After spending ten days in the hospital on Anarres recovering from his pneumonia, Shevek returns to his room at the Institute. His neighbor, Desar, comes to visit him, and brings the two of them dinner from the cafeteria. Desar does this every night for several days until Shevek is well enough to go out again. Desar, a mathematician, is aloof and unfriendly, and Shevek is surprised that Desar is behaving in a brotherly way. Shevek resolves, however, to stick to Desar—his illness has forced him to realize that if he isolates himself like he did before, he will eventually “break down altogether.”
Shevek’s unlikely connection with Desar symbolizes the solidarity present on Anarres even between those who might not ordinarily like one another or get along. Every Odonian is responsible for every other Odonian, and this collectivism benefits the weak and the sick while fostering communality and the erasure of barriers between individuals.
Shevek divides his time between physics and committee work in Institute domicile management, restricting himself from working himself to death for his research. He studies biofeedback and brain-wave training with a group, and starts sitting at communal tables in the cafeteria. He attends festivals, museums, and concerts, and falls in love with music. Despite all these efforts, Shevek makes no close friends and has trouble finding joy in the few fleeting sexual encounters he has with women. He wonders if solitude will be his fate, and he hears his mother’s words in his ear: “Work comes first.” Shevek feels he is born to be alone, and is, in his heart, an egoist.
Shevek’s recent illness—and his subsequent encounter with his birth mother Rulag—have both instilled in him a fear of overworking himself to the point of illness again. He does not want to be like his mother, who prioritized her work above everthing else and has now ended up alone and desperate for connection. He sees his past behavior of isolating himself in the name of his work as egoistic, and wants to avoid it, though he fears it might be his destiny.
Though Shevek recommits himself to his work, he feels it is going nowhere. He cannot get any nearer to his Theory of Simultaneity, and so enrolls in two philosophical mathematics courses and begins avoiding Sabul. He attempts to grow closer to Gvarab, but age has taken its toll on her, and many days she can hardly recognize Shevek. Nobody else at the Institute can keep up with Shevek or discuss his interests with him. As a result, Shevek begins spending his time writing letters to Atro, the Urrasti physicist, as well as other mathematicians and scientists down on Urras. Many of his letters are confiscated by the PDC and don’t get through, and so Shevek turns to Sabul to send the letters for him—however, Sabul vindictively refuses to approve any letters that do not deal with his own research.
Shevek’s professional frustration mounts as he encounters a series of setbacks. He feels there is no one on Anarres who can help, guide, or support him in his work. When he attempts to work with Gvarab he sees only sadness, decay, and futility, and when he attempts to connect with Sabul he comes up against bureaucratic red tape, vindictiveness, and jealousy. Even his attempts to communicate with Urras are thwarted, and Shevek feels he has no avenue for personal advancement or self-expression.
A few times a year, Shevek receives a letter back from Urras—occasionally from Atro, and sometimes even from other scientists in both A-Io and Thu. The letters bolster Shevek’s spirits when they arrive, but his happiness fades shortly thereafter every time.
Urras becomes the one glimmer of hope in Shevek’s world—only there are people doing the kind of work he is doing, and knowing this brings him both joy and further sadness and isolation.
At the end of his third year at the Institute, Gvarab dies, and Shevek speaks at her memorial. During his eulogy, he laments the fact that Gvarab and her work were not adequately respected in her lifetime, and after the service Shevek goes for a walk in the city, consumed with rage and grief. Shevek feels he has accomplished nothing in his three years at the institute other than “five or six unpublished papers and a funeral oration for a wasted life.” He feels like nothing he does is meaningful, or even understood—meanwhile, his work serves no necessary social function and makes no aspect of communal Anarresti life better.
Shevek does not want to waste his life, fearing the slow fade into obscurity and decay that he watched Gvarab’s life become. He is frustrated with his lack of options, and the refusal of Anarresti society to see the ways in which his work is not at all egoistic but rather the height of collectivist aspirations.
Shevek stops in front of the Music Syndicate to read the posters for the upcoming decad, and there he runs into Bedap. The two embrace, overjoyed to see one another. Shevek is surprised by his own emotions, as he recalls feeling disconnected from his and Bedap’s childhood friendship during their last year at the Regional Institute. Still, his love for Bedap in that moment “flame[s] up as from shaken coal.”
Shevek’s reunion with Bedap comes at a low moment in his life, and provides him with a bright spot and a resurgence of the feelings of his youth—confidence, camaraderie, anarchy, and a sense of purpose.
The two men walk and talk, catching up and enjoying each other’s company. Eventually, they return to Shevek’s room at the Institute. Bedap looks through Shevek’s notebooks, and asks why Shevek’s notes are written in code. Shevek tells him that they have been written in Iotic. He tells Bedap that no one on Anarres can understand what he is researching, and no one wants to try. Shevek confesses to Bedap that he worries he is in the wrong field, and is considering asking for a reposting away from physics at the end of the quarter.
Shevek has been prevented from sharing his work with anyone who cares about it, and the chance to share it with Bedap gives him the opportunity to vent his frustrations and hopefully encounter some solidarity and compassion from one of his closest friends. Shevek wants Bedap to talk him down off the ledge of quitting, perhaps, or otherwise to confirm that Shevek is right to abandon his studies and devote himself to traditional Odonian values and pursuits.
Bedap tells Shevek that the problem is that Anarresti society is designed to stifle the individual mind. Bedap sees the PDC as an archist bureaucracy, which has contributed to the spiritual suffering of many Anarresti. After sitting in silence for a few moments, Shevek concedes that there is a problem in Anarresti society—poverty. Anarres was never built to hold such a large civilization, especially one whose only resource is human solidarity. Bedap agrees, believing that cooperation has become obedience, and that social conscience has become a machine rather than a true impulse. Bedap worries that because it’s “easier not to think for oneself,” the Ananresti have settled into a “nice safe hierarchy,” and have lost their anarchist roots.
Bedap’s inflammatory thoughts speak to the fact that Shevek is not alone in his frustrations with the Anarresti way of life. Though it is taboo to say the things he’s saying, Bedap is strong in his convictions and in voicing his suspicions about the growing trend toward homogeny, obedience, and silence in a once vibrant and anarchist society. Bedap fears that the ease of surrendering to public opinion or influence will mar Odonianism forever and erase the truths that Anarres was founded upon.
Bedap tells Shevek that he has not shared any of his ideas because he does not want to end up like Tirin—their childhood friend who has been set to an asylum. Tirin, who had always been theatrically inclined, put on a play which some saw as anti-Odonian. As a result, he was posted to job after job which required intense physical outdoor labor, and Bedap believes that the PDC drove Tirin to insanity on purpose to keep him from making “anarchist” art. Shevek tells Bedap that he is just spouting conspiracy theories, and Bedap stands up to go home. Shevek insists that it is too far and too cold for Bedap to head home, and invites him to stay the night. Since there is not an extra blanket and no rug on the floor, Shevek and Bedap share a bed, and hold each other in the night.
Bedap’s fears run even deeper—he believes there is a conspiracy to silence those who notice the changes happening in Anarresti society, and cites the harmful pattern of forced physical labor assignments that were given to their friend Tirin. Though any Anarresti can refuse these assignments, doing so results in isolation from society and from the collective striving toward the common good, and is greatly frowned upon. Shevek is overwhelmed to hear all of this, both frightened and relieved to have his own suspicions about the darker side of Odonianism confirmed.
The next evening, Shevek and Bedap meet up again, and have a conversation about whether or not they should partner together for a time. Though Shevek is heterosexual and Bedap is homosexual, Shevek knows that sex is an important part of connection between partners, and the two move into a single domicile downtown for a decad. Once the ten days are up, neither feels a particularly strong sexual desire for the other any longer, and they move back to their separate rooms. They continue to see each other almost every day and argue fiercely about politics and society.
The concept of partnering on Anarres is fluid, and because Shevek and Bedap have experienced an outpouring of relief at reconnecting and being able to share their fears and ideals with one another, it makes sense that some of that excitement translates to a desire to be closer to one another. After the flame has run its course, the two remain close, continuing to hack away at the mysteries surrounding the heart of their shared fears and suspicions.
Shevek is still getting nowhere with his work, and has more or less abandoned temporal physics entirely. He has finally been given a course to teach in mathematical physics but derives no joy from this either. Shevek spends time with Bedap and Bedap’s group of friends, finding their independent thought and eccentricities interesting. One of Bedap’s friends, a composer, complains that there is no room for him in any Syndicate—the music Syndicate doesn’t like his compositions, and so he takes unskilled labor jobs one after the other. His strife mirrors Shevek’s—he is even working on a piece of music called The Simultaneity Principle. Neither music nor physics are of great import to the Anarresti, and so both Shevek and this composer languish in obscurity.
As Bedap and Shevek spend more time together and Shevek expands his social circle, he sees that he is not alone in his frustration with the embargo of sorts on independent thought and work. He sees his strife mirrored in the plight of a musician who desires to create beautiful art that can be shared by all, and understands finally the ways in which Odonian society is engineered against individual pursuits, even when they are intended for eventual use by the community.
Shevek accompanies Bedap and some of his friends on a hiking trip—three men and three women are on the journey altogether. When Shevek introduces himself to one of the women, she tells Shevek that she knows who he is, though he is embarrassed to realize that he does not recognize her at all. Bedap reprimands him for not recognizing the woman, Takver, who attended the Northsetting Institute with them. Takver forgives Shevek for not remembering her, and the group starts up into the mountains.
Shevek’s reconnection with Takver just shortly after his reconnection with Bedap is symbolic of the emotional return Shevek is going through to the feelings from his past. After so long isolated in Abbenay with only Sabul, his work, and his fears, he is finally able to break through to the livelihood, hope, and anarchy of his youth, and the resurgence of people from his past heralds that renewal.
On the fourth day of the hike, weary from the physical exertion, Takver and Shevek take a break together, relaxing on a grassy knoll. Shevek tells Takver that he has never been as drawn to a woman as he is to her, and Takver asks him why he hasn’t proposed copulating. Shevek tells her that he isn’t sure if that’s what he wants—he explains his struggles with his work and his struggles with forming relationships, outlining how the two are related. Takver confesses that what she wants out of a relationship is a real bond and a lasting partnership—nothing else and nothing less. Shevek realizes that this is what he wants, too, and they agree to embark on a partnership.
Shevek and Takver have an instant connection, and realize through this conversation that they both want the same things. Shevek has been afraid to really get down to the truth of what he wants out of life, but with Takver at his side, he is finally able to see past the veil of societal expectations, personal frustrations, and fear of failure both in his work and his relationships.
After the hiking trip is over, Shevek and Takver move into a double room on the north end of Abbenay. Both Shevek and Takver have very few things to move in—clothes, papers, shoes, and small handmade knickknacks. As they settle in together they have a passionate but occasionally volatile relationship, as both have become used to solitude and are overwhelmed by the joy and anxiety of cohabitating with another person. Shevek realizes that his “wretched” last few years have been preparing him for his “present great happiness,” and understands—as a temporal physicist—that everything that has happened to him in the past is also part of what is happening to him now, with Takver.
Shevek feels that his partnership with Takver was fated from the beginning—that his whole life has been leading him to her, and now that they are together he can see how each trial he encountered in childhood, in school, in Abbenay, and in his work has prepared him for the commitment of partnership and the devotion to another individual.
Takver’s schedule at the laboratory where she works studying fish populations is demanding, and Shevek spends a lot of time alone in their room making notes and calculations. He slowly begins to build the structure of his Principles of Simultaneity. When Takver arrives home at the end of her days she often finds Shevek shaky and fatigued, and must help him to relax and calm down from his intense work.
Shevek and Takver remain absorbed by their own work despite their intense relationship, signaling their reluctance to depart from the Odonian values of hard work and service of the greater good just because they have found satisfaction and happiness in their own lives.
One night, lying in bed, Shevek and Takver watch the Moon rise. Takver remarks on how beautiful Urras looks, though she knows the planet itself is full of warmongering propertarians. She does not understand how Urras still seems so peaceful and happy from the outside. Shevek tells her that things always seem beautiful from afar—distance and interval allow one to see far-off worlds as perfect, and the span of one’s life as beautiful and whole. As Takver and Shevek fall asleep holding one another, Shevek confesses that he is afraid, though he does not say what it is he is afraid of.
Shevek fears the failure of his own work, of his personal relationships, and of the Odonian society as a whole. He knows that things can appear lovely from the outside but actually be full of misery and pain up close, and while he has long thought this observation was mainly true of the beautiful Moon of Urras, he now sees that it is perhaps true of his own beloved Anarres as well.