Suffered the Loss of Expectations

I just finished reading The Dispossessed, a science fiction novel by Ursula La Guin. If you’re worried about spoilers for a 40 year old book, you might not want to read this post. I don’t normally do book reviews here, but hopefully the reasons why I’m writing this will be apparent.

The Dispossessed is a story about a settlement of people on a moon that orbits a ‘mother’ planet that is pretty much Earth-like. The unique thing about this settlement is that they are a society of anarchists – they have no government, no rules, and no laws. We find out later that public opinion and ‘sway’ fill in this absence of rule. As time moves ahead, this settlement starts to develop an influential structure of public opinion that begins to cramp their freedom.

There are many themes in the book, here are a few:

  • walls
  • women’s role in society, sexism
  • the different ways to run a society

Walls are prisons, and when you build a wall to protect your freedom it keeps you locked in just as much as it keeps others out. Walls are also inescapable in the book, each human is self contained by their own wall, in the grand metaphorical way but also in a practical temporal way.

The settlement is a woman’s society, one character says at some point in the middle. It took me a while to pick up on this, but then it becomes obvious, the themes of motherly love, and the possession that women and men feel for each other either as lovers or as parent and child. But, these are relationships that anyone can choose to maintain or not. The Earth-like ‘mother’ planet is run by men. There are wars and inequality there, and nobody can do much about it.

There’s a lot of ideological discussion about society in the book, much of it involves concepts of freedom and time. You’d have to read the book to get it, and to take from it what you feel is worthwhile. Much of this discussion I found reassuring, and looked back on, and reread yesterday, the day after the American election, when I finished it. Some excerpts:

“What we’re after is to remind ourselves that we didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we’re no better than a machine. If an individual can’t work in solidarity with his fellows, it’s his duty to work alone.”

“Fulfillment is a function of time. The search for pleasure is circular, repetitive, atemporal.”

“So looking back on the last four years, Shevek saw them not as wasted, but as part of the edifice that he and Takver were building with their lives. The thing about working with time, instead of against it, he thought, is that it is not wasted. Even pain counts.”


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