Today’s book! The Birthday of the World and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. The reason this post is a day late is that when I glanced at the book to remind myself of details of the stories, I got sucked into rereading it because Ursula K. Le Guin is the queen of short stories,** yo. Nobody does it better. The first six stories in the book are part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle,*** the seventh may be, and the eighth isn’t.
In the first story, Le Guin returns to the world of her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. It is a planet populated by androgynes, who only have gender once a month, when they go into kemmer and can become either female or male. They spend a couple of days in the kemmer house, having sex with other people currently in kemmer, and then return to their lives. In “Coming of Age in Karhide” we get the story of Sov’s first kemmer, told from the advantage of old age. Without gender, the universality of going through adolescence shines through, both the physical and emotional/mental discomforts ringing true. When Sov snarls “I’m fine” at their mother, I chuckled a little at my own very similar memories. Le Guin uses the concept of a genderless population to show that some things are simply human experiences, similarities between us all.
“The Matter of Seggri” takes place on a world where for every man there are 16 women. After age 11 men are sequestered in castles, where they compete in sports for titles and the chance to be sent to service women. Men are provided with everything they need by women, who never enter the castles. The first section is told from the point of view of an “alien” man of a religious bent who believes that the title of “Lord” given to some men is a serious one and that the men rule over the women and the gender imbalance as a judgment of God against unbelievers. The second section is from the point of view of a trained observer°, a woman, who is allowed to mix with the women outside the castles. The women who farm, run factories, go to university, govern, and who go to men to become pregnant but who marry and raise their children with other women. It is observed on Seggri men have all the privilege and women all the power. Then come the stories told by the people of Seggri. A girl who loses her beloved brother to the castles. A woman who favors the services of one man but who does not believe him capable of the love he professes. A young man who is of the first generation of men allowed to live outside the castles. The consequences of allowing an imbalance in power between the genders to exist.
The next two stories, Unchosen Love and Mountain Ways are both set on O, a world divided into two moieties, Morning and Evening. You are born into the same moiety as your mother and to have sex with somebody if the same moiety is the worst kind of incest. The people of O marry in quartets, an Evening woman and Morning man and a Morning woman and Evening man. You marry three people, have sex with the two who are of a different moiety than you, and are brother/sister to the person of the same moiety as yours. In Unchosen Love, a young man struggles to find his own voice in new relationship with a very intense man. In Mountain Ways, a lack of viable options leads to an unconventional marriage which struggles to find balance in an unusual situation.
“Solitude” is a story which hits very close to my heart. It’s a story about an entire planet of introverts, where adults all live alone and do not go into each other’s houses, even to make love. Children may go into other’s houses, to learn, to be taught how to be a person, a never ending process, one that consumes a lifetime. A society where causing somebody else to share your emotions is seen as casting a spell and being a sorcerer is a terrible thing. Women live within sight of each other, in loose villages called as auntrings, men live further out in even more solitude. An observer from Hain takes her two young children to learn what they can and report for her, because an adult asking questions is met with silence. Eventually her son is forced to leave her house and spends a year surviving in the wild. When he returns he does not want to be a man on this world, so his mother calls the ship and they go. But this is the only world her daughter knows and she begs to stay, to finish leaning how to be a person. After many arguments she is allowed to return and the story we read is her report to Hain after her own children are born.
The last Hainish story is “Old Music and the Slave Women,” set on the planet Werel, a planet undergoing a rebellion by its slave population (who outnumber their masters 7 to 1). Old Music is an ambassador from another world. He is asked by the Liberation Command to be seen in a certain part of the city to lend support to their cause. On his way, he is captured by the Legitimate Government, who take him to a plantation still staffed by slaves. There he is tortured (in ways used to punish slaves) and then a member of the Legitimate Government attempts to cajole Old Music into making a statement supporting the Legitimate Government. During his recovery Old Music is cared for and comes to care for two female slaves, who were not, for whatever reason, liberated when the other slaves fled during the uprising.
The seventh story, “The Birthday of the World”, is the one Le Guin says may or may not be Hainish. I choose to think not, but to each their own! It is set on a planet where one of the countries is ruled by God. God is a brother and sister who are married to each other and when one of them dies, one of their sons and daughters will marry and become God. The story is told from the perspective of the last female half of God and how her world was destroyed.
The final story, Paradise Lost, tells of a generation ship passing between the stars, each generation born further from the knowledge of what it is like to stand under a sky. Of the stories they tell when the ship is their only world, the rituals they enact, the beliefs that carry them through. Of the discord that is sewn when they find out they well be arriving on their new planet 40 years early.
As I said Ursula K. Le Guin is the queen of short stories. While most of the stories in the book are part of a larger whole, they are all complete in and of themselves. While you might long for more after a certain story, it will only be because the wiring is fantastic and not because the story feels unfinished. I highly recommended this and any other Ursula K. Le Guin short story volume you come across.
*This entry is being composed on my phone, so if you notice any errors, please let me know!
**Peter S. Beagle is the king of short stories, by the way.
***Which spans 7 novels and 17 short stories. They do not tell a chronological story, so you can jump in at any point (including with the short story volume I’m reviewing!). My only advice is don’t start with The Word For World is Forest because it is a deeply upsetting book, so much so I can’t even tell you if it’s actually good or not. If you want a specific recommendation, let me know!
°Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist and she seems to have a deep and abiding love of the subject. Much of the “science” in Le Guin’s science fiction is anthropology.