A group of protestors gathers at the wall that surrounds the Port of Anarres as a spaceship docked there prepares for liftoff. As a man crosses the wall and walks through the barren field toward the ship, the protestors recognize him and begin to chase him. Members of the Anarresti Defense syndicate flank the man and hurry him to the ship as protestors begin throwing rocks, clipping the man’s shoulder and killing a Defense syndic. The passenger makes it on board and the ship doors close, and within a few minutes the angry mob disperses. Onboard the ship—a freighter called the Mindful—the passenger, a man named Shevek, is taken to his cabin and injected with several vaccines by a Urrasti doctor named Kimoe. In the days that follow, Shevek runs a high fever as a side effect of the various vaccines, and when he awakes, he finds that he is halfway to Urras—the Moon, twin, and rival planet of his home planet, Anarres. Through conversations with Dr. Kimoe, Shevek prepares himself for landing on the capitalist, deeply socially-stratified world of Urras. The Mindful lands and Shevek disembarks. He is met by reporters and paparazzi who photograph him and shout at him—he is “The First Man From the Moon” to them. A limousine arrives to take Shevek to the capital city of Nio Esseia, where he will be staying at the Ieu Eun University. His handlers—a group of five men—point out the sights to Shevek as the countryside flies by. At the University, Shevek meets with University officials and diplomats of the state of A-Io alike, and the Ioti President makes a toast to “a new era of brotherhood” between the Twin Planets. After the party, Shevek’s escorts bring him to his room at the university and help him to settle in.
In a flashback, the narrative transitions to the Anarres of Shevek’s youth. The novel transitions back and forth in alternating chapters between the “present”—Shevek’s journey to Urras—and the story of his past on Anarres. As an infant, Shevek plays with other children in an Anarresti communal nursery, unable to grasp that nothing—no toys, no objects—belong to him. Everything on Anarres belongs to everyone. Shevek’s father Palat has come to collect Shevek from the nursery in order to say goodbye to his mother, Rulag, who has been posted to a work assignment far away—Anarresti society functions in groups of Syndicates, and labor rotation often splits up family units or forces people to make large moves at a moment’s notice. The narrative flashes forward a few years to Shevek’s school days. As an eight-year-old, he is uncannily bright and still decisively impetuous, and his teacher at the learning center accuses Shevek of “egoizing” as he attempts to explain a complicated math problem to his fellow students. Shevek is sent out of class and realizes he will have to wait for the day when others are interested in the same kind of problems as him. The narrative flashes forward again—a preteen Shevek and his friends are learning about the concept of prisons, which do not exist on Anarres. The boys, fascinated by the idea, decide to create a prison of their own. They lock up one of their friends, Kadagv, and leave him in a crawl space beneath the school for thirty hours. When they release him, he has soiled himself, and Shevek understands for the first time the violence of power over others. The narrative flashes forward yet again. Shevek is a student at the Northsetting Regional Institute—he is a teenager, and he and his childhood friends Tirin and Bedap carry on a speculative conversation about Urras. The boys recently saw some old footage of life on Urras during one of their classes, and were overwhelmed by the enormous gap between the destitute poor in the Urrasti nation of Thu, and the wealthy “propertied class” based in the prosperous nation of A-Io. The Odonian Revolution, which brought Urrasti anarchists to Anarres over one hundred and fifty years ago, has created a barrier between the planets which cannot be breached—except, the boys know, for trading of resources between the two several times a year via freighters, which are not allowed beyond the Port of Anarres. In yet another flash forward, the eighteen-year-old Shevek is off on his first work posting, doing manual labor in the dusty desert. Shevek embarks on a romantic relationship with a woman named Beshun, but it goes south when the two of them receive new work postings. Shevek returns to the familiarity of the Northsetting Regional Institute, and the tutelage of his physics teacher, the wise and old Mitis. Mitis forwards one of Shevek’s advanced papers to a physicist named Sabul in the big city of Abbenay, and Shevek receives an invitation to go and study with the man. Mitis warns Shevek that he will become Sabul’s property if he goes, but because no one owns anyone or anything else on Anarres, Shevek does not pay close attention to her advice.
On Urras, Shevek awakes in his room at Ieu Eun University. He is amazed by the size and luxury of his room there, and cannot believe he has it all to himself. Shevek looks out the window at the beautiful Urrasti landscape, and thinks that it is “what a world is supposed to look like.” Shevek meets his manservant Efor, though he doesn’t understand what it is to be served, and then welcomes to his rooms a group of Urrasti physicists who are meant to be his guides. Chifoilisk, Oiie, Atro, and Pae rejoice at meeting Shevek, who they have been communicating with through letters and radio broadcasts for many years. The men welcome Shevek “home” and present him with a solid-gold statue—an award he won in absentia many years ago. The men ask Shevek how far along he is in his General Temporal Theory—the theory he has come to Urras to complete—and Shevek assures him that the whole thing is in his head. Shevek is delighted to find that he has encountered his intellectual and conversational equals at last, and explains to the men that he has come to their world not as an Anarresti ambassador but as a physicist following his own personal initiative. Shevek, confined to his room for several days while his vaccinations take hold, spends his time reading the books his handlers bring him—Urrasti science, history, and art, as well as newspapers which describe a growing unrest in the Urrasti state of Benbili. After three days, Shevek is allowed out, and his handlers take him all through the city and the country. At the end of his days of tourism, Shevek realizes he has been foolish in thinking he could bring the two vastly different worlds together—he feels he belongs to neither of them.
In the past narrative, Shevek arrives in Abbenay and makes his way to the Central Institute of the Sciences, where he is given a single room for the first time in his life. The following day he meets with Sabul, the physicist who will be his mentor. Sabul, a gruff and unpleasant man, tells Shevek that he must learn Ioti—the language of Urras—before he can be taught any real physics, as the latest developments in physics all happen on Urras and are written in Iotic. Sabul warns Shevek not to share his Ioti texts with anyone, or to tell anyone he is learning the language. Shevek quickly learns Ioti after isolating himself in his rooms and studying hard. He only leaves to attend lectures in physics delivered by Gvarab—an elderly but brilliant woman who is not well-respected at the Institute by anyone other than Shevek. Shevek begins early work on a unified theory of time, and meanwhile writes criticism of Urrasti work which Sabul sends, via freighter, directly to the physicists back on Urras. Shevek is excited but nervous to communicate with the Urrasti—a major taboo on Anarres. Shevek eventually discovers that Sabul has been taking credit for his work while corresponding with the Urrasti, since in theory everything belongs to everyone on Anarres. Shevek falls ill with a fever and checks himself into a nearby clinic. When his fever breaks, he wakes to find a woman sitting by his side—she reveals she is his mother, Rulag. She asks about Shevek’s father, and Shevek reveals that Palat died many years ago. Rulag tells Shevek that her work always came first—she doesn’t quite apologize, but Shevek can see the pain and loneliness on her face. Rulag asks Shevek if the two of them can have a relationship at last, but Shevek refuses her, and Rulag leaves him alone and weeping in the clinic.
On Urras, Shevek settles down and gets to work as a new term begins at Ieu Eun University. He takes on some teaching duties and publishes some papers, but because he is not working on his General Temporal Theory he feels he is accomplishing nothing of value. Shevek goes shopping for the first time in his life and purchases an expensive suit and shoes, which are tailor-made for him. In a meeting with Chifoilisk, a physicist from the socialist state of Thu, Chifoilisk warns Shevek not to let himself be “bought” by the Ioti, and warns him especially not to write down his General Temporal Theory even if he finishes it—the Ioti government will surely take it from him and seize it as their own property. Less than a week after their conversation, Pae informs Shevek that Chifoilisk has been called—or sent—back to his home country of Thu. In Chifoilisk’s absence Shevek develops a friendship with the renowned physicist Atro, who believes that Cetians—the race of the Urrasti and Anarresti people—are superior in the galaxy and the only form of humanity meant to prosper. Atro tells Shevek that when it comes time for him to release his General Temporal Theory, he should make sure that it is Cetians and Cetians alone who benefit from it.
In the past, after recovering from his illness, Shevek returns to his room at the Institute. He no longer isolates himself with his work, hearing his mother Rulag’s words in his ear and fearing to become a slave to his own egoism. Shevek begins writing his own letters to the physicists on Urras, but Sabul will not send them for him, vindictively refusing to transport any material that doesn’t deal directly with his own research. Shevek excitedly looks forward to the very few letters he receives from Urras each year. Gvarab dies, and Shevek is overwhelmed by feelings of futility. He reunites with his childhood friend, Bedap, and the two briefly pursue a romantic relationship. They argue frequently, though, and soon part ways. They remain close friends who discuss clandestinely the ways in which Anarresti customs are barriers to progress, change, free will, and the advancement of society and intellect. Bedap invites Shevek on a hiking trip with a group of friends, and on the trek Shevek meets Takver, a woman to whom he is instantly attracted. Bedap points out that Takver attended school with them at Northsetting, and Shevek is embarrassed to not have remembered her. After a few days of hiking, Shevek and Takver, alone for the first time, fall into a conversation about their mutual attraction and their shared desire for exclusive partnership—something of a rarity on Anarres. After the trip, the two of them move in together, and embark on a romantic relationship.
On Urras, as fall turns to winter, Shevek orders a new coat from a custom shop in Nio Esseia. When it arrives, there is a letter in its pocket. The letter urges Shevek to stop working within the power system that betrays his world, and invites him to join with his brothers. The letter is unsigned. Reading the letter, Shevek realizes that he has indeed been “bought” after all—he is closed off from the real people of Urras and kept entirely in the pockets of the Ioti upper classes. Shevek asks Efor, his manservant and the only person he has met on Urras who is not a member of the propertied class, to share stories of what life is really like on Urras, but Efor will not oblige him. On a visit to the physicist Oiie’s home, Shevek meets Oiie’s sister, the alluring Vea—though they only spend a few hours together eating dinner at Oiie’s, Vea asks Shevek to call on her sometime. Shevek reads more and more in the papers about the revolution in Benbili, in which rebels have overthrown a militaristic dictator, and learns that the Ioti state is sending troops to silence the rebels and restore the dictator to power, while Thu is sending troops to support the rebels and keep the dictatorship at bay. As Shevek grows closer and closer to completing his General Temporal Theory, he worries that he has not seen enough of life on Urras, and is wasting his time there. Shevek takes a train to Nio Esseia for the day, where he calls upon Vea and goes out on the town with her. At a party at her apartment that night, Shevek becomes intoxicated for the first time in his life. After embarrassing himself by assaulting Vea and ejaculating on her dress, he is taken home by Oiie and Pae. Tucking Shevek into bed for the night, Pae pockets a paper from Shevek’s desk, wondering aloud to Oiie whether Shevek is a fraud who will never deliver the theory to A-Io.
On Anarres, the worst drought in forty years has struck even the major city of Abbenay. As Shevek, Takver, Bedap, and their group of friends consider the growing inequities in Anarresti society—and the mounting control the PDC (the Production and Distribution Coordination, which oversees work groups and labor assignments on Anarres) has assumed over the lives of Anarresti citizens—people all over the planet suffer under new rationing procedures. Takver is pregnant, and Shevek is struggling at the Institute—Sabul has told him that his research is irrelevant, and refuses to print his latest paper. Takver suggests that Shevek cave and allow Sabul to take a co-writing credit to see if that changes anything, and soon his manuscript is published, though the work is attributed to Sabul as well. Shevek gives birth to a baby girl, Sadik, but by the end of winter, the drought still shows no sign of ending. Labor drafts have become more frequent and more urgent, and soon Shevek is called away on an emergency posting. While Shevek is away, he receives a letter from Takver stating that she, too, has been reposted, and will be leaving Abbenay soon. At the end of Shevek’s rotation he heads back to Abbenay to find Takver and their baby girl gone. Sabul informs Shevek that he will not be reposted at the Institute, and Shevek realizes he has been shut out for good. Shevek goes to Divlab, the Division of Labor Central Posting Offices, and asks to be placed near Takver, but nothing is available. Rather than remain in Abbenay or follow Takver to a place where he will be of no use, Shevek requests a famine-prevention posting and is assigned indefinitely to a work-coordinating position in the desert region, the Dust.
On Urras, Shevek awakens the morning after Vea’s party feeling sick, shaky, and embarrassed. He reflects on his mistakes, ashamed that he has effectively become the property of the Ioti state—he feels he should never have come to Urras at all. He resolves that no more of his work will benefit the Ioti state or Ioti intellectuals who only want to use his work for their own advancement. Pae arrives and tells Shevek that A-Io has assumed the upper hand in the state of Benbili, though Thu still holds Benbili’s easternmost provinces. The two countries will now go to war against one another in Benbili, to keep the barbaric fighting out of A-Io’s borders. Because A-Io is now officially at war, Pae says, Shevek should expect some new restrictions to come into effect—Shevek will not be able to leave the University campus without express permission from the Chancellor. Pae also informs Shevek that an Ioti engineer has developed the plans for something called the ansible, a device which will allow for instant communication between any planets in the galaxy—and all the engineer needs is Shevek’s theory, which will allow the device to work. After Pae leaves, Shevek asks Efor to turn away any visitors and tell them that he is hard at work. He gets down to work on the General Temporal Theory once and for all, finally experiencing a major breakthrough and realizing that his theory is at last complete. One night, after a disturbing visit from Atro during which Atro glorifies the war in Benbili and exalts the superiority of the Ioti state, Shevek realizes he must get away from the University, which has essentially become a prison for him. Shevek and Efor hold a clandestine conversation in Shevek’s bathroom while the water runs, in case the room is bugged—there is a microphone, Efor says, in Shevek’s living room. Shevek shows Efor the note he found in his coat pocket, and asks Efor how he can get to its sender. Efor tells Shevek to seek out a man named Tuio Maedda in Old Town, and helps Shevek call a taxi which will take him away from Ieu Eun. Efor vows to cover for Shevek, and Shevek slips out into the night. Upon arriving in Old Town, he is overwhelmed by the poverty he encounters. He asks a pawn shop owner for directions to Tuio Maedda, and is taken to a grocery store where he finds Tuio at last. Shevek tells Tuio that he has something the state needs, and did not realize when he arrived on Urras that any theory he developed would become state property. Shevek knows that Tuio does not need his theory. Tuio is part of an underground Syndicalist-Libertarian faction, which works together with the socialists in Thu and which espouses many aspects of the Anarresti Odonian movement. Shevek volunteers to join a nonviolent demonstration scheduled for later that week, and Tuio agrees to shelter Shevek until the protest. On the day of the demonstration, Shevek gives a speech to the hundred thousand people gathered in the town square. He speaks of brotherhood, and assures the poor and downtrodden that revolution is possible. As Shevek’s speech draws to a close, State helicopters swarm overhead and begin firing on the crowd. Shevek escapes, carrying a wounded comrade to a warehouse basement where he hides out for three days as police continue shooting people in the streets. When his companion dies, Shevek emerges from the basement to find the streets empty and quiet.
On Anarres, Shevek is leaving the Southwest region after having been stationed there—and separated from Takver—for four long years. He has witnessed terrible suffering during the years of famine, and was repulsed by his job in the Dust, which was to make lists of who would eat while hundreds of people starved. Arriving in a city called Chakar, Shevek looks up Takver and finds her living in a domicile with a roommate. Their daughter, Sadik, is older now, and she does not recognize Shevek. All three of them tearfully reunite, and Shevek realizes that the famine has taken a toll on Takver just as it has on him. Takver regrets not having refused the posting that took her away from Abbenay, and expresses her desire to return to the city. Shevek and Takver talk about the breakdown of free will on Anarres, and realize that Bedap’s warnings about the PDC’s growing influence were right all along. Shevek echoes Takver’s wish to return to Abbenay, and suggests that together they start a printing syndicate to encourage freedom of the press, and spend their lives unbuilding the walls that have cropped up in Anarresti society.
On Urras, in a city called Roddared, an hour away from Nio Esseia, a bloody and exhausted Shevek arrives at the Terran embassy and begs for asylum. The Terrans—once inhabitants of the planet Earth—grant it to him, and allow Shevek to rest and recuperate for two days before engaging the famous physicist in conversation. Shevek eventually meets with the Terran ambassador, Keng, who assures Shevek that he is completely safe, and that the Ioti government only suspects his whereabouts. Keng asks Shevek about life on Anarres, and his reasons for coming to Urras—she is perplexed by the Ioti government’s decision to bring an Odonian anarchist to stay at their University when such civil unrest was gripping the planet. Shevek explains to Keng that he was a pet of the Ioti government, and was never meant to interact with the lower classes or become a part of the revolution. He warns Keng that his research was all along meant to be stolen in order to advance the Cetian—and the Ioti—agenda rather than bring peace and brotherhood to the universe. Shevek explains the idea of the ansible to Keng, and informs her that instantaneous communication across the universe would create a stepping stone for transilience—instantaneous transfer of matter throughout the universe, which he speculates the Urrasti would use for warmongering and evil. Shevek tells Keng that he wants to give his General Temporal Theory, which is at last complete, to the Terrans as a gift, since he knows that they will use it for the common good. Shevek then asks Keng for her help in returning him home to Anarres, and she agrees.
On Anarres, Bedap and Shevek, as representatives of their new syndicate—the Syndicate of Initiative—attend a PDC meeting where they defend their communication with Urras. The people of Benbili have contacted the Anarresti to ask if they can send some of their people, who identify as Odonians, to Anarres. The PDC is deeply against it—especially Rulag, who feels that allowing Urrasti to come to Anarres is not only a threat to security, but blasphemy. Shevek speaks up and asks if, since no one from Urras is allowed to go to Anarres, whether someone from Anarres might be allowed to venture to Urras. Rulag says that anyone who leaves Anarres is barred from returning—if they attempted to, she says, he or she would be met with justice and perhaps even violence. Bedap withdraws the topic and the two leave the meeting. Shevek has been summoned to the Institute, and Bedap in the meanwhile goes over to Shevek and Takver’s apartment, where he socializes with Takver and her and Shevek’s new baby Pilun. Takver reveals to Bedap that Rulag is Shevek’s mother, and Bedap speculates that Rulag is so vocal against their Syndicate due to her underlying guilt over abandoning Shevek. Shevek and Sadik return to the apartment, and Shevek announces that he just met with Sabul, who has offered him a full-time and autonomous posting at the Institute. Shevek, Takver, and Bedap all believe that the PDC is trying to force Shevek to remain on Anarres and dissociate from the Syndicate of Initiative by offering him a great job. After dinner, Shevek and Bedap walk Sadik back to the children’s dormitory, but she refuses to go in—the other children are cruel to her, she says, and tell her that her family is traitorous. Bedap goes home, while Shevek takes Sadik back to the apartment, where Takver reveals that she too has been persecuted at work due to her association with Shevek. The two of them speculate how they can escape from their fellow Anarresti’s scorn, but both agree that no matter where they went they would face threats and violence. At last, Takver tells Shevek that he should go to Urras. He will be able to conduct his research, he will be free of persecution, and she will be able to take the children to a small coastal town and live anonymously. Takver believes it is worth the risk that Shevek will be unable to return if he gets to fulfill his dreams and create something for the common good.
In the present, Shevek is on an airship heading back to Anarres from Urras. It is a Hainish ship called the Davenant, and is neither opulent in the Urrasti style nor austere in the Anarresti way. Shevek is silent and withdrawn for most of the journey, and feels as if he is a man who has just been released from prison. He speaks only when spoken to, though he briefly communicates with the Syndicate of Initiative back on Anarres to arrange landing protocol. The ship’s first mate, a Hainish man named Ketho, tells Shevek that he will be the one to take Shevek back down to the surface. Shevek tells Ketho that there may be violence, but Ketho nevertheless expresses a desire not just to travel down to the surface of Anarres but to live there for a time. Shevek warns Ketho that he might not be well-received, but that he does not want to be a participant in building any more walls between Anarres and the rest of the universe, so Shevek agrees to let Ketho land with him, and informs him that he will be treated as an Anarresti as soon as he crosses the wall separating the Port from the rest of the planet. As Shevek and Ketho prepare for landing, Shevek looks forward to returning home to Takver, Sadik, and Pilun.