Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Hugo Winner Review: 1975 The Dispossessed

Ursula K. LeGuin
Read 2012, reviewed 5/19/2013
4 stars

I love Ursula LeGuin’s writing.  She creates amazingly detailed societies.  This book has two societies, and the process of the book makes you compare and contrast them.  Each society believes it is utopian, but both are dysfunctional in one way or another.  It is clear that she is mirroring the US and Soviet Union.  Each thinks they are better than the other, full of tension and suspicion, yet both are being confronted with the idea of accepting each other through interactions of an individual.  Clearly, both sides are flawed, but being brought up in one society makes you suspect of the other, no matter how open you may be to the other.  This eventually inhibits the exchange of ideas, and eventually each society’s people.

Though I was young during the cold war of the 60s, I remember the tension between the US and USSR, and the uneasy sharing of arts and sciences between them.  We generally would be able to see people from the USSR as individuals, understanding that they are people with beliefs formed by growing up within their socio-political system, but that they are still people.  But no matter how much we could welcome them to visit and share with us, there was still an underlying suspicion of them.  That is the feeling represented by the plot of the novel.  An uneasy acceptance filled with suspicion. 

I loved the structure of the book, with chapters alternating between the current plot, and the life of the main character, Shevek.  You get to see snippets of his life that form his perception of the world, followed by a chapter of his current situation on the rival planet where his response to events are based on the snippets from the previous chapter. 

The one thing I didn’t like about the book is that it felt cold and disaffected.  Granted Shevek’s home planet is a cold, unyielding place, and it is reflected in the storytelling.  Maybe it’s because I had just read Left Hand of Darkness and was feeling tired of the cold, unyielding planet story.  But I felt the harshness through Shevek’s interactions on the lusher rival world.  Again, this reflects the feel of the harshness of the Soviet Union and how one maintains that paradigm even when presented with the alternative of the US.  It almost makes the novel read like a documentary instead of fiction.

I give the book 4 stars despite my criticism of the coldness of the book.  It is a masterful work of SF, observing current events through an alternative perspective.  And despite the coldness, I did relate to Shevek and his plight, finding myself caught up in the same questions I did as a child.  Can’t we just be friends?

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