On Anarres it is the midsummer holiday, Insurrection Day, which commemorates the first great uprising back on Urras nearly two hundred years earlier. Shevek, Takver, and a group of their friends have just finished feasting, and sit in a park in Abbenay as the golden heat of the evening falls around them. Bedap asks for a glass of water, but there is none around—Abbenay is in the midst of the worst drought in forty years.
Though Shevek, Bedap, Takver and their friends are enjoying the golden beauty of summer, the threat of a drought lingers on the horizon. In a society like the one on Anarres, in which everyone is responsible for everyone else’s well-being, a drought means that many will surely be called on to come to the aid of their fellow Odonians.
Winter comes, and water is being strictly rationed—the majority of it must go straight to the land to keep the holum plants alive, as they are the source from which the Anarresti derive food, clothing, paper, and more. Meanwhile, Takver is pregnant, and though she craves sweets all the time, they are in short supply. She suffers mood swings and remains overworked, unable to take a break, and she lets her research fall by the wayside.
Takver’s pregnancy coincides with a fallow time on Anarres, and she and Shevek struggle along with the rest of their Odonian brothers and sisters to keep up with their day-to-day lives while the situation around them worsens, threatening everyone’s health and happiness.
One night, Takver comes home from a difficult day to find Shevek siting alone in the dark. When she asks him what’s wrong, he tells her that Sabul is not going to recommend one of his newest papers for either publication on Anarres or export to Urras. In his critique of Shevek’s work Sabul has accused him of egoizing in his paper and working on “impractical” hypotheses. Takver tells Shevek that they themselves will form a printing syndicate, learn to set type, and print the book for distribution, but Shevek points out that paper too is being rationed, and no nonessential printing is allowed for the foreseeable future.
In the midst of the planet-wide turmoil due to the drought, and the excitement and fear surrounding Takver’s ill-timed pregnancy, Shevek receives more difficult news: his work, long-challenged by those at the institute, is now being rendered as useless in light of the worsening drought and the tightening of resources. This is a huge blow to Shevek, as he has been struggling for a long time to convince himself that his work—and his life—have value.
Takver suggests that Shevek offer Sabul a co-writing credit and see if that sways him, since Sabul himself is an egoist, but Shevek refuses to share any more of his work with Sabul. Takver insists that the name on the book doesn’t matter, but what is contained in the book matters very much. Shevek eventually agrees, and early the next year, a heavily-edited version of his work is printed—with Shevek and Sabul credited as joint authors. Fifteen copies are sent to Urras, and Shevek slips his original manuscript into one of them, addressing it to the attention of the physicist Atro.
Takver wants to support Shevek, but she knows that he has encountered spite, resistance, and shame at every turn throughout his career at the Institute. She promises Shevek that his ideas will shine through, and Shevek takes her advice, though he knows his contribution to the realm of physics will once again be credited to the jealous Sabul. He attempts to safeguard himself against this by slipping his original work into a missive to Atro, whom he sees as his last ally in his field.
One afternoon, Shevek arrives home to find Takver in labor. He goes to fetch the midwife, but she is nowhere to be found, and sees her absence as an “evil omen.” He regrets having been withdrawn and testy around Takver since the fiasco with his manuscript, and now worries that something horrible will befall her. Shevek runs to a nearby clinic and tells them the situation—they send him home and call for another midwife. At home, Takver is already at work bearing the child. Shevek holds her and braces her, and soon the new midwife arrives to help shepherd the child into the world. Shevek and Takver hold their child—a girl—and soon the midwife leaves and all three of them fall asleep together.
In the midst of all the turmoil and sadness in their lives, Shevek and Takver welcome a baby girl. A child on Anarres symbolizes both the fruits of partnership and collectivism as well as individualism and the perpetuation of the self. Shevek and Takver have brought something into the world which is, by its very nature, both theirs and not theirs—something they have created, but something that they have in theory made together in the name of perpetuating Odonianism and its values.
By the summer, the drought shows no sign of ending, and it seems that there will be disaster if it continues much longer. Rations remain strict, and labor drafts have become imperative. Farmers cannot grow enough food, yet because everyone is working so hard—and Odonians take great pleasure in useful hard work—there is an undercurrent of joy throughout the summer. People in Abbenay have found a real feeling of solidarity, and the bond between people is “stronger than all that [is trying] the bond.”
The height of the drought turns out to be a time not of sorrow, but of collective hard work and rejoicing in solidarity. When Odonianism works, it works well, and in times of hardship a sense of togetherness, obligation, and communal effort is a beacon of hope and a symbol of the utopian goals of Anarresti society.
Late in the summer, Shevek is posted to an emergency farm draft far from Abbenay. Some rain has fallen in an equatorial region, and the land must be harvested before the drought returns. Shevek is sad to leave the baby, whom he loves and has grown close with while caring for her over the summer. Though he must leave Takver and the baby now for sixty days, he feels he at least has the assurance that at the end of it he will be able to return to them.
The flip side of communal responsibility for one another is the lack of prioritizing one Odonian’s life and freedom over another’s for any reason. Though Shevek is a new father, he is called away to serve his people, and agrees to answer the call in the name of the common good.
The night before Shevek leaves, he and Takver and Bedap all have dinner together. Shevek toasts Sadik, the baby, saying that he is grateful she was born in a hard year, at a time when brotherhood and sisterhood are needed more than ever. He drinks to a long, joyful life for his daughter, and to the hope for rainfall.
Shevek knows that his daughter’s birth has come at an auspicious time, and that her thriving represents the hope that all Odonian brothers and sisters will thrive and prosper despite the threat of the drought.
After Shevek leaves for his work assignment, he and Takver write one another once a decad. Shevek tells Takver that the effects of the drought are much more dire where he is posted, and the climate is painfully dry. Takver writes back that she is worried, because when she checked the job postings at the Divlab, she did not see a new one for Shevek. She tells him to get in touch with his Syndicate as soon as possible—she worries that Bedap is right, and bureaucracy has crept up on them. Shevek, however, never receives her letter back—he leaves the farm before it arrives.
The drought worsens rapidly, and Shevek and Takver, though separated, both feel its effects. Shevek realizes how dire the situation truly is, and understands the fact that it is not getting better any time soon. Meanwhile, Takver too is called away—her work with fisheries makes her a necessary asset to securing a food supply and preventing the drought from developing into a famine.
Shevek takes a train back to Abbenay. Though Anarresti trains are usually reliable, in the midst of the drought the demands on transport are extreme. Shevek’s train stops frequently and is delayed often, and at one stop in the middle of nowhere he and the other passengers are forced to fast for nearly sixty hours. When Shevek finally gets back to Abbenay, he goes to his and Takver’s domicile to find it empty.
Shevek and Takver pass like ships in the night. They miss each other due to the effects of their society’s difficulties handling the drought—while Shevek took a long time getting home, he did not realize that Takver was traveling, simultaneously perhaps, farther and farther away from Abbenay.
A letter on the table from Takver states that she received an emergency posting to a laboratory in the Northeast for an indeterminate amount of time. She has requested that Shevek be posted nearby, but the Divlab will not honor this request until Shevek requests it as well. Another letter on the table, from Sabul, informs Shevek that he will not be reposted to the physics department at the Institute. Filled with disappointment and feeling as if he has nowhere to go and nothing to do, Shevek lies down to sleep in a fit of despair.
Shevek is devastated by the dual pains of Takver’s departure and yet another setback in his professional life. All of the hope he had felt and all the joy he toasted to just a few months ago seems to have disappeared as solidarity has given way once again to a profound sense of isolation and aloneness.
The next morning Shevek runs into his next-door neighbor, a greedy woman who has long coveted Shevek and Takver’s corner apartment. Learning that Takver has left on a work posting, the neighbor asks whether Shevek will be staying in the unit, hoping she can move in herself. The neighbor implies that perhaps Takver wanted to leave—otherwise, she asks, why would she have left behind such a great room?
Shevek’s disappointment and isolation are compounded by his neighbor’s prying. She plants the insidious idea that Takver has no allegiance to Shevek or their partnership, and left without waiting for him. This worsens Shevek’s feelings of sadness and despair.
At the dining hall, Shevek runs into his old neighbor Desar. Desar informs him that there has been a reorganizing at the Institute, and staff have been cut back. Shevek wonders if the drought is serving to make Anarresti priorities clear again, and scour out the “sick spots [and] sluggish organs” in the body of Anarresti society.
Shevek’s encounter with Desar confirms the fact that Shevek’s branch of work has been rendered completely irrelevant by the state of emergency the drought has created on Anarres.
Shevek goes looking for Sabul, and finds him in his office. Sabul says that things at the Institute are not going well, and that it is a bad time for intellectuals. Shevek asks if any letters or communications relating to their most recent book came back from Urras, but Sabul says that there have been none. Sabul accuses Shevek of doing work that is not functional throughout the course of his career, and urges him to face the fact that in the midst of the drought there is “no physics to be done.” Shevek will not be reposted to the Institute due to the “irrelevant nature of [his] research,” and Sabul has not recommended him for a teaching post anywhere else, unable to see the use in it—the only worthwhile jobs now are those working toward the easing of the drought and the prevention of famine.
In this climactic encounter with Sabul, Shevek expresses his frustration with his selfish, unhelpful mentor, and Sabul berates Shevek for persisting in a line of work and research which everyone told him time and time again had no clear benefit to Anarresti society. The drought has made things hard on everyone, but Shevek—who, like his mother, always placed his work first—has been forced out of that which he has dedicated his life to by the unexpected worsening of circumstances and the threat of famine.
Shevek leaves Sabul’s office and goes downtown to the Divlab to request a posting near Takver. The clerk, though, tells Shevek that there are no postings in that region, which is remote and obscure. Shevek debates whether he should go to the Northeast anyway to be with Takver, though without a useful job, or whether he should submit himself for another posting. He asks the clerk if there are any famine-prevention postings that require math, and she offers to post him to a work-coordinating position in the Southwest—about as far away from Takver’s posting as one could get. Nevertheless, Shevek accepts it, and the clerk posts him to the office in the Dust indefinitely.
Devastated by what he sees as the end of his physics career and the haunting fear that Takver has left him not out of necessity but out of lack of love motivates Shevek to take a position far away in the remote and arid desert. He is going to be doing work to prevent the famine—work that will benefit his fellow Odonians—but he seems utterly miserable, and yet compelled to sink as far into that misery as he can.