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The Disposessed (1974)
Ursula K. Le Guin

A utopian novel in which theories of time in mathematical physics ("chronotopology", "sequency and simultaneity", "general temporal theories") play an important role.


Contributed by Ernest Gallo

In brief, it is a gem of a novel. Shevek, the protagonist, is what we would call a mathematical physicist–though there is little math as such in the text. Devoted to the anarchic principles of his world, Anarres, Shevek specializes in reconciling the two branches of temporal theory. Sequency represents the progression of time, from which new and free societies–like Anarres–can evolve. Simultaneity represents solidarity of the future with the past, and that includes the capitalist world of Urras. (Ironically, Anarres is a moon of Urras, to which the anarchists were allowed to emigrate.) The idea is that both in personal and political life, one does not simply shed one’s past. Shevek returns to Urras for the sake of developing his physics, regarded with suspicion by his ideologically limiting world.

Ursula K. Leguin does a beautiful job of presenting Sequency and Simultaneity as complementariy theories in theoretical physics, while subtly making clear that they point metaphorically to the reconciliation of continuity (fidelity to family, to country) with progress. She succeeds in making theoretical issues into urgent personal metaphor: the only other work I know of that succeeds as well is Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen.

Contributed by Jessica Conner

The Dispossessed is about the inner and outer journey of a physicist, Shevek, on a far away planet. The mathematics & physics content is vague and mostly fictional. It is important to the story that Shevek has a superior ability to think and reason, but it would not break the story for him to be a master chemist instead.

Contributed by Barbara Fantechi

This classical SF book follows, in alternate chapters, both the life of the physicist Shevek and his adventures as a visiting scholar to a nearby planet. Shevek is a theoretical physicist, and we're shown how his interest in mathematics develops early in life and how physical intuition, mathematical analysis and philosophical insights have to come together for a new theory to be born.
[This book was] important to me in my journey to become a mathematician.

NB The mathematics in this work of fiction plays an important role in providing a basis for the instantaneous communication device, the ansible, which has helped to shape the non-violent society presented novel. Of course, such a communication device would be incompatible with relativistic physics. So, we have to imagine that Shevek's mathematical discoveries have pushed Einstein aside, as Einstein's did to Newton.

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Works Similar to The Disposessed
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Paradox by John Meaney
  2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  3. Schild's Ladder by Greg Egan
  4. Border Guards by Greg Egan
  5. The Arrows of Time [Orthogonal Book Three] by Greg Egan
  6. The Ganymede Club by Charles Sheffield
  7. The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
  8. Solid Geometry by Ian McEwan
  9. Luminous by Greg Egan
  10. Moebius by Gustavo Daniel Mosquera R.
Ratings for The Disposessed:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
1/5 (4 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.75/5 (4 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
TopicMathematical Physics,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)