The narrator describes an unimportant-looking wall. It is low and made from roughly-cut rocks mortared together somewhat haphazardly. The wall is easily climbed and is really just an “idea of a boundary,” but nevertheless the wall has made that idea “real,” and for seven generations the wall has been the most important thing on this world.
Le Guin begins the novel with a description of its main symbol for Anarresti isolation and the divisions that run deep throughout this galaxy. The wall, the “most important thing” on the entire planet, is first presented as a means of keeping the Anarresti experiment safe from outsiders.
From one side of the wall, it appears to enclose a large, barren field called the Port of Anarres. There is a rocket pad, a garage, and a dormitory on the field. The dormitory is abandoned and is meant, the narrator says, to function as a quarantine. The dormitory and the landing field are enclosed by the wall and are meant to keep separate everyone who arrives from anywhere else in the galaxy. In this way, the wall “enclose[s] the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.” From the other side, the wall appears to enclose the planet of Anarres—from this view, it is Anarres which is quarantined and squared off.
Boundaries and binaries are important in this novel. Le Guin begins the book’s action by focusing on the implications of one of the most heavily symbolic physical boundaries, describing how the wall “quarantines” any visitors to Anarres and keeps them from ever even edging close to Anarresti society.
Today, some people are standing along the point where the road cuts through the wall. Often people come from the nearby city of Abbenay in order to excitedly observe a spaceship, but today there is a somber mood in the air. Members of the Defense syndicate seem to be on high alert, ready to stop anyone who might try to breach the wall from getting through, though nothing exciting or dangerous ever really happens at the landing field.
Though the wall is often a place where Anarresti can excitedly observe—albeit from a distance—rare encounters with other inhabitants of their galaxy, today tensions are high. This serious mood foreshadows the deep resentment that the Anarresti feel for the passenger departing today (later revealed as Shevek), and the betrayal his departure represents.
The captain of the freighter departing today—the Mindful—asks the female foreman of the Defense syndicate whether a nearby mob is after his ship. The foreman sees that a large crowd has gathered at the breach in the wall. The foreman replies in “slow and limited Iotic” that the mob is simply protesting the passenger who is scheduled to leave today. The captain asks whether the mob will try to stop the passenger from boarding, or the ship itself from taking off. The foreman asks the captain whether he can look after himself, and he replies that he can. He then instructs the foreman to get the ship’s cargo unloaded and board the passenger quickly. He pats a phallic-shaped weapon holstered on his belt and tells her that he does not want any “Oddies” giving him and his crew trouble.
The tensions between the Urrasti crew and the Anarresti Defense Syndicate are apparent right away. The Urrasti are prepared to use force, which comes in the form of their phallic-shaped weaponry meant to assert dominance. The Defense Syndicate, meanwhile, sees protest as a natural and commonplace occurrence, and a demonstrative form of freedom. Moreover, the freighter captain uses a derogatory nickname—Oddie—to denigrate the Odonian culture as “odd.”
The foreman, angry at the way the captain has spoken to her, tells him that liftoff will take place at fourteen hours forty and then heads off to the wall, ordering her team to clear the road and make way for the trucks that will soon come through. The mob more or less complies with her orders—the mob, the narrator says, has little experience with actually being a mob—and there are “as many emotions there are there [a]re people.”
The mob’s disorganization, despite the highly-unionized nature of Odonian society, speaks to the range of feelings present in the crowd on this day. It’s implied that though protest is never discouraged, the Odonian people do not have a great deal of experience as protestors, as their society is normally harmonious and well-oiled.
Some members of the mob have come to kill a traitor, while others have come just to catch a glimpse of him or to yell insults at him as he leaves. A few have brought knives, but no one has a gun. The mob expected that the passenger would arrive in an armored truck, and so they hardly notice him walking up the road alone and unprotected. By the time they realize who he is, he is already halfway across the field, flanked by Defense syndics. Some members of the mob hurl rocks at the passenger, clipping his shoulder and striking one of the Defense crew in the head, killing him instantly.
The outburst of violence from the mob, aimed at the mysterious passenger as he walks toward the Mindful, is characterized as uncommon for citizens of Anarres. Le Guin shows this through their haphazard approach to retaliation as well as their simultaneous lack of weaponry and ability to mortally injure a member of one of their planet’s own syndicates.
As the ship enters space, the passenger feels completely isolated, as if the world has fallen out from under him. He looks up at the stranger beside him, who is speaking to him in Iotic—a foreign language, but one the passenger can understand. While the stranger fumbles with the straps holding him into his seat, dislodging them, he asks the passenger whether he was hurt by the rocks. The passenger answers that he is well. The stranger says that he is a doctor and urges the passenger to follow him. The stranger addresses the passenger as Dr. Shevek. Shevek insists that he is not a doctor—he is just Shevek.
Shevek has been strapped down for takeoff, symbolically stripped of his freedom. As the ship enters orbit, Shevek’s disorientation mirrors the reader’s. He is on a foreign spaceship, totally alone, forced to communicate in a foreign language—his isolation is total, and the doctor’s confusion about Shevek’s title further foreshadows the ways in which he will be misunderstood by many now that he has left his home planet.
The doctor is a short, fair, and bald-headed man. Anxious, he tells Shevek that Shevek should get to his cabin quickly—there is a high risk of infection now that Shevek, in the chaos surrounding the mob’s attack, has come in contact with individuals on board the Mindful other than the doctor. Shevek follows the doctor out of the crew lounge. He is dizzy, and his shoulder hurts. He is struck by the “awful, utter silence” onboard.
Shevek’s isolation is not just emotional or psychological, but now physical as well. As a passenger onboard a foreign ship, Shevek is susceptible to many Urrasti diseases, and must be quarantined to keep himself safe. The “utter silence” is another physical aspect of Shevek’s isolation, and a metaphor for the uncertainty he’s facing.
The doctor brings Shevek to a room with blank walls. Shevek, exhausted from lack of sleep the night before, recalls the events of the last few days. After seeing his partner Takver and their children off to a city called Peace-and-Plenty, he busily communicated with the people on the planet Urras, and also conferred with his Anarresti friend Bedap and other members of their syndicate about the “plans and possibilities” for Shevek’s journey there. Over the last several busy days, Shevek has felt that his tasks and errands have been in control, and that his own will—despite being what “had started it all”—has not been in effect.
Shevek’s recollections of the last several days demonstrate how profoundly isolating this journey is for him. In the days leading up to it he has felt disconnected even from his own inner thoughts and desires. As Shevek reflects on all he has left behind—a family, friends, and a syndicate of coworkers and supporters—the depths of the isolation he faces are even more greatly magnified.
The doctor examines Shevek’s shoulder—Shevek hardly remembers being struck at all—and then turns to him holding a large needle. Shevek tells the doctor, in Iotic, that he does not want the shot. The doctor insists that Shevek needs a measles vaccine. Though the disease it protects against is not present on Anarres, it is common on Urras, and potentially deadly. The doctor injects Shevek with the measles vaccine, as well as several others. Shevek silently submits to the injections, knowing deep down that he has “yielded himself up to these people,” and has abandoned his Anarresti “birthright of decision.”
As Shevek submits himself to the care of the Urrasti, he is isolated even further by his renouncement of Anarresti freedoms (which, it’s suggested, are total). Shevek is now at the mercy of the Urrasti, and in order to live among them he must alter himself to fit in. The vaccines are a physical symbol of the ways in which Shevek has had to—and will continue to have to—make changes to himself to be accepted on Urras.
In the blank room, Shevek finds himself in a “wretched void without past or future” that seems to last for hours or even days. Shevek aches from his injections and runs a fever. He sleeps a long, deep sleep, and when he awakes, is confused by the time on the clock near his bed. He wonders how, in between two worlds, it can be a certain time of day, eventually deciding that the ship must keep its own time outside the boundaries of either world, and he feels refreshed by his ability to figure this information out. He sits up and stands, testing his balance—he feels that the ship’s gravity must be weak, and begins searching his room in search of a feeling of solidity.
Shevek goes through a physical transition as an effect of his vaccines, showing how he is also mentally transitioning in preparation for his arrival on Urras. For now, he has the safety of the in-between space that the spaceship represents, but as his fever breaks and the end of his journey through space nears, he approaches his “new” life weakly but determinedly.
Touching panels on the walls opens them to reveal a toilet, sink, desk, closet, and shelves. Shevek bathes and dries himself, and then gets dressed in a set of pajamas. Not knowing what the loose-fitting garments are, he wonders if this is how everyone dresses on Urras. He tries to leave his room but finds that the door is locked. Feeling a blind rage come over him, Shevek attempts to let himself out of his room. He activates an intercom panel and shouts into it, asking to be let out, and soon the door opens—the doctor is on the other side of it. The doctor explains that the locked door was a precaution meant for Shevek’s own safety, intended to keep contamination and contagion out. Shevek says that to lock in and to lock out are the same thing, and that his safety is irrelevant to this fact.
As Shevek finds himself locked inside his stateroom on board the Mindful, he experiences a violent rage at the idea that there are any barriers at all around him. On Anarres, the only barrier is the wall surrounding the port. Encountering a locked door for the first time in his life fills Shevek with anger and fear that he has made the wrong choice in even attempting to travel to Urras, where perhaps the barriers will be more common—and more impassible—than he realized.
The doctor suggests that Shevek get dressed. Shevek, indicating his pajamas, says that he is dressed already, and the doctor tells Shevek that pajamas are sleepwear. Shevek is puzzled by the idea of clothes meant just for sleeping and asks where his Anarresti clothes have gone. The doctor tells Shevek that he sent them out to be sterilized, and then opens a panel in Shevek’s room to reveal his clothes hanging wrapped in green paper. The doctor removes the paper from Shevek’s suit and tosses it in a bin. Shevek asks where the paper has gone, and when the doctor tells him that it is in the trash, Shevek marvels at the idea that paper is burned up and disposed of. As Shevek dresses, he notes the doctor placing his pajamas, too, into the bin. The doctor explains that the pajamas were service-issues, and throwing them away costs less than cleaning them. Shevek contemplates these words “the way a paleontologist looks at a fossil.”
In this scene, Shevek is introduced to Urrasti customs that are completely alien to him. The idea of a second set of clothes just for sleeping is a luxury to him—he does not even notice that his pajamas are “service-issue,” and probably a low-quality fabric. He is shocked and seemingly a bit perturbed by the disposability of everything on Urras, and the idea that so much is wasted. Paper and clothing are more precious resources on Anarres, evidently, judging by Shevek’s response to the doctor’s actions as he helps Shevek get dressed.
The doctor, noticing that Shevek has no luggage, assumes that Shevek lost his belongings while running to the ship from the mob, and says he hopes that Shevek didn’t have anything too valuable with him. Shevek tells the doctor that he brought nothing along with him on the journey, explaining that he is arriving on Urras as a “beggarman”—because there are neither possessions nor money on Anarres, Shevek is emptyhanded. The doctor assures Shevek that he is not a beggar, but an honored guest, and tells him that he will receive a fantastic welcome once he is on Urras. He promises Shevek that things will be “different” on Urras than they are on the ship, and Shevek tells the doctor he has no doubt things will be different indeed.
Shevek has come empty-handed on his journey to Anarres, symbolizing his Odonian values of frugality and humility as well as his desire to receive all Urras has to offer with an open mind and heart. Though Shevek realizes that things on Urras are bound to be different from anything he’s ever known, he comes to the planet as a humble representative of his planet, ready to explore Urras through eyes unclouded.
Though the journey between Urras and Anarres—known to the Urrasti as the Moon Run—normally takes about four days, the crew has given Shevek five days on board in order to adapt to his surroundings and allow his vaccinations to take effect. The captain of the Mindful orbits Urras begrudgingly, and each time he encounters Shevek onboard speaks to him with “uneasy disrespect.” The doctor assures Shevek it is nothing personal—the captain is used to seeing all foreigners as inferior. Shevek tells the doctor that the onetime leader of the Anarresti, Odo, referred to this Urrasti phenomenon as “the creation of pseudo-species.” Shevek confesses that he had hoped the many languages and nations of Urras, as well as visitors from other solar systems, would have made the Urrasti more tolerant, but the doctor—whose name has revealed to be Kimoe—explains that there are very few interstellar visitors.
The idea that Shevek is being treated as a member of a “pseudo-species” is off-putting but seemingly unsurprising to him—he knows the history of Anarresti and Urrasti relations, and is well aware of the tensions that run between their two worlds. Despite this knowledge, Shevek retains a degree of hope and naiveté—even as he is being treated badly by the ship’s prejudice captain, he hopes that on the surface of Urras that things will be different. The doctor’s report that very few people from other planets visit Urras, though, speaks to the potential failure of the planet to open its doors to others, signaling the tensions that hang over not just Urras and Anarres as they relate to one another but also perhaps Urras as it relates to the rest of its solar system.
Shevek tells Kimoe that the Second Officer, too, has been regarding him with a kind of fear. Kimoe explains that the officer is deeply religious, and sees Shevek—who comes from the religion-less Anarres—as a “dangerous atheist.” When Shevek protests, Kimoe, flustered, explains that he meant there was no established religion on Anarres, not necessarily a lack of belief or spirituality. Shevek notes that the two are always flustering one another with their lack of understanding of one another’s societies, and with differences in their languages. All of their conversations are “exhausting to the doctor and unsatisfying to Shevek, yet intensely interesting to both.” Shevek sees Kimoe as his only way of understanding what truly awaits him on Urras, as there are no books on board and hardly anyone will talk to him.
In this passage, Le Guin introduces the idea that Shevek is considered dangerous not only by the angry Anarresti he has left behind, but by the Urrasti as well. As Shevek and Kimoe attempt to understand one another, they can’t help but offend and upset each other. Nevertheless, their mutual fascination with one another is symbolic of the pull that exists between the Urrasti and the Anarresti, who otherwise overwhelmingly seem to hate and look down on one another’s society. It may be that their many similarities only strengthen their scorn for each other.
Shevek asks why there are no women on board the ship, and Kimoe tells him that working aboard a space freighter is not women’s work. Kimoe asks Shevek if it is true that women and men are equals in Anarresti society in terms of social status. Shevek asks Kimoe to explain the concept of status, and Kimoe, unable to do so, presses him again and asks whether there is any distinction at all between men’s work and women’s work. Shevek asks what sex has to do with division of labor, and when the doctor asserts that men are physically stronger, Shevek counters that this fact does not matter when so much of Anarresti industry is aided by machinery. Moreover, Shevek says, it’s true that men can work faster and lift more than women, but women have longer endurance and more stamina.
Shevek, used to an anarchist society, cannot understand the concept of social status, or any social division of any kind, while Kimoe is unable to see how the Anarresti operate in a world where there are no divisions at all. The deep ideological differences between Urras and Anarres are laid out for the reader through these conversations, and Le Guin also uses them to discuss gender through a more detached lens—the Urrasti are obviously sexist and over-attached to the gender binary, while the Anarresti seem to purposefully avoid connecting larger social ideas to gender.
Kimoe laments the loss of “feminine delicacy” and “masculine self-respect” when it comes to not dividing the sexes, and asks Shevek how the men of Anarres “constantly” pretend to lower themselves to the level of women. Shevek tells Kimoe that he is not pretending anything at all. Shevek then steers the conversation away from the topic of men and women, but continues to think about how concepts of superiority and inferiority must rule Urrasti life. He wonders if women on Urras consider men inferior, just as men consider them to be, and contemplates how this power dynamic might affect Urrasti sex lives.
Again it’s suggested that women on Anarres are equal to men, while on Urras there are vast differences between the sexes. The Urrasti way of thinking about gender difference mirrors the Urrasti class stratification and the prevalence of “concepts of superiority and inferiority.” On Anarres, there are no such divisions, but on Urras, as Shevek is beginning to see, these divisions and hierarchies are everywhere.
Shevek wonders at the fact that he is now, on this new world, ignorant about all matters of sex. He considers the sensual pleasures of the softness of his mattress on board the ship, and the almost erotic smoothness of the curves of the furniture in his bunk. He decides that he will stop worrying about his ignorance until he gets to Urras, confident that he will figure out things there soon enough.
Sex throughout the novel will often be a metaphor for bridging the gaps between not just people, but worlds. Shevek’s sexual compatibility with those he knows on Anarres is vastly different than his sexual compatibility with those he meets on Urras, and his anxiety about being “behind” in matters of sex symbolically mirrors his anxiety about being distant and cut off from Urrasti culture more largely.
As Shevek prepares to strap in for descent, Kimoe comes to his cabin to check on the progress of Shevek’s many immunizations. Kimoe gives Shevek a pill that will “pep [him] up” for landing, and then says farewell. He tells Shevek that it has been a great privilege to meet him, and to have been the recipient of Shevek’s deep kindness. Shevek shakes Kimoe’s hand, hoping aloud that the two will meet him again. Shevek calls Kimoe “brother” in Pravic, only realizing after the doctor has left that Kimoe does not understand the Anarresti language.
Despite their great ideological differences, Shevek still feels a warmth for Kimoe, evidenced by the fact that he calls him “brother.” There is still a gap between them, though. Literally it is a language gap, but Shevek also realizes that there is an ideological gulf that may never be crossed between them and, moreover, between their two worlds.
Once the ship lands, Shevek is hurried from his bunk and led down a ramp, and he feels a strange air touch his face as he disembarks the spaceship. He stumbles off the ramp onto the Urrasti earth, noting the “broad, grey” evening light all around him. The air around him is mild and fragrant, and he recognizes it as “the air of home.” Shevek realizes he is being photographed and filmed, billed as “The First Man from the Moon.” Newscasters ask Shevek for a statement, but before he can give one, he is hurried into a limousine waiting nearby.
Though Shevek’s journey on the Mindful was full of moments that made him feel trepidation, as he steps onto Urras and takes his first breath of Urrasti air he has the sensation of being home. Shevek is a man caught between two worlds, and the allure of Urras is undeniable. For the first time it seems as if Urras will be a place where Shevek will feel free and welcomed.
As the car approaches the Ieu Eun university in the city of Nio Esseia, Shevek’s handlers warn him that there are a great number of people waiting to meet him—the university’s president, its chancellor, and many others. Shevek is rushed inside, where in a great hall he attends a gathering in his honor. Hundreds of people are in the room, all of whom are bald—even the women—and have adorned their totally-shaved bodies and heads with sumptuous clothing and ornate jewelry. The women’s gowns bare their breasts, while the men’s tunics and trousers are made of brightly colored fabric and cascading lace.
The lavish and resplendent affair that welcomes Shevek to Urras is an overload of sights, sounds, and sensual pleasures. In great contrast to the portrayal of the barren port of Anarres, Le Guin offers a lush and decadent description of Urras, using her language to mirror the competing feelings of overstimulation and allure that Shevek has for the Urrasti. Yet Le Guin also invites the reader to ask—at what cost does all this luxury come?
The President of the Senate of the Nation of A-Io makes a speech, toasting a “new era of brotherhood between the Twin Planets,” and citing Shevek himself as the harbinger of this new era. Shevek is introduced to politicians, scientists, and innumerable people of high distinction.
Shevek’s warm welcome stands in stark contrast to the violent sendoff he received back on his home planet, so for now it seems like Urras is superior to Annares in almost every way. Shevek’s journey to Urras clearly means a lot to both planets—though it’s becoming clearer that it means very different things to each.
When the party is over, Shevek’s escorts bring him to a different building, where they show him a room which is his and his alone. Shevek, unfamiliar with the concept of possession, at first believes the room will be shared with roommates, but soon realizes that the entire giant space is just for him. Shevek tells one of his handlers that he does not know his name, and the man introduces himself as Saio Pae. Shevek recognizes the man’s name, and tells him that he read some of his scientific articles back on Anarres.
Shevek is still adjusting to the idea that on Urras he will have things that are his and his alone. Coming to this world as a self-proclaimed beggar, Shevek has nothing to give, and seems uncomfortable and uncertain about the act of receiving as well. We also get more information on the nature of Shevek’s work and mission to Urras—he is a scientist working on something important.
Pae brings Shevek a glass of water, while the other two men bring Shevek over to sit at the fireplace. While Shevek drinks from the golden-rimmed water glass, he observes his handlers, who eye him with a “protective, respectful, proprietary” attitude. Shevek smiles at the men and asks them what they plan to do with their anarchist now that they have him on their planet.
Shevek has a mischievous attitude toward the Urrasti physicists, and jokingly asks what they plan to do with him. Shevek himself is completely unsure of what to expect, and though he undoubtedly has a purpose for traveling to Anarres, he is uncertain what purpose the Urrasti have for him in return.