When I finished reading the last pages of the last story in The Birthday of the World, I wandered around disoriented for perhaps an hour. This new collection of short stories and novellas by Ursula Le Guin is not like some books that convey comfort and delight so strongly that I finish them in a warm glow, glad to be alive. It isn’t that these stories make me sorry to be alive; rather, I find myself, after reading them, wondering just how alive I’ve been lately. How long has it been since I’ve looked at the sky and thought about how far away it is? How do I truly share space and self with another being? How would it be with me if I considered this year not as 2002, but as the Year One, with last year being one-ago, the way it is in Karhide?
The Birthday of the World comprises eight stories. All but the last of them, “Paradises Lost,” have been published elsewhere. The first six take place in the Ekumen, the imagined universe in which Le Guin has set many novels and stories. The last two are stories and places unto themselves.
“Coming of Age in Karhide” revisits the world Gethen, or Winter, about which one of Le Guin’s earliest and most famous novels, The Left Hand of Darkness, was written. For those unfamiliar with Gethen, the people there spend the majority of their lives in “somer” — that is, androgynous. Periodically, they come into “kemmer,” at which time they become fertile and sexually active as either male or female. Throughout the course of his/her life, a Gethenian can be male and female many times during different kemmers, and both sire and bear children. “Coming of Age” is a story told from the point of view of an older Gethenian remembering his/her first kemmer.
“The Matter of Seggri” hypothesizes a world upon which the proportion of women to men is sixteen to one. On this world, men are precious treasures, pampered and valued for their looks, sexual prowess, and athletic abilities. Women run the economy, administer the society, and carefully select “sires” for their children. When the men of Seggri begin to demand the rights of education and productive activity, the societal framework is shaken and forced to change.
The two stories “Unchosen Love” and “Mountain Ways” both take place on the world of O, one of my favorites of all Le Guin’s discovered worlds. O’s culture is layered with complexities, not the least of which is their form of marriage. The people of O marry in fours, two men and two women. Within the marriage, each partner has heterosexual and homosexual relations with one of the other partners, and abstains from relations with the third. Yes, these marriage relationships are quite complicated, but as Le Guin says, what marriage is not?
In stark contrast to O, the people in “Solitude” have chosen the apparent simplicity — yet actual equal complexity — of eremetic lives. Men and women live not only apart from the opposite sex, but apart from each other as well. No adult person enters the house of another adult, and women gather in “auntrings” only in order to raise their children to adolescence. It is the goal of humans in this world to become “persons,” to discover their souls distinct and separate from any other person.
In all of the above five stories, Le Guin explores, as another reviewer has put it, “all kinds of sex.” By doing so, she leads readers to think about what sex and sexuality mean, and how they pervade and help shape the entire life of a person. These stories do not communicate that “we are all the same and we should just love each other and not worry about it.” Rather, they cast light upon distinctions, and upon the ways that gendered people must and do “worry about” their relations with one another. As each reader encounters the various stories and says to him- or herself, “That is bizarre,” or, “I am just like that,” he or she is invited by Le Guin to become disoriented and reoriented, or simply reawakened to the notions of sexuality and “personhood.”
“Old Music and the Slave Women” takes place on Werel, the world from Le Guin’s story suite Four Ways to Forgiveness. The story transpires during a world-wide revolution in which “assets” are fighting for freedom from their owners. The setting is an eerily beautiful old estate that Le Guin says was inspired by a visit to one of the “beautiful, terrible, haunted” slave plantations upriver from Charleston, South Carolina.
“The Birthday of the World” is an exploration of a society much like that of the ancient societies of Egypt or Peru, in which king and god are one and the same. What happens to such a society when “God is dropped,” when the transfer of godhood from one king to the next goes awry? How is the world destroyed and remade by such a catastrophe?
The last story, “Paradises Lost,” takes place almost entirely on a colony ship travelling from Earth to a potential new world. Rather than use the convenience of “cold sleep” for her colonists, Le Guin looks at what might happen if they travelled in real time, if generations and generations of people spent their lives only in transit, neither leaving nor arriving. What social relations, sciences, songs, poetry, and religion might arise among people who know only travel, who have never stood upon fixed earth? In other words, how would they be human?
While all of the stories in The Birthday of the World would traditionally be considered science fiction, they are also folk stories. They are so because in them Le Guin delves into the way people communicate with and relate to one another. The stories are full of songs, festivals, family traditions, legends, and stories-within-stories — what some scholars have called “folkways.” Le Guin’s imagined worlds are peopled with “folk,” that is, with people who eat, drink, remember, tell stories, raise children, make music and art, and celebrate; people who live.
(HarperCollins Publishers, 2002)