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The Birthday of the World cover

This first paperback edition of Le Guin's latest collection brings together eight stories published between 1994 and 2002, including one long novella original to the volume.

Many of Le Guin's most acclaimed stories of the last thirty years have been set in the worlds of the Ekumen, a deliberately loose confederation of worlds. Instantaneous communication is possible through the ansible, but starships are limited by the speed of light. Those who make the journey benefit from the effects of time dilation, but the voyages themselves take decades. Six of the stories here share that universe.

"Coming of Age in Karhide" is a companion to Le Guin's groundbreaking 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. However, SF -- together with the rest of the world -- has moved on since then, and the story lacks the giddying impact of her previous work. Set on the same world -- Gethen -- where the usually genderless inhabitants can become either male or female at different times of their lives, "Coming of Age" features an elderly Gethenian recalling their first sexual experience. It's a disappointing opening to the collection, and one of the two weakest stories in the book.

The other is the title piece. A prosperous but static society is destabilized by the death of its God-king, and the confirmation of his successor is delayed. After a brief but bloody civil war between one of the king's sons and his legitimate heir, strangers appear. Many view them as the successor Gods to the dead king. There are few surprises, but Le Guin is excellent at showing the passing of a society through the eyes of a survivor. Even Le Guin's lesser work is good; her difficulty has always been matching her own incredibly high standards.

"Unchosen Love" is a tale of loneliness, of living in despair amid strangers for the sake of a loved one. In "Mountain Ways" the sedoretu, the marriage, is for the convenience of the dominant partner. Both stories are set on O, 4.2 sidereal light years from Hain, a world where sexual taboos have led to some unusually complex marriage arrangements. In both stories the relationship is dominated emotionally by one person. While superficially treating similar themes, the stories have different tones: the first is darker, and is about the relationship between the main characters, while the second is lighter, and explores the dynamics of the sedoretu itself in greater detail.

"Old Music and the Slave Women" is set on Werel, three years after the slave revolt from Le Guin's earlier work, Four Ways to Forgiveness. Old Music, an Ekumen representative, is kidnapped and taken to a slave plantation. His captors torture him and hold him hostage in an attempt to coerce Ekumen support for their side. When rescued, he finds their opponents to be equally blinkered. He seeks shelter with the slave women of the title.

The "O" stories and "Old Music" are middling Le Guin stories, which makes them fine works by most authors' standards. But ultimately, there are three major pieces, each alone worth the price of the collection.

"The Matter of Seggri" is made up of journal entries (the first a marvelous pastiche of Pepys and other 17th century diarists), letters, and even a story within the story. Examining a society with a major population imbalance between the two sexes -- this being the "matter" referred to in the title -- the mood darkens throughout until reaching nadir, and finally offers some hope. Thought-provoking, disturbing, and very moving; this acclaimed novellette was one of the finest stories of the 1990s.

The Nebula Award-winning novellette "Solitude" is an unsettling vision of a post-apocalyptic society where men and women live apart, meeting only for occasional conversation and sex. Seen through the eyes of Leaf, an Ekumen observer's daughter, the story is laced with local idiom, adding to the alien feel.

Sorovian society is one of extreme introversion. In our current society, even loners have families, although they may break contact with them in adulthood. In Sorovian society, only children live with an adult. The Sorovians constantly practice being aware: listening to their surroundings, thinking, or simply being alone. Few in our society experience it.

Our society (and by this I include the ninety percent outside Europe and North America which is still inherently conservative) remains primarily based on the nuclear family. In Le Guin's story, only Mothers raise children, in small, loose communities -- auntrings. Even the mothers meet only on neutral ground: adult women only visit each other to assist in childbirth, or for funerals. In Leaf's words: "It was hard for Mother to understand that some persons truly consider most human relationships unnatural."

"Paradises Lost" is the last and longest story. An original to the volume, this long novella accounts for over a third of the book. It's also the only story clearly and unequivocally set outside the Ekumen universe.

On a generation-starship, partway through a two-century voyage to a planet orbiting a star that's never named, we're given a leisurely (though never belabored) view of the ship's society through the eyes of a boy and a girl growing into adulthood. Le Guin asks what will sustain such a society when many of its inhabitants are born, grow old and die in the middle years of the ship's voyage. The answer for many is religion.

The novella is a fine bookend to the volume with "Coming of Age." which also eschews conflict as a plot device. In this case, conflict eventually materializes, but, as she has been throughout the book, Le Guin is careful never to take the obvious course, and the story never descends into the genre anarchy that is the staple of many generation-starship stories.

The collection achieves much of its effect from aggregation; the lesser stories gain from the thematic echoes, while those which were good to outstanding on their own now shine like jewels, and the final story is a marvelous end to one of the highlight collections of the last few years.


Copyright © 2003 Colin Harvey

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Colin Harvey's previous credits include several appearances in Aphelion webzine and Peridot Books. He is a regular columnist for This Way Up webzine. For more about him, visit his website.

Colin Harvey’s latest book is Winter Song.
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