The Birthday of the World: and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Book Information  
AuthorUrsula K. Le Guin
TitleThe Birthday of the World: and Other Stories
GenreScience Fiction
Book Reviews / Comments (submitted by readers)
Submitted by Archren 
(Aug 09, 2006)

Short story collection can often be hit-or-miss. I’ve always had better luck with single-author collections, and this one proves the rule. “The Birhday of the World” is a collection of 7 short stories and one novella. None of them are bad and a couple of them particularly stood out. The introduction by LeGuin is fun and interesting, although a little world-weary. One can only imagine how many essays of this type she’s written in her over forty-year career of brilliance anthologized.

All of these stories except the last two deal with sex and gender in ways similar to her “The Left Hand of Darkness” novel. The first one deals with that planet specifically. As LeGuin puts it, “This time I didn’t have a damned plot. I could ask questions. I could see how the sex works. I could finally get into a kemmerhouse. I could really have fun.” It simply follows the coming of age of one individual, nothing more or less profound. It’s beautifully written, but even more explicit than the book. In fact, throughout the collection if you have a problem with explicit sex between many types of partners, you should probably look elsewhere (although you’ll be missing some brilliant writing).

The next story deals with gender inversion, a planet where men are born in much smaller numbers than women. They’re cosseted and hidden away “for their own good.” The brilliant part of this story is not the idea, although it’s well done; it is that LeGuin examines it from multiple perspectives by providing “excerpts” from many sources: interviews, academic researchers, native fiction. It gives a wonderful range of perspectives on the issue.

Then there are two stories based on a planet where relationships are determined by gender and “moiety.” You’re either male or female and you’re either morning or evening. Each marriage is formed of a morning woman, a morning man, an evening woman and an evening man. You have sex only with people of the opposite moiety (if you’re a morning woman you would have sex with both the evening man and woman). As one character points out: “It sounds complicated, but what marriage isn’t?”

Of the remaining stories some deal with sex and others with class and race. My personal favorite is the title story, “The Birthday of the World.” We’re all familiar with the familiar SF plotline: explorers come to a new planet and are worshipped as gods. Well what was going on down on the planet before they got there? This tells that story from the perspective of the natives, and they’re far from stupid. They’ve got their own domestic political concerns that influence their reactions. It also goes into the consequences of having new and ignorant gods running around, and they’re different than you might think.

As I said, there isn’t a bad one in the bunch. The racial inversion story (where the whites are the slaves) is possibly the least impressive (certainly the idea doesn’t seem so fresh), but is beautifully written and humanized. Overall you can read LeGuin’s writing both for the amazing and unique ideas pushing the edges of gender, and for her truly beautiful writing. I’d only read her novels previous to this, but I will seek out some of her other collections now that I’ve read this.

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