The hardest thing to do as a science fiction author is to shirk one’s humanity. Or, rather, one’s Earthling upbringing. It is easy to say that a character has been born and raised on the planet-colony B-Epsilon-59. It is not easy, in-fact, exceedingly difficult, to fully be able to write how living on such a different culture would affect even basic decision making of such a character. The Dispossessed, much like The Left Hand of Darkness, asks readers to give themselves to entirely alien planets and cultures. There are still people in The Hainish Cycle, as there are people on the book’s “anarchist utopia”, Anarres. And from the introduction it seems that it is wholly separate than systems of community on Earth. No one owns anything, no one speaks in the possessive (thus, The Dispossessed), and everyone must contribute equally to cultivating food while the planet experiences a famine. We see this thought experience stumble, however, when it comes to several things. Namely, the treatment of sexuality in the novel, the reaction to sexual advances in the novel, and the presence of the nuclear family unit.
Samuel R. Delany, an author previously talked about this blog, recognized these same points in his critique, To Read The Dispossessed. It is an incredibly thorough 62-paged critique, harsh, but warranted. It is the type of critique that makes me wonder how the two authors stayed friends after—if they did at all! Still, as mentioned, Delany brings up many interesting points about Le Guin not fully buying into her own conceits in her fully sci-fi world. Shevek, the main character, is hard to sympathize with. He leaves his family (at their urging), has a rather unfulfilling affair with his childhood friend, Bedap, and sexually assaults a woman during his time on A-io. However, none of these should be compromising—at least, not in a world where affairs, abandonment, and assault as concepts should not exist.
The last readers see Bedap, he had left after visiting Shevek and his nuclear family. It is not true to say that Takver is Shevek’s wife, but she fulfills the narrative role in all but title. Shevek is talking with Takver and their children, upset at their anguish, and thankful in their bond. Bedap leaves the scene, and as he does, thinks to himself, “The time’s going to run out on me, all at once, and I will have never had… that.” While Le Guin recovers by claiming “And what he meant by “that” he could not have said, good as he was with words”, but it is not quite enough. Bedap muses that to be “saved”, he “must change his life.” This is a book, Bedap, naturally, is not a real person. If a fully autonomous person said they had no reasoning for their feelings, that is acceptable. But in a book, there can never be anything shown that was not put there by the author. Le Guin has him lament over this “that” which he misses deliberately after he seeks Shevek and his family. Most readers, I feel, would connect the two. As Delany puts it, we know three things about Bedap: “he bites his nails, he holds certain political beliefs, and he is a homosexual.” Throughout the book he stops biting his nails, and his politics were the same as Shevek’s at that point in time. It is uncomfortable, the implications of this. Especially when everyone on Anarres is raised in a non-heterosexual nor homosexual society, but purely bisexual. Similar to the ambisexuals in The Left Hand of Darkness feeling rather masculine rather than nonbinary, her portrayal of bisexuality rather feels like a heterosexuality with slightly bicurious tendencies. Either way, with Takver’s devotion and Bedap’s restlessness, a heterosexual family unit is considered fulfilling and good over alternatives in The Dispossessed.
The family unit, and more specifically the role of mothers, is reinforced in a disappointingly stereotypical way in both Takver, Shevek’s partner, and Rulag, Shevek’s mother. Rulag left Shevek’s life when he was small, leaving him with his father. When she attempts to reconcile with him, Shevek denies, for she has already failed her status as mother. Takver, on the other hand, is an ever-devoted partner to Shevek. Their society is so that if there are affairs, it is not a big deal, but Takver seems to only have eyes for Shevek. She has the “that” that Bedap lacks, she has a quality that the woman who sexually titillated Shevek does not. She has all the qualities of a good wife, rather than a partner to sleep with, or worse, a woman to potentially assault. The Dispossessed has many elements that do work: the nonlinear structure, for example, is immensely interesting and effective. There are many things that I wish worked—for I do agree with Le Guin that there had not been a purely anarchist utopia. However, I do not think that Anarres is one. I wonder what this book may look like if she put it away and revisited it after five years, mulling over what seems too Earthlike.