Shevek wakes on an airship bound for the city of Abbenay, the night of his farewell party already “half a world behind him.” He looks out his small window to the ground below, catching a glimpse of the Port of Anarres. Though Shevek thinks Urras is despicable, another world is another world, and Shevek is desperate to see a ship from another world. The Port, though, is empty of ships today.
Shevek is headed off to a new city, and the pull of the unfamiliar reaches even farther than the “capital” city of Abbenay—it is Urras Shevek is really curious about, and the forbidden nature of learning about it calls to him more strongly than ever before.
Freighters that arrive eight times a year from Urras are considered a necessary evil by most Anarresti. The Urrasti bring fossil oils, petroleum, electronics that Anarresti manufacturing cannot create, and other goods. They take back with them mercury, copper, tin, gold, and uranium. In the Council of World Governments, the Free World of Anarres is considered nothing but a mining colony of Urras. Each year, the PDC argues for the end of trade with the “warmaking propertarians” of Urras, but Anarresti know that if they broke their trade agreement the Urrasti would retaliate with force.
Anarres must sacrifice some of its isolationist values to reap the benefits of trade with Urras. More embarrassing for the struggling Anarres than for the thriving Urras, the trade agreement is clearly not ideal for either world, and the tensions between the two planets remain palpable beneath even the most hands-off, diplomatic formalities.
Shevek looks down on the green splendor of Ans Hos, the Eden of Anarres. Centuries ago, when Anarres was still a mining colony that had not yet been settled by the Odonians, the first town, Anarres Town, was built at Ans Hos, and miners lived there under two or three year contracts. It wasn’t until the year 771, when the Urrasti government collapsed, that the Council of World Government gave the Moon—Anarres—to the Odonians to prevent them from forever undermining “the authority of law and national sovereignty on Urras.”
It is revealed that the Moon was given to the Odonians so that they did not further contribute to the disruption or destruction of society on Urras. They were bought off, so to speak, with the chance at building their own world, as long as they stopped threatening the power and status quo of the Urrasti state.
Eventually Anarres Town grew to hold a hundred thousand people and was renamed Abbenay. Odo, the leader of the Odonians, envisioned Anarres as a planet of many towns and settlements connected by physical and intellectual networks through which natural resources, manufactured goods, and intellectual property would be shared and spread. However, the arid climate of the desert-like Anarres made it difficult for the growing communities to sustain themselves, let alone support another far-off town as well. The Anarresti persisted, begrudgingly allowing a central distribution and organizational center to develop in Abbenay despite fear of power cohering to the center. The Anarresti remained vigilant to ensure their anarcho-syndicalist ethos would remain intact.
Abbenay is not officially a capital city, though it functions as a center of intellectual and organizational life on Anarres. The Anarresti fear the coherence of any power structure that might enforce rules, laws, or other oppressive forces on their people, and strive at every turn to keep such structures from emerging. The Odonian commitment to decentralization and communal living in every aspect of society is strong, though in practice it is imperfect.
The airship lands, and Shevek sets off into the streets of Abbenay, the largest city on Anarres. The streets are wide and clean, and the low, spare buildings do not create shadows. There is a vividness and a clarity to things, Shevek thinks, though Abbenay has been built and structured plainly and efficiently just like any other Odonian community. Odo always said that “excess is excrement,” and the cities built according to her teachings reflect that ideology. Abbenay is bare, accessible, and everything is laid out plainly: “Nothing [is] hidden.”
In contrast to the luxurious cities of Urras, Abbenay is built in an Odonian image—reserved, modest, and balanced, and free, open, and accessible to all. Shevek is impressed by the city’s layout and atmosphere, feeling that it is truly an embodiment of these Odonian ideals. At the same time, a lack of privacy can be stifling for more introverted types like Shevek.
The city is busy, and Shevek takes in the sounds and sights of people talking, working, gossiping, and playing as he roams the streets. He enters a park at the end of the main thoroughfare and walks among green leafy holum trees. Soon he comes to a bench, upon which sits a stone statue of Odo. He sits down beside the statue, and contemplates the fact that though Odo is the lifeblood of Anarres, she never stepped foot on the planet during her lifetime.
Shevek contemplates the unfair fact that Odo envisioned and helped to create a society that she never even got to be a part of. Her ideals and visions persist to this day, and are the tenets by which all Anarresti organize and live out their lives, yet Odo herself was never able to live by the codes and practices she preached—she was never free.
As it grows dark, Shevek leaves the park and heads for the Central Institute of the Sciences. At the entrance, Shevek asks a registrar if there’s an empty bed in one of the dormitories. The registrar points him in the direction of the dorm, and hands him a note from Sabul, which instructs Shevek to meet Sabul at the physics office in the morning. Shevek follows the registrar’s instructions to the nearby dormitory, and is surprised to find that all the rooms are singles, rather than rooms of four to ten beds. Alone in a single room surrounded by books for the first time in his life, Shevek hesitantly shuts the door and goes to sleep.
Things are different in Abbenay—Shevek will have a room of his own and a sense of individuality and freedom that is new to him. He is uncertain and hesitant to accept this new way of life, his Odonian fear of excremental excess and egoizing shining through, but quickly he allows himself to indulge. This passage can be seen as a stepping stone to Shevek’s eventual, reluctant adoption of Urrasti customs and “propertarian” ways.
In the morning, Shevek meets Sabul—the physicist who is to be his mentor. Sabul is squat and slovenly, dressed in grimy clothing. He speaks abruptly and coarsely. He tells Shevek that he must learn Iotic, the language of Urras, in order to read the major works of Urrasti physics—no one has translated them into Pravic yet. Sabul hands Shevek a book of Ioti grammar and an Ioti dictionary, and the two argue about which lectures Shevek should attend. Shevek wants to attend the courses of a woman named Gvarab in order to learn more about Simultaneity, but Sabul insists that Shevek has already surpassed her, and that Simultaneity is “profiteering crap.” He orders Shevek to “drop the mysticism and grow up,” urging him to learn Iotic quickly, and to only seek him out again when he is able to read a book of Urrasti physics.
It is clear right from the get-go that Shevek and Sabul are very different men. Sabul’s disheveled appearance and gruff, even cruel demeanor establish him as an adversary, and he shows himself to be uncaring about the work of others through his rejection of Shevek’s desire to take classes with Gvarab. Indeed, Sabul seems more like an Urrasti than an Anarresti. Sabul wants Shevek to have a certain set of skills, and will only mentor him once he has acquired them. Sabul is egoizing, in a way, and attempting to mold Shevek into a certain form or image, thus threatening Shevek’s freedom—his birthright as an Odonoian.
As Sabul prepares to leave, he tells Shevek not to share the Urrasti texts with anyone. Shevek is confused by the directive to acquire knowledge which he is not meant to share, but Sabul insists that the books are “explosive.” Sabul leaves, and Shevek holds the Urrasti texts in his hands as if they are dynamite—“with revulsion and devouring curiosity.”
The communal nature of every aspect of life on Anarres leads Shevek to grow confused when Sabul instructs him not to share the knowledge he’ll gain from the Urrasti texts, but he also feels the truth of Sabul’s statement that the texts—and even the idea of engaging with any material that comes from Urras—are perhaps too explosive and controversial for just any Anarresti to handle. This also hints again at a sense of communal repression in Anarresti society, where dissension is discouraged and even punished.
Shevek sets to the task of learning Iotic, isolated in his room from the rest of the Institute and the city. He is used to being isolated, as all his life he has known that he is unlike anyone else. For the first time ever, though, Shevek soon begins to treasure his privacy, independence, and isolation, leaving his room only for meals and short walks, and assigned community labor one day out of every ten. He is learning Iotic quickly, and is soon able to understand the physics textbooks Sabul provided him with. He admires the Urrasti physicists, who are far ahead of anyone on Anarres.
Though Urrasti texts are frowned upon, and harboring any kind of admiration for anything Urrasti goes against Odonian ideals in a massive way, Shevek finds himself enjoying the texts, the language, and the solitude that he has submerged himself in. Though all these things go against his Anarresti upbringing, he commits to them passionately and enthusiastically.
As Shevek delves deeper and deeper into the Urrasti texts, he grows more and more hermitic, neglecting all social and communal aspects of life at the Institute. Despite all this, Shevek never misses a single one of Gvarab’s lectures—he has been attending her course on Frequency and Cycle despite Sabul’s disapproval. Attendance at Gvarab’s lectures is sparse, but the elderly Gvarab takes pleasure in being able to share her ideas with Shevek, who hangs on her every word and whose attention redeems her life’s work.
Shevek knows that there is much he can learn from Gvarab, and even though he is falling headlong into the world of Urrasti science he remains connected to those he respects on Anarres. He is drifting away from his Odonian values in some respects, but adhering to them even more carefully in others.
After half a year at the Institute, Shevek presents Sabul with a critique of the Urrasti physicist Atro’s work. Sabul orders Shevek to translate the paper into Iotic, so that it can be sent straight to Atro himself on the next freighter bound for Urras. Shevek is startled to find that ideas and letters are traded back and forth just like petroleum and mercury, and though he is alarmed by the idea of communicating with a propertarian, he is also excited.
A new world of communication with Urras is opening up for Shevek, and he is thrilled and excited by it. He harbors some reservations, but has already gotten in so deep with his studies of Urrasti texts and his intellectual engagement with Urrasti scientists that communicating directly is the logical next step.
In addition to the communication with Urras, Shevek finds his ideals tested in other ways. The fact that he must learn Iotic but keep it to himself goes against the ideology of sharing he has lived by his whole life. His single private room, too, is a “moral thorn,” ordinarily a symbol of someone who is an egoizer or a disgrace. Human solidarity is a privilege, and in a communal society such as the Anarresti one’s privacy has little function. Shevek soon realizes, though, that his work is made easier through his solitude, and tells himself that because the job he is doing will someday be important to his society, he is justified in luxuriating in his privacy.
Shevek is torn, enthralled by the Urrasti texts and the Ioti language but fearful that he is bringing shame upon himself and betraying the ideals which have shaped his whole life up to this point. He recognizes the benefits of Odonian life, and does not want to turn his back on them. However, he cannot help but see the benefits of the “propertarian” pursuits of isolation, specialization, and furthering of one’s personal pleasure and individual knowledge.
As Shevek works toward a theory of Simultaneity, he struggles with his desire to also research and develop a unified theory of Time. As Shevek’s work intensifies, he sleeps less and less, dreaming vividly for only a few hours a night. He has visions of holding time itself in his hands.
Shevek dives deeper and deeper into his own work, embracing Urrasti values of isolation, ego, and even excess. His dreams of holding time in his hands represent a possessive and egoistic subconscious, and a desire to be validated for his intellect and achievements.
One day, Shevek stops into the physics office to see if any letters have arrived, and he runs into Sabul. Sabul holds out a book to Shevek—it is Shevek’s critique of Atro’s work, retranslated into Pravic and credited to both Shevek and Sabul. Shevek is caught off guard and upset that Sabul has taken the credit for his and Atro’s ideas. When Shevek asks if he can publish his own work under his own name on Urras, Sabul says that the PDC will not allow any unapproved written materials to leave Anarres.
Sabul takes his control over Shevek a step further in this passage, as he begins crediting himself with Shevek’s work and hiding behind the “bureaucracy” of the PDC, using their approval as a smokescreen for his own pride and greed. Again Sabul seems like the worst kind of Anarresti, using Odonian language and systems to hide Urrasti values.
The two men argue, and Shevek at last realizes that Mitis’s warning has come true: he is indeed Sabul’s man. Nevertheless, Shevek acknowledges that he needs Sabul if he wants his ideas to get sent to Urras. He decides that going forward he will work with Sabul rather than against him, and as Shevek walks home in the rain, he begins feeling ill. In his single room, Shevek succumbs to a fever, and takes to bed.
Shevek has allowed himself to become someone’s property—worse, he has allowed his ideas to become someone else’s. He nonetheless realizes that this is the price that must be paid to ensure that his work is seen and heard. The weight of this tradeoff seems to make him physically ill.
After several days, Shevek realizes he is not getting better, and he checks himself into a local clinic, where he is diagnosed with pneumonia. Shevek, like most Anarresti, feels it is shameful to be ill, and attempts to refuse medical help, but eventually allows a doctor to inject him with medicine to bring down his fever. Shevek falls asleep, raving in Iotic and Pravic about physics and time.
Shevek’s Odonian reluctance to admit to any illness or impediment which could infringe upon the common good is tested, as he is seriously ill with a high fever.
When Shevek wakes up again, he feels well at last. A woman sits at Shevek’s bedside and asks how he feels. When Shevek asks her who she is, she replies, “the mother,” and Shevek confusedly wonders if he has been reborn. As Shevek looks at the woman more closely, he realizes that she is Rulag, his actual mother. Shevek, horrified, shrinks away from her. Rulag explains that she found him while sorting books for the engineering library on a work rotation—she discovered his and Sabul’s book and tracked him to the Institute, then to the clinic.
Shevek’s estranged mother Rulag reappears in his life at his lowest, most vulnerable moment—that is, the most vulnerable he has been since her initial abandonment when he was a child. Rulag is excited to have found her son, but Shevek is jarred and profoundly upset by her presence.
Rulag asks if Shevek is still in touch with his father, Palat, and Shevek tells her that Palat has been dead for eight years, and was killed trying to rescue children trapped in rubble after an earthquake. Rulag accepts the news wearily, but without displaying much emotion. Rulag asks Shevek if he is angry at her for not having kept in touch, and Shevek replies that he cannot be angry with her, as he does not know her, and never did. Rulag attempts to explain how she and Palat were separated by work postings, but Shevek tells her that none of it matters.
Shevek answers Rulag’s questions, but does not seem at all invested in the fact that she is finally sitting right before him after so many years away. The two are strangers, and Shevek has been through enough, including the death of his father, to be able to realize that fact. He is uninterested in hearing her excuses, though he is not angry with her—he is just removed from the relationship.
Rulag explains that work has always come first for her, but that Palat was the more parental one in their partnership. Rulag offers to help Shevek find his way in Abbenay—she is well-connected, she says, and would be happy to advise him in the “dominance games” that take place at the Institute. Shevek can see the pain and loneliness on Rulag’s face as she speaks, and he resents it. He feels she has no right to swoop in after so many years and uproot Shevek’s loyalty to his father’s memory, and he rejects her offer. Rulag concedes that they are not really mother and son except biologically, but hopes that they can connect as brother and sister. Shevek tells her that he is uncertain of whether he can do so. Rulag solemnly leaves, bidding Shevek farewell, and Shevek begins to weep.
Rulag attempts to justify her absence from Shevek’s life by citing the plain facts of the differences in personalities and priorities between her and Shevek’s father. Rulag seems enthusiastic about reconnecting with Shevek, and when he rebuffs her, her pride seems hurt. It pains Shevek to turn her away, as evidenced by his tears, but he already knows what she has just told him: they are not really mother and son in any true, resonant sense, and Shevek, having been alone most of his life, chooses to continue on that way.