Dissing on The Dispossessed

I’m not going to snark on the book itself here, only the covers. But in doing so you’ll learn a fair amount about the book!

First of all, this one, which to my mind is the classic one.

It’s grand, sweeping, colorful, exciting. It boils the tale down to its basics: two worlds, very different, close but not touching. One is blue and green, lush, parklike. The other is a cratered red moon, which, though it looks uninhabitable, has an oxynenated atmosphere with white clouds. Purple and blue swirl between the two like auroras. Alex Ebel, the artist, has literally incorporated all colors of the rainbow. The tilted typeface adds to the dynamism.

Though it looks real enough to be literal, it’s representational. The landmasses of Urras, the lower world, do not correspond to Ursula K. LeGuin’s map of the planet, and the surface of Anarres doesn’t either.  Like the novel itself, it’s meant as an allegory of the Cold War, the division between capitalism/West and communism/East. It’s an Atompunk novel through and through in how it examines ideologies and allegiances and what happens when a groundbreaking scientific discovery shakes things up.

As such, the technology of The Dispossessed lies firmly in the Atompunk age. Though there are spacecraft capable of interstellar travel, they are limited to the speed of light and take years to reach other systems. On-planet, there are no cell phones or widespread computer use. The lifestyle on Urras, the Earthlike world, is that of Western Europe in the 1970s. Travel is by train, there are still quaint chocolate shops and mountains like the Alps where sheep are still herded by villagers, as well as political riots and revolution in the “African” country of the opposite continent. This isn’t quite a failure of imagination on LeGuin’s part, as the whole novel is allegorical, in a sense.

The planet of Urras. The only map I could find was in Spanish.

There’s also an amusing depiction of a college faculty party the hero of the novel Shevek, the physicist inventor of the ansible (basically, a real-time interstellar radio) which skewers the various “types” one might see at such a party, and at which Shevek thoroughly embarrasses himself by vomiting into a tray of hors deuves after being led on by his patron’s hot-to-trot sister, Vea. Le Guin spend more than a little time in acadamia, remember, and the novel also works very well as a send-up of two different university systems.

Anarres, also in Spanish.

Anarres has more land than water, so  it is more arid. Despite this, the Russian feel to it is very strong. When a famine hits, it reads like a Gulag run by the prisoners. Anarres tries to be independent of its parent planet, Urras, but for things it can’t produce itself, it trades metals and minerals from its mines. No one owns property on Urras. No one even has the concept of owning property, as when the settlers left, they invented a whole new language which struck out the words for it. There’s no marriage and children are raised in a kibbutz system. (Hmm, come to think of it, it’s more the early days of Israel than the glory days of the USSR.)

Anarres also is limited to 70s era technology. As in the movie Colossus, there is a master computer system that helps run things, such as assigning work and allocating resources. The computer also gives children their names, simple, randomly-generated words of five or six letters each. It’s not explicitly stated by LeGuin, but the reader can assume that for an anarchist, non-governed society, an impartial AI is the way to go over humans with their powerlust and egos.

This later cover has the same design as the Alex Ebel one and captures some of its vitality, but the palette is blah and so are the planets. This Anarres doesn’t even have an atmosphere, and where are the seas? It looks like Earth’s cratered, gray moon. And what what’s that red shadow, a coming eclipse? That wasn’t in the book.

(Actually, Anarres and Urras were described as “The Cetians” — because their star was Tau Ceti —  with the implication they were a double planet system that revolved around a common center of gravity known as a barycenter.  Though one planet might have seemed like a moon to someone on it opposite. In the novel Anarres is repeatedly referred to as “the moon” which, while not incorrect, isn’t really technically correct either.)

This cover is one of those WTF ones that has nothing to do with the contents of the book. I suppose the artist was told it contained Machiavellian political machinations, so he or she depicted literal Machiavellis in a psychedelic Peter Max style. Whatever.

Needless to say the characters in the book didn’t dress like Medieval Italians in floppy velvet hats and embroidered tabards. Anarres has no fashion at all, that concept having been eliminated with the concept of property, and I can’t even recall LeGuin even wrote what people wore there.

Urras fashion, at least in the nation of A-Io where the action takes place, is described as being very different than Earth’s, both for contrast with Anarres and to add a touch of exoticism that lets the reader know this is an alien society. Both sexes shave their heads completely and women wear long, pleated skirts with bared breasts, which they cover up with a shawl when in public. Makeup, high-heeled shoes, and jewelry are also feminine attire — gemstones in navels and magnetic gems which stick to the skin. (In LeGuin’s later short story “The Day After the Revolution,” also set in A-Io, the attire of Mand, another kingdom of Urras, is stated as long kilts for men and wide trousers for women. ) Anyway, the only thing I see on this cover related to what’s in the book are a computer and a bald-headed person, but one has nothing to do with the other.

Now if you want fashion, here’s fashion.

This Romanian cover depicts Vea, the bored sister of one of Shevek’s Urrasti patrons who tries to seduce Shevek at a cocktail party. Alternately, she could be a representation of the whole “decadent” society of Urras. The artist correctly depicts her shaved head, bared breasts, and shawl, but livens them up with clunky jewelry to look more exotic. She’s posing before a… well, I don’t know what it is. Maybe an ansible, the device Shevek invents. There’s the prow of a Viking dragon-head ship in the background as well as a spacecraft. This certainly livens up the text.

This cover is equally wacky, coming across more like Dune, with a blimp. In fact dirigibles are mentioned as being used on Anarres, but only in a throwaway line in one paragraph. I suppose the man is supposed to be Shevek, the book’s physicist hero, but he looks more like Stillgar with his stillsuit and noseplug that’s flying loose.

A much better depiction of Shevek, plus the maps! Shevek looks a lot like tortured proto-punk singer Iggy Pop here, but with a monastic feel as he looks skyward in trepidation. Nice job.

There’s a whole bunch of covers like these which are plain dull, consisting of a planetscape, sun, and moon. There’s not much to be said about them except they are all typical of this one. I bet it took all of two minutes for the art director to create.

This cover tries to connect a piece of common street graffiti to the novel. But the anarchism in the book, and the anarchism espoused by street artists, are two very different concepts. It seems like a ploy to lure readers in, frankly.

This Spanish cover has the same urban feel but it’s miles more effective. It depicts the novel’s ending line, “… but his hands were empty, as they had always been.” The open hand, unclothed male torso, and blue chalky strokes create a melancholy but powerful image.

This Turkish cover also does a fine graphic job, depicting a variation on the twin planet theme by depicting an anthropomorphized sun face with a whimsical moon looking back. But it doesn’t quite fit the mood of the book.

This French cover is… uh… another Viking ship, this one with a naked lady prow, and she’s wearing a horned helmet? The spacecraft behind it sports some kind of solar sail, which is mentioned fleetingly in the book, but overall, this image is just inexplicable.

I’ll close with this piece of fanart by Melissa Elliott.

Click to see larger





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