The morning after Vea’s party, Shevek is awakened by nearby chapel bells. He feels sick and shaky, and even after a long bath he still feels vile and miserable. He has never shamed himself as badly as he did the night before, and now “look[s] at his [entire] life in the light of shame.”
Shevek knows that he has indulged the very values of luxury and excess that he loathes, and feels as if his whole life has been rearranged by the shame he feels in the wake of having done so. With narrative symmetry, Le Guin aligns the stories of Shevek’s “rock bottom” in both the past (being divided from Takver and going to work in the Dust) and the present (his debaucherous and aggressive night with Vea).
On Anarres, doing his physics research—the work Shevek was called to do though it did not benefit Anarresti society in its time of need—was a rebellion in and of itself. On Urras, however, this act of rebellion is a luxury. Being a physicist in A-Io serves the State, rather than mankind, society, or truth, as he had hoped to do on Anarres. Shevek realizes that A-Io owns him now, and there is no hope for bargaining with the all-powerful State for the good of his people. Shevek has made a mistake in coming to Urras, he realizes—one that will haunt him, perhaps, for the rest of his life.
Realizing how deeply he has erred in coming to Urras, thinking he could best the Urrasti systems which sought to imprison him from the moment he arrived, Shevek considers all he left behind on Anarres and all he has potentially ruined by being naïve, prideful, and easily susceptible to the allure of praise, luxury, and individualistic satisfaction.
Shevek resolves to no longer do physics for the good of the Ioti state, and wonders if they will let him go home if he stops working. As he thinks about this, he begins to long for Anarres. He realizes that the State will not let him go as he has not “paid his way” by delivering the General Temporal Theory, and nor is there anywhere to run. Shevek sits in his room, wondering where to go, when suddenly there is a knock at the door.
Shevek has worked himself into a hole. His one bargaining chip with the Ioti is the General Temporal Theory, which he now feels he cannot deliver to them by any means lest they use it to further the destruction of their world and the larger galaxy—but without giving it over, he is trapped on Urras.
Efor comes in with Shevek’s breakfast and sets it down. As he leaves, Pae comes in to check on Shevek. Pae, seeing newspapers on the table, laments that they will not be able to show Shevek the rest of Urras with all the unrest abroad: Ioti and Thuvian forces have clashed in Benbili, and are now fighting. Pae updates Shevek with the latest news: A-Io has “liberated” the capital of Benbili and plans to reinstall their military dictator, but Thu still holds Benbili’s two eastern provinces. The Thuvian army and the Ioti army will continue fighting their proxy war in Benbili, so as not to bring “barbarism” within the borders of A-Io.
Hearing the news of the worsening conflict abroad from Pae cements Shevek’s realization that the Ioti elite have an unassailable wealth of power and control over the world around them. They are now waging a war against their ideological enemies, the Thuvians, with no regard for how the conflict affects the already imperiled state of Benbili.
Pae explains that because the country is at war, some “restrictions” will soon come into effect—travel will be limited, publishing papers will take longer, and Shevek will be prevented from leaving the University campus without permission from the Chancellor. Pae excuses himself, but before leaving, asks Shevek if he has seen an article in a Space Research Foundation paper—an engineer has developed plans for something called an ansible, an instantaneous communication device. According to the engineer’s research, if a temporalist can work out the necessary equations, engineers will be able to build a device and put it to use perhaps within weeks.
The worsening conflict in Benbili has allowed the scientists at the University to conveniently enforce a stricter set of restrictions on Shevek, which are really borne out of their fear over the close call when he went out to Nio Esseia. Pae asks Shevek if he has heard about the ansible (an important recurring device in other works by Le Guin) perhaps as a method of spurring him to get to work—in the last chapter, Pae and Oiie shared suspicions that Shevek would never deliver the General Temporal Theory.
After Pae leaves, Shevek tells Efor to turn away any visitors and tell them he is hard at work. Shevek knows he cannot share what he does not have, and so he goes to work on filling in the cracks in the General Temporal Theory. For days, Shevek works and refuses visitors, staring at his calculations and waiting for a breakthrough. One afternoon Shevek sits alone, thinking about Pae. Shevek sees Pae as his enemy, though it was Pae who gave Shevek the translations of alien Terran work on relativity which could potentially be essential to finalizing the temporal theory. Shevek finds it ironic that he has obtained what he needed for his research not from a friend, mentor, or brother, but from an enemy.
As Shevek gears up to complete the General Temporal Theory, he is inspired to complete it for his own satisfaction. Symbolically, one of the major texts that has informed his work was given to him by someone he is opposed to in almost every way—Shevek’s journey has only been made possible through hardship after hardship, and this theory that is his life’s work is no different.
As Shevek considers Terran theories of relativity, he experiences a major breakthrough in his own work, and realizes that he will soon be able to complete the temporal theory, which he now sees as overwhelmingly simple and clear. Shevek is joyful and yet overcome with fear—his life is at last fulfilled, and he is full of an exceedingly strange feeling. As the moment passes and Shevek regains calm, he lets the moment go by and does not attempt to possess it.
Shevek again reminds himself not to fall into the traps of possession. His life’s work is finally complete, and everything he has ever wanted is right in front of him, but he has learned enough to know that neither the theory nor the moment in which it was at last born are his exclusively. He is gaining wisdom, and with it a detachment that seems like the ultimate Odonian ideal.
Shevek paces around his room, marveling at how now that he has “seen the foundations of the universe,” he can see little difference between Urras and Anarres. There are no more abysses, no more walls, and no more exiles. Shevek goes to bed and sleeps for ten hours, and then awakes thinking of equations that might express the breakthrough he has experienced. That afternoon he goes to class, and then to dinner, and then comes back to his room and works. For eight days thereafter, he spends at least twelve hours a day at his desk, often turning his eyes to the window and looking up at Anarres, the Moon.
Shevek’s breakthrough has allowed him to see that though Urras and Anarres profess their differences, they are actually connected by something very deep—the very foundations of time and space. Shevek has successfully accomplished his life’s goal of “unbuilding walls,” though there is much work left to do to bring down the physical, political, and intellectual boundaries that still separate the two worlds.
In the morning, Efor brings Shevek breakfast. Shevek is running a fever, and Efor suggests calling a doctor. Shevek refuses, and Efor offers to tell visitors that Shevek is still hard at work. Shaky, weak, and panicky, Shevek has become afraid of Pae and Oiie, and paranoid that the police will raid his room to take the General Temporal Theory. Efor tells Shevek that Shevek can trust him, then brings him a glass of water and leaves, shutting and locking the door.
As Shevek closes in on completing the theory, he fears that Pae, Oiie, and the Ioti state will take all he has been working towards. Efor, sensing the delicate state Shevek is in, agrees to care for him and look out for him, and it is through Efor’s goodness that Shevek is able to focus on his work rather than his fears.
Over the next few days Efor cares for Shevek, bringing him food and water and helping to lower his fever. Shevek tells Efor he should have been a doctor, and asks if he ever works with the sick. Efor says he doesn’t—he doesn’t want to get mixed up in the business of hospitals and “die in one of them pest-holes.” Efor says that lower-class hospitals are as old and filthy as a “trashman’s ass-hole.” He reveals that he had a daughter die in a rat-infested hospital, and that though Efor once hoped to be an army medic, he was drafted as an orderly instead. As Efor continues to tell Shevek about his past, Shevek has trouble picturing the horrors of extreme poverty, though they are seemingly second-nature to Efor.
As Efor tells Shevek about the horrible things he has seen throughout his lifetime, Shevek realizes that things on Urras are worse than he ever imagined. Though he has seen through the fabric of the universe and understood that there are not “walls” between their societies, there is still, in a very real sense, a deep division that Shevek now knows he must remedy. It is not enough to rest on his laurels and his completed theory—he must take action to ensure the boundaries he has theoretically broken are brought down in the physical world as well.
Efor tells Shevek to get some rest, but Shevek insists he is not tired. Efor asks Shevek if things are different on Anarres. Shevek concedes that they are: no one is ever out of work, and nobody ever goes hungry while another person eats. He describes the great famine, though, and admits that it is “not all milk and honey on Anarres.” Efor retorts that at least on Anarres there are no owners.
Even though Shevek still remembers the pain of Anarres’s flaws and the misery of its dark times, he sees through Efor’s eyes the fact that Anarres still represents a beacon of hope and a dream of freedom, equality, and solidarity for so many disenfranchised Urrasti.
The next evening, Atro calls on Shevek. He warns Shevek against wearing himself out by working too hard, and updates him on the war in Benbili—it has become “a large-scale operation.” When Shevek asks if Ioti approve of the war, Atro replies that it doesn’t matter—A-Io is fighting for its status as a world power, and would not let popular opinion stand in its way. The poor—the people who must fight in Ioti wars—are “used to mass conscription,” and Atro argues that war is “what they’re for.” Shevek accuses A-Io of reaching the heights of power by “climbing up on a pile of dead children,” and Atro accuses Shevek of being soft, and as an Odonian refusing to consider “the virile side of life, blood and steel [and] love of the flag.”
Atro’s rabid nationalism and complete disregard for the common people of A-Io has been there all along, but now Shevek finally sees it out in the open. Shevek looked up to Atro for so many years as a young physicist back on Anarres, and this idolization has caused him to overlook much of what is dangerous about Atro. Now Shevek finally speaks up, and is horrified to discover at last to true depths of Atro’s cruelty.
After Atro leaves, Efor comes to collect Shevek’s dinner tray. Shevek hands Efor a slip of paper—on it is written the question, “Is there a microphone in this room?” Efor looks toward the fireplace. Shevek asks—again by note—if there is a microphone in the bedroom, and Efor shakes his head. The two of them file into the bedroom and then the bathroom, where they run the water and begin to speak freely. Shevek shows Efor the note he found in his coat pocket which asked him to “join with his brothers,” and asks Efor if he knows where it came from. Efor says he knows who it came from. Shevek asks how he can get to the sender, but Efor tells him it is “dangerous business.”
Shevek realizes the madness of the people who have been sheltering him after Atro reveals his love of war and his destructive sense of nationalism. Shevek knows that the only person he can trust now is Efor, and has finally learned enough distrust to realize that he is being monitored at all times—nowhere is safe, but he must try to find a place that will be nonetheless.
Shevek begs Efor to tell him where to go and who to ask for. Efor tells Shevek that attempting to run away is a trap—Shevek will never be able to hide on the streets of A-Io. Efor says he has been approached many times by members of the unpropertied classes who want to recruit Shevek to their cause, but Efor has attempted to protect Shevek from getting involved in any trouble, as he has come to like him a great deal after working for him for eight months. Efor wants to Shevek to be able to go home freely, and escape from the “prison” of Urras.
Efor wants the best for Shevek—despite the differences between them, Efor knows that Shevek is good, and has the potential to do much good on Urras. Efor proves himself to be different from everyone else who wanted to use Shevek for what he could offer them—though Efor was approached many times and asked to recruit Shevek to a cause, he never wanted to infringe upon Shevek’s safety or his freedom.
Shevek tells Efor that he cannot return to Anarres until he meets the people searching for him. Efor tells Shevek to seek out Tuio Maedda in Joking Lane, at the grocery in Old Town. Shevek is forbidden from leaving campus, but Efor suggests that if he takes a taxi he might be able to escape anonymously. Efor gives Shevek some money, calls him a taxi, and tells him the driver will be at the back door of the dormitory in five minutes. Shevek asks Efor if Efor will be blamed when Shevek’s absence is noticed, but Efor vows to cover for Shevek for as long as he can.
Efor supports Shevek’s escape from the university, and vows to do everything in his power to keep Shevek safe while he pursues his own freedom, and the support of the freedom of the Urrasti people. Efor is the first person on Urras who has shown Shevek true support, altruism, and solidarity. Shevek has been a pawn of the upper classes for a long time, and now finally is going to go out in search of accomplishing his true mission on Urras: to spread Anarresti ideals and help save those who need saving.
Shevek takes a taxi away from the University, then transfers to a subway train to Old Town. Old Town is dark and dingy, greasy with rain and dilapidated. Shevek asks many people where Joking Lane is, as it is not on any map, but the downtrodden poor of Old Town will not answer him. Shevek continues on, encountering homeless men and beggars and becoming more and more rattled. He stops in a pawn shop, where he tells the proprietor that he is the scientist from Anarres and must get to Joking Lane that evening. The proprietor agrees to take Shevek to the grocery, and the two set out together.
As Shevek sees what true life on Urras is like, he understands the enormous plight of the unpropertied classes and the lack of societal support on Urras. On Anarres, no one is supposed to go hungry while someone else eats—here on Urras there is no sense of that solidarity, and people live in hunger and in squalor while the upper classes enjoy unimaginable wealth and decadence.
At Tuio Maedda’s grocery store, Shevek is led to a back room where he meets Tuio face to face. Tuio asks Shevek what he is doing here, and Shevek replies that he is looking for help—he escaped from the “jail” of Ieu Eun University in search of the lower classes because they seem like “people who might help each other.” Shevek tells Tuio that he has something the State needs—a scientific theory—and that he didn’t understand, when he came from Anarres, that any of his ideas would be the property of the state. Shevek wants to get out of Urras, but cannot go home, so he has come to Tuio because Tuio does not need Shevek’s science, and perhaps doesn’t like the government, either.
Shevek has escaped to Tuio because he has no other options. Shevek knows that Tuio can offer him shelter and solidarity, and feels that there must be something he can give Tuio in return—at the very least the gift of his presence. Shevek now knows what he means to the Ioti people, and the ways in which the University has tried to keep him from realizing the change he could make in A-Io. For once it is not Shevek’s work as a physicist that determines his worth, but the simple fact of his being.
Tuio tells Shevek that he will shelter him for the night. Tuio also informs Shevek that an underground Syndicalist-Libertarian faction has planned a demonstration which will take place three days from now, and will protest the draft and the wartime rise in taxes. Tuio says that the city needs a strike, and that their movement could use an Odo.
Tuio wants to use Shevek as their movement’s Odo—he wants to lift Shevek up as an example of the best kind of person, a person who is free of egoism, free of desire for material goods, and committed to brotherhood and freedom.
Tuio tells Shevek that Anarresti society has been a beacon of hope to the Urrasti lower classes for generations—a common good-luck wish is “May you get reborn on Anarres.” Anarres is an “idealist’s dream,” and Tuio explains that the reason Shevek has been so well-hidden at the university is because Shevek himself is an idea—and a dangerous one at that. One of the girls who works in the grocery pipes in to say that Odo was only an idea, but Shevek is proof. Tuio asks Shevek to join their nonviolent demonstration, and Shevek agrees to be of use however he can be. He offers to write a statement in the local paper, and Tuio says that they’ll get his words in the newspaper—they’ll hide him from sight or harm, but let every man in A-Io know that Shevek has joined the workers’ revolution.
Hearing what Anarres represents to the oppressed people of Urras moves Shevek deeply. He realizes how important his involvement is to them, and offers to go above and beyond in support of their movement. Despite its flaws, he realizes, the idea of Anarres—and Odonian society in practice—are true marvels that the rest of the universe could look to as a model of what life and society can be. Anarres represents the potential of freedom realized, and Shevek sees this now through eyes unclouded by cynicism or egoism.
Shevek hides out in attics and basements over the next several days, and Tuio brings him copies of the papers that have published his manifesto so that he can look it over. He does not read it closely, however, and instead spends most of his time puzzling over the writings in his personal notebook, which contains coded equations for the General Temporal Theory. Looking at them now, though, Shevek barely even understands them.
In the light of his new engagement with the workers’ movement and the focus of his efforts in helping them, Shevek’s work now seems almost unintelligible to him. On Anarres he saw social engagement and obligation as a distraction to his work—but here on Urras, he has realized that work is often the distraction, and that brotherhood and solidarity are just as if not more important.
At the demonstration, Shevek is grateful to be outside after having been locked away for so many days. He is thrilled by the thousands of people in the crowd marching and singing together, and is moved to tears by the rebels’ passion.
After so many disappointments on Urras and so much fear that he had undertaken a fool’s errand and a suicide mission, Shevek is deeply moved by the displays of solidarity at the demonstration.
A hundred thousand people or more are in the Capitol Square for the protest—more people, Shevek realizes, than live in all of Abbenay. Shevek stands with Tuio Maedda and his group on the steps of the Directorate, and delivers a speech. He speaks of suffering and brotherhood, poverty and humility, and assures the gathered poor and downtrodden that though they have nothing to give, and have only empty hands, neither on Anarres do the people have anything of their own. He tells the gathered rebels that “if it is Anarres [they] want, [they] must come to it with empty hands.” The revolutionaries must be the revolution, he says. As his speech draws to a close, police helicopters draw near.
The demonstration is a massive show of solidarity, as Ioti citizens express their desire for freedom, fair treatment, and an end to the influence of the state—all things that Anarres has, and that they want. Shevek is a beacon of hope for them, and encourages them to continue their revolution with open hands, minds, and hearts. At the height of the demonstration’s joy, however, state helicopters begin circling over the gathered crowd, signaling the Ioti people’s inescapable relationship with the state that governs them.
The helicopters begin to fire, focusing on the people standing on or near the steps of the Directorate. The crowd is quickly full of dead and injured people, and many flee into the Directorate to seek shelter. Soldiers arrive, though, marching up the steps and shooting blindly, striking even the already-dead with their bullets.
The state has perpetrated a devastating act of violence against its own people. There is no freedom on Urras, only subjugation at the hands of the state and the upper classes. The soldiers shooting even at dead bodies symbolizes the state’s disregard for—and even active hatred of—its people.
Shevek drags a man alongside him as he flees Capitol Square. He tells the man to sit down on the steps of a basement entry to a warehouse. Shevek tries the door, but it is locked. Shevek smashes the lock, opens the door, and looks inside—the basement is empty. Shevek helps his companion into the basement and searches for water. When he returns, his companion has fainted, and Shevek examines the man’s wound. The man’s hand has been nearly blasted off by bullets, and Shevek attempts to wrap the hand. Shevek does not know this man’s name, but knows by his white armband that he is a Socialist Worker.
It is Shevek’s nature as an Odonian to care for his fellow brothers and sisters, and he adopts this stranger from the demonstration into his care despite not knowing the man’s name or anything at all about him. In the mad scramble for shelter, Shevek breaks the lock on a door, representing his constant mission of breaking down barriers and passing over and through high walls and locked doors, both literally and metaphorically.
Shevek tended to such wounds during his time at the mills in the Southwest, back on Anarres, but there was always a surgeon to operate—Shevek cannot help this man any more, and decides to go for help. On the street, though, a man warns Shevek that police are approaching, and Shevek returns to the basement. After a few hours, Shevek looks out the window and sees soldiers shouting orders to one another. He recalls Atro, months ago, explaining military organization—Shevek had exclaimed that it was a “coercive mechanism,” but Atro had waxed poetic about the worth of warfare. Now, Shevek understands why the army is organized as it is—its only purpose is to kill large quantities of unarmed men and women. Shevek’s companion lies still but moaning, and Shevek, unable to bear the man’s pain, hushes him.
Shevek, having finally witnessed firsthand the mechanism of the military at work, understands the brutality of its design and its sole purpose as an agent of death and destruction. Shevek’s comrade’s deep wounds, which Shevek cannot tend to, mirror the deep wounds in the workers’ movement and Shevek’s realization that he can no longer ‘”tend” to it—he has done all he can, and as the mortal wounds take hold Shevek is isolated in his ineffectiveness just as he was back on Anarres.
Shevek stays with his companion for three nights, during which they hear sporadic fighting. Shevek considers going outside to the police, but his companion warns him that they will only get shot. On the third night, Shevek’s companion dies as the two of them lie side by side for warmth. When Shevek wakes in the morning, his companion has gone stiff with death, and the streets outside are silent.
The revolution has been brought to its knees, and Shevek sees and understands for the first time the destructive power that comes with the amassing of wealth and control. The silence in the streets mirrors the silencing of the socialist workers’ revolution, and the silencing of Shevek’s voice as a beacon of hope for the Urrasti.