I enjoyed quite a lot.  The chapters alternate between focusing on Shevek's time on Urras, and his time on Anarres.  The cool part is that the Urras chapters deal with the events of Shevek's time on the foreign planet, and the Anarres chapters deal with the events of Shevek's life that lead up to his departure from Anarres.  I enjoyed this quality of the book as it made me feel like I was having to put together a mental jigsaw puzzle so that I could understand the book.

There was a bit of a drawback however, as it makes the reader wait a long time for an explanation as to why Shevek decided to leave his home planet behind.  This long development worked as a double-edged sword as it kept me on the hook... to an extent, because for a large portion of the book I didn't understand Shevek's motives, and that led to some frustration on my part.

For me, the most impressive part of this novel is that Le Guin had to create and make real not one world but two, and she did it incredibly well. There were plenty of parallels between Urras and our own, which was a deliberate part of the plot, but Le Guin also made Urras different enough so that it was fun to explore alongside Shevek.  It was interesting to see how further exploration of each planet brought about more highlights and inadequacies of each. The exploration of these two disparate societies reminded me a bit of books like Brave New World, but The Dispossessed explores both the Utopian and Dystopian side by side which I found much more interesting.

In the past, I have had a hard time getting fully into SF books where the focus is on a political exploration/message.  I've often felt like the politics often overtake the narrative and don't leave any space for an interesting story.  For two thirds of The Dispossessed, I felt the same way. However, once the back story kicked in and gave meaning to the current events of the novel, I found myself enjoying it a lot more, and felt rewarded for sticking with it.  It might take a while the whole picture to become clear, but I was glad I hung in there.

I didn't enjoy The Dispossessed as much as my previous Le Guin read, The Lathe of Heaven, but I still enjoyed what this book has to offer.  Despite being published before I was born, it still is a book that can have relevance today.  That should say a lot.  It's not too bad of a read either.

Grade: 7.5 Fanny Packs

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