Kindle Edition, 382 pages
Published: October 13, 2009 by Harper Collins (1st Published March 5, 2002)
Seven short stories and a novella comprise The Birthday of the World and Other Stories, a luminous showcase for one of the things LeGuin is best known for: using worlds she’s created — with different beings and customs that, at first glance, seem utterly foreign — to explore human relationships, society, injustice, sexuality, and gender. In this review, I will discuss seven of the eight stories in this book.
In “Coming of Age in Karhide,” set in the world Le Guin explored in the novel The Left Hand of Darkness, everyone is both genders, fluctuating back and forth between male and female. Each person has a clitopenis, an anatomical feature which is left to your imagination. Monogamy is strongly discouraged; physical intimacy takes place through group rituals. The few people who have fixed genders are marginalized and called “halfdeads” or “perverts.”
The narrator remembers when he reached puberty. His city, filled with canals full of kayaks and poleboats, is beautifully drawn with brief but powerful descriptions. The customs guiding coming of age, sex, and procreation are crafted in great detail. This makes it easy to be drawn into this world, getting glimpses of how the community helps children through the transition to adulthood. “We shape each other to be human.”
We see the narrator and his friend struggle with their fears of growing up, being shaped by their sexuality, and — in the process — losing their identity. And he recalls the experience of puberty in a way that seems both a bit foreign and achingly familiar:
Something I could not locate anywhere, some part of my soul, hurt with a keen, desolate, ceaseless pain. I was afraid of myself: of my tears, my rage, my sickness, my clumsy body. It did not feel like my body, like me. It felt like something else, an ill-fitting garment, a smelly heavy overcoat that belonged to some old person, some dead person. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t me. Tiny needles of agony shot through my nipples, hot as fire. When I winced, and held my arms across my chest, I knew that everybody could see what was happening. Anybody could smell me.
Le Guin described his sexual awakening, and especially his spiritual awakening, so beautifully that I didn’t want the story to end. I was thoroughly drawn into the richness of the world Le Guin created and the way she explored gender and sexuality from different angles. She brings us in like anthropologists, observing how coming of age, relationships, sex, and procreation are handled in a different world. In the process, she has us look at the mores of our own world in a curious, open-minded way.
LeGuin has described the premise of “The Matter of Seggri” In this way: “the germ of this story was in an article I read about the gender imbalance that persistent abortion and infanticide of female fetuses and babies are causing in parts of the world — our world, Earth — where only males are considered worth the bother.” She turned this on its head, creating a world in which male babies are rarely conceived and carried to term.
Women rule this society. Males enjoy a privileged status and, at the same time, have a marginal role in society. Men are segregated from female society, so adolescent boys are forced to leave their families behind. Throughout their lives, they are limited to playing rough sports and siring children for pay.
The story probes the ways men are dehumanized and how this mutilates their natures. This world is incredibly rich, and I felt as if various threads of our own culture — including gender inequities, distorted views of the male need for love and intimacy, and rigid, macho expectations of men — were being woven together in new and startling ways.
LeGuin has described “Unchosen Love” and “Mountain Ways” as “comedies of manners.” They explore the complications of romance and marriage in a society with complex rules for marriage. A marriage is among four people, two of each gender (male/female) and two of each moiety (morning/evening). These intricate stories explore social mores, spirituality, love, sex, and overcoming the barriers of cultural differences. They are also about the lengths someone will go to in order to be with a loved one in the face of byzantine social rules and boundaries.
In “Solitude” Serenity and her brother are raised on a foreign planet by their ethnologist mother. Serenity’s mother is never able to fully understand this odd female-centered culture in which men are banished and adult women are separated from one another by rigid boundaries and rules governing privacy. But Serenity becomes absorbed into this world and comes to love the tribal ways and the solitude it affords.
It was hard for Mother to understand that some persons truly consider most human relationships unnatural; that marriage, for instance, or government, can be seen as an evil spell woven by sorcerers.
Solitude is noncommunication, the absence of others, the presence of a self sufficient to itself.
One of the things that struck me about this story was how Serenity thrived on living in a culture in which children fill integral roles, doing their share to ensure the survival of the group. They are learning in a way that is not separated from life. After leaving the planet, Serenity is educated in a more artificial way, such as being assigned reports, and she flounders.
My first clear memory is of the auntring…I muddle the mud with my hands, deliciously, till it is thick and smooth. I pick up a big double handful and slap it onto the walls where the sticks are. Mother says, “That’s good! That’s right!” in our new language, and I realise that this is work, and I am doing it. I am repairing the house. I am making it right, doing it right. I am a competent person. I have never doubted that, so long as I lived there.
“Old Music and the Slave Women” introduces us to an aging man living in a society torn apart by war, politics, and slavery. He has worked for freedom for the slaves but has relinquished hope that this will make a difference. An unexpected series of events brings him to the estate of a slave owner, where he survives a horrifying ordeal and enters briefly into the lives of a group of slave women.
Ze, the protagonist of “The Birthday of the World,” is God’s daughter, and upon the death of one of her parents, she and her younger brother will marry and become God. In this world, which reflects ancient societies like those of the Egyptians and the Incas, gods live among the people, cloaked in many layers of tradition and ritual.
This story has a slightly dystopian feel. Ze’s people have conquered many other cultures, and they protect and care for the people in these lands. These people are secure and don’t know hunger, but this makes them somewhat fragile. They have never had to defend themselves or decide for themselves what to think and believe. And in the end, their gods are just as vulnerable as they are.
In a few lines, LeGuin can weave images that conjure an entire world and, in a paragraph, she can convey tremendous wisdom about human nature, spirituality and society. Her invented worlds are both beautiful and deeply flawed. They are so well drawn they seem real, and they take us outside our own culture and value system. In the process they help us better understand our own society and explore what it means to be human.