The recipient of numerous literary prizes, including the National Book Award, the Kafka Award, five Hugo Awards and five Nebula Awards, the renowned writer Ursula K. Le Guin has, in each story and novel, created a provocative, ever-evolving universe filled with diverse worlds and rich characters reminiscent of our earthly selves. Now, in The Birthday of the World, this gifted artist returns to these worlds in eight brilliant short works, including a never-before-published novella, each of which probes the essence of humanity.
This are gloriously written stories with very deep themes, exploring race and gender and belief, each one set in a wonderfully evocative culture. The first six stories are explicitly set in Le Guin's loose Ekumen universe, the others not quite, and they are mostly in the nature of worldbuilding experiments - set up initial conditions, and see what humanity builds on them. And while I loved this book, and loved how much it made me think, some of these stories do fall into the "uncanny valley" for me - while I can happily read the most kitschy Golden Age sf, where characterization is non-existent, the hard science is ludicrous, and the social sciences are ignored - I start having problems when the author gets it *almost* right, but there's one or two things I just can't accept. Most of my issue with this book fall into that category. That said, there's a bit on each story (possible spoilers):
"Coming of Age in Karhide" is essentially a plot-what-plot fanfic set on the world of Gethen, from The Left Hand of Darkness. It's the story of the sexual initiation of a young Gethenian androgyne, and it's mostly sex. I liked it a lot! What I found most intriguing about it is the contrast with the original Gethen stories from the '70s - while she doesn't contradict the other stories, in this one, suddenly sex is so much more open, homosexuality is present, gender becomes less gendered. That's something that continues in all these stories - in every one of the worlds she explores here, bisexuality is taken as the norm.
"The Matter of Seggri": This is the story of a world where men are rare and valued, and so given "all of the privilege and none of the power", kept protected and separated while the women live on their own and run the society. It's set up as a collection of papers by different authors, which give you a good variety perspectives on the society. I found it fascinating and immersive and compelling, and while many of the characters you only meet for a small time (the duration of their contribution to the archive) they become very convincing as people. The moral of this story is about the ways in which a segregated society leads to injustice both from the top down, and among the subordinated people. I would have like to see, however, some hints of the way in which it also creates inhumanity among the ruling class itself. While there are small hints, in places, of less-than-friendly relationships withn the women's world, that part of it reads far too much like a lesbian utopia to me, and leaves the story oddly unbalanced.
"Unchosen Love" and "Mountain Ways" are both lovely, short romances set on the world of O, in which marriages all have four people, and gender is less important than other dualities. They're probably the lightest stories in the volume, but also probably the two that I enjoyed most, and they made me want to go find the novel (Fisherman of the Inland Sea) which she wrote about O.
"Solitude" is another story, like Seggri, of first contact; on the planet where it takes place, cultural transmission is only given to children, so the first aliens who learn about the culture are a brother and sister who were raised there. I liked this story- -there were places where it approached sheer beauty, and the concept of making your soul, to become a person but never a people; and the way their concept of magic is slowly defined really stayed with me, It feels truly like a foreign but still human culture, the way anthropological accounts often do but SF stories don't, nearly enough. I had issues with this story which I didn't manage to articulate until I went back to the introduction and read her account of its writing. She says that it was intended to explore the idea of a culture that valued introversion as the prime virtue; those were the parts of the story I liked. But she also gives this culture a system of gender segregation not unlike Seggri's, and especially coming where it does in the anthology, it feels like it ought to be about gender - but the gender issues never really get explored here, and expecting the gender questions makes it difficult to get to the meat of story.
"Old Music and the Slave Women" is a story I wanted to like more than I did. It's gorgeous and evocative and sad, set in a decaying mansion among the people who have been left behind as a devastating civil war slowly destroys their world. It's also something of a fanfic to the previous four stories set on this world, and I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I'd read those stories already and come to know and love the character and his setting before they were all ruined. As it was, I was really starting to miss actual plot by this point in the anthology, and it came off too much as a sermon on the topic of "War is bad. So is slavery. And there's nothing you can do about it." Which, while far too true, is both depressing and not news to me.
"The Birthday of the World" is based vaguely on pre-contact American empires; it's the first-person account of a girl who was born to inherit Godhood, and what happened when she didn't. This story was once again beatifully written, and wonderfully strange right down to its bones, but it was often too strange - I never really connected with it; I felt like I was only ever seeing this world through a thick fog; and I also found it hard to believe in. It's the same basic plot as Terry Pratchett's Pyramids, which I recently read; somehow I found that over-the-top treatment to come to a much more probable conclusion than this one, which posits that a faith strong enough to build an empire on is so weak that it can be toppled like a house of cards. People may be from very foreign cultures, but in the end they're still people. (The fact that it's never made explicit whether the people here are, actually, human or not doesn't help with my feelings of disorientation.)
"Paradises Lost" is also, in the end, a story about the nature of faith. It comes out in the negative. "Paradises Lost" is essentially a case study of a generation ship; and while I disagree with some of the conditions in her study, I love the people she populated it with, and the suprising ways they love each other. Unfortunately, there's another big problem with story; it spends the first three-quarters building up the tension to a big, dramatic, catastrophic climax, it reaches the very edge of the climax, where everything's going to have to change -- and then it skips in one line-break to six months later, after it's all pretty much resolved. For all the beauty of the ending, I was still left deeply unsatisfied.
So, in summary: I adored this book, and it make me think a lot, which is why I had to sit and tease out all the things that kept it from being absolutely perfect.
I have to admit I have developed a certain weakness for the world of O with its complicated marriage system and greatly enjoyed what were essentially two love stories set there. Or maybe I'm just a hopeless romantic and any excuse for a love story will do.
One of the things which struck me in almost every story in this book is the detail with which Le Guin constructs her universe. And yet, the way she gets it across doesn't even remotely approach what is often derogatorily termed "world building" in lesser quality science fiction. She has a talent for getting vast complicated concepts across in only a few words, almost like opening a small window to give a glimpse into the richness of her world without overwhelming us with it.
I am getting addicted to her writing. So addicted, I'm actually seriously considering reading her fantasy - and having absolutely no doubt at all that it will be good and I will enjoy it.
Le Guin explores some themes in this collection which are common in much of her work, such as different models of gender identity and sexuality; she also tackles others which are new and to which she brings a new perspective. The one original piece, "Paradises Lost", is a good example of the latter. The setting on a starship from Earth which will take many generations of humans to reach its destination is one which many other writers have used. Le Guin has given particular thought to the different perspectives of the initial generation who leave Earth, the final generation who have a destination to explore and the intermediate generations who will never see either. She tells a compelling story of how this could go very wrong.
Many of the other stories are set in Le Guin's common future of the Ekumen, a benevolent inter-stellar federation of worlds all peopled by descendants of a human-like species who spread, changed and adapted in times which are pre-historic compared to the times in which the stories are set. Le Guin does not allow too much technology to set this world apart from ours. Interstellar travel is possible, but only at sub-light speeds, so journeys take years or decades to complete. The only thing that makes the notion of an interstellar society possible is instantaneous communication via a device known as an ansible. The populations on the various worlds of the Ekumen are all markedly different, having had possibly thousands of millenia without contact to diverge through evolution, whether natural or assisted. Some, such as those on Gethen, are effectively neuter apart from brief periods of time when they become sexually active, much as many animals come into heat.
I say a little about each story below, without spoilers. Le Guin is a writer that has grown on me over the years. I think I must have read her novel "The Left Hand of Darkness" (set on Gethen) about 30 years ago and it made a great impression on me. But at the time I struggled with some of her other work and didn't try again until about 10 years ago. Since then I've enjoyed everything of hers I have read. Why the experience is so different I really can't tell. Le Guin is a great writer, without or without the confines of genre that some would place science fiction in. Her introduction does a good job of explaining why she thinks that such divisions of literature are unhelpful.
"Coming of Age in Karhide"
A return to the world on which "The Left Hand of Darkness" was set, exploring an aspect of sexuality that the novel was not able to do in detail. Unlike the novel, this story is told entirely from the perspective of the Gethenians themselves, so the element of an external observer bemused at difference is absent. But there is still some strangeness for those involved - the protagonists are going through Gethenian puberty, a process just as puzzling, painful and joyful as it is to humans.
"The Matter of Seggri"
Told as a series of reports from Ekumen visitors over periods of some decades. The first visitors are making the first contact with a lost Hainish world in which there is a significant gender imbalance that has persisted for countless generations. Almost all children are female; male births are unusual and male children often frail, not making it to adulthood. The way society has evolved to deal with this is the primary subject of the story, told in fragments from different perspectives years apart. The existence of male brothels where women pay to be impregnated is just part of this evolution. It's a compelling and well-imagined tale, but the world itself is not a happy one. Le Guin herself says in the introduction that the story was an experiment in thinking how such an extreme gender imbalance might change a society, but that "the experiment was not a happy one."
"Unchosen Love" and "Mountain Ways"
Both these stories are set on the world of "O", another member of the Ekumen universe. O's distinguishing societal feature is something that may be like two types of gender, or may be a combination of the notions of gender and caste. On O, as in on Earth, you may be male or female and reproduction requires one of each. But you may also be "morning" or "evening", a characteristic called "moiety" inherited from your mother. A marriage requires four people, one of each type; sexual relations may occur between any pair except those of opposite gender but identical moeity. So there are rules, but not as we know them. Le Guin describes both stories as comedies of manners - she is, of course, quite right. "Unchosen Love" sees a man from a farming part of O visit a fishing community and fall in love; these things are always complicated when you do so far away from home. More so, perhaps, on O. "Mountain Ways" is set in a remote farming area where opportunities to meet others are limited. A wandering scholar comes visiting a family broken by death. Love again ensues, but the making of a marriage will be complex, perhaps impossible, to reconcile with love.
Set on a post-apocalyptic world in which just about everyone is an introvert. An Ekumen visitor once decided that the only way to learn about this society was to live among them and have her children there. The story is told from the point of view of one of those children, growing up in a gulf between two very different cultures and still unable to explain one to the other.
"Old Music and the Slave Women"
Also set in the Ekumen universe, on a world which has institutionalised global slavery in way which is obviously and intentionally modelled on the American South. Plantations, cruelty and hypocrisy abound. But revolution is imminent. Le Guin describes this as a fifth companion story to four others in "Four Ways to Forgiveness" - a writing form she describes as a story suite. "Old Music" is the translated name of an Ekumen diplomat caught up in the revolutionary change taking place.
"The Birthday of the World"
Le Guin herself says she isn't sure if this is set in the Ekumen universe or not. It doesn't really matter. It's a story set within a relatively primitive society reminiscent of the Incas. Gods and rulers are as one, society is highly stratified, but there's at least one significant difference - the God/Monarch is a union of two individuals, male and female and brother and sister. As in the previous story, change is afoot in story encompassing war, family rivalry and male sexual violence now more reminiscent of Greek myth.
Set on a starship which will take many generations to reach its destination world after setting off from Earth, this is about the middle generations who see neither end of the journey. Powerful, compelling and highly original despite a familiar setting.
Six out of eight stories are set in her Hainish universe and elaborate on different aspects of the Ekumen. Subjects revolve mostly around sexuality (from an anthropological angle) but also other themes. For instance, 'Old Music and the Slave Women' is a harsh look at revolution from the ground and how it disrupts and affects people that are not directly involved in the fighting - until the battle descends on them. At turns brutal and beautiful, it is one of the more memorable stories in this collection.
The story that really rose above the others for me was 'Paradises Lost'. Not one of the Hainish tales, it is a classic generation-ship story that explores the impact on people that are the 'tweeners... Those generations that are born and die during the voyage - never to recall their origin and never to see their destination. In typical Le Guin fashion, along with an amazing amount of story development, we also get a couple of twists that deeply affect the outcome and the main characters. A great story with a well-realized ending.
"The Matter of Seggri" ~ Seggri is a world where the number of females is greater than males to a magnitude of 6. Males are venerated and cosseted and do little more than compete in games and impregnate females. The females do pretty much everything else and, it could be argued, hold all the power in the society. However, when the Ekumen arrive, the world has to decide whether the way they've always done things will continue. A very interesting thought experiment, but also really sad.
"Unchosen Love" and "Mountain Ways" take place on the planet O, where, in addition to genders, the people also have moieties and enter into marriages in groups of four, two of each gender and two of each moiety. The planet was first featured in the title story of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, and LeGuin writes in the forward of this book that she did so much work in hashing out the system of relationships that she had to revisit it and explore the complications further. "Unchosen Love" explores what happens when the foursome is made up of two strong twosomes that have to learn to love each other's partners as well in order to make the relationship work. It's also about being a stranger in a strong society and moving somewhere one doesn't feel comfortable in order to stay with his lover. "Mountain Ways" focuses on what happens when, because of a smaller population, a fourth for a relationship is not easily found, but an unsuitable partner is readily available and desired. Again, fascinating. I just love LeGuin's societal and relational experiments. They don't even need to have a plot, just exploring the society is enough, but as a bonus, they do and it's entirely satisfying.
"Solitude" ~ The Ekumen goes to learn about a new planet, but are having a very hard time connecting with the denizens. An enterprising woman decides to bring her kids down to the surface hoping that they'll be allowed to learn from the adults and pass the information back to the stabiles on Hain. The unfortunate consequence of the children growing up on the planet is that they might internalize the teachings and want to stay. The way of life itself on the world is intriguing. I'd like to learn how to starwatch myself.
"Old Music and the Slave Woman" ~ In her book Four Ways to Forgiveness, LeGuin brought us to the joint worlds of Werel and Yeowe who were going through a slave revolution. Old Music was a character that appeared in that book, but was sort of auxiliary. Here, he gets his own tale, having to really get in deep with the folks he's been observing for over 35 years, and becoming a pawn in their power struggle. I'm glad we got to revisit this character, and find out how the revolution is getting on.
"The Birthday of the World" ~ I wasn't as big of a fan of this one. The local religion is the main focus, as well as a power grab. It had a pretty funny punchline, if you will, but the buildup wasn't really worth it.
"Paradises Lost" ~ Almost novella-length, this was the best part of the book for me. I love, love, love stories about colony ships. The description of the ship processes, the relationship of the main characters, and the governing body of the ship's people were almost as enthralling as the main conflict which had to do with a religion devised by the ship's passengers. This is a commentary on how people seem to need something to believe in, even though their ancestors were the most logical and intelligent the world had to offer at the time, and the ship's governing body was formed with a strict attention to the separation of church and state. So, so good.
Although all nominally set within the Hain universe, the stories aren't really united by much of a common theme. There is a lot of love, sex and different styles of society present, as anyone passingly familiar with the Hain universe might expect. We return to some of the worlds featured in novels, and explore some new ones. I haven't always been impressed with the Hain novels: the ideas are good, but they fail to capture the reader as a detailed story. These shorter works are much better - the essance of the world's society is distilled into one episode of a character's life with a much higher connection for the reader. We get to revisit Gethan from Left Hand of Darkness, and two stories set in the multiple person and moity marrige world of O, as well as my personal favourite Paradises Lost, set on a generational colony ship.
The styles of the stories vary, from 3rd person narratives to epistolary exerts of reports back to Hain. The prose is at times, blunt, with none of the victorian prudishness about body parts that the US sometimes displays. This sin't surprising given the inspection into human sexuality and modes of relationship that the first few stories detail.
Well worth reading with an open mind and enjoy the variety of the possible human conditions.
She writes as a more sumptuous Clarke.
"Eight wise and wonderful stories by one of the great masters of science fiction."
That about covers it.