The Birthday of the World is Ursula K. Le Guin’s tenth collection of stories. In it she demonstrates once again why she is the reigning queen of…but immediately we come to a difficulty, for what is the fitting name of her kingdom? Or, in view of her abiding concern with the ambiguities of gender, her queendom, or perhaps—considering how she likes to mix and match—her quinkdom? Or may she more properly be said to have not one such realm, but two?
“Science fiction” is the box in which her work is usually placed, but it’s an awkward box: it bulges with discards from elsewhere. Into it have been crammed all those stories that don’t fit comfortably into the family room of the socially realistic novel or the more formal parlor of historical fiction, or other compartmentalized genres: westerns, gothics, horrors, gothic romances, and the novels of war, crime, and spies. Its subdivisions include science fiction proper (gizmo-riddled and theory-based space travel, time travel, or cybertravel to other worlds, with aliens frequent); science-fiction fantasy (dragons are common; the gizmos are less plausible, and may include wands); and speculative fiction (human society and its possible future forms, which are either much better than what we have now, or much worse). However, the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm.
The lineage of “science fiction,” broadly considered, is very long, and some of its literary ancestors are of the utmost respectability. Alberto Manguel has cataloged many in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places: Plato’s account of Atlantis is among them, and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Accounts of voyages to unknown realms with bizarre inhabitants are as old as Herodotus in his wilder moments, as old as The Thousand and One Nights, as old as Thomas the Rhymer. Folk tales, the Norse Sagas, and the adventure-romances of chivalry are not-so-distant cousins of such tales, and have been drawn on by hundreds of imitators of The Lord of the Rings and/or Conan the Conqueror—works which previously fetched their water from the same wells, as did their precursors, George MacDonald and the H. Rider Haggard of She.
Jules Verne is probably the best known of the early gizmo-fictionalists, but Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein could be thought of as the first “science fiction”—that is, the first fiction that had real science in it—inspired as it was by experiments with electricity, in particular the galvanizing of corpses. Some of her preoccupations have stayed with the genre (or genres) ever since: most specifically, what is the price that must be paid by Promethean Man for stealing fire from Heaven? Indeed, some commentators have proposed “science fiction” as the last fictional repository for theological speculation. Heaven, Hell, and aerial transport by means of wings having been more or less abandoned after Milton, outer space was the only remaining neighborhood where beings resembling gods, angels, and demons might still be found. J.R.R. Tolkien’s friend and fellow fantasist C.S. Lewis even went so far as to compose a “science fiction” trilogy—very light on science, but heavy on theology, the “space ship” being a coffin filled with roses and the temptation of Eve being reenacted on the planet of Venus, complete with luscious fruit.
Rearranged human societies have been a constant in the tradition as well, and they have been used both to criticize our present state of affairs and to suggest more pleasant alternatives. Swift depicted an ideal civilization, although—how English!—it was populated by horses. The nineteenth century, cheered on by its successes with sewage systems and prison reform, produced a number of earnestly hopeful speculative fictions. William Morris’s News from Nowhere and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward are foremost among them, but this approach became such a vogue that it was satirized, not only by Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Utopia Limited, but also by Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, where illness is a crime and crime is an illness.
However, as the optimism of the nineteenth century gave way to the Procrustean social dislocations of the twentieth—most notably in the former Soviet Union and the former Third Reich—literary utopias, whether serious or sardonic, were displaced by darker versions of themselves. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Island of Dr. Moreau prefigure what was shortly to follow. Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are of course the best known of these many prescient badlands, with Karel  Capek’s R.U.R. and the nightmarish fables of John Wyndham running close behind.
It’s too bad that one term—“science fiction”—has served for so many variants, and too bad also that this term has acquired a dubious if not downright sluttish reputation. True, the proliferation of sci-fi in the Twenties and Thirties gave rise to a great many bug-eyed-monster-bestrewn space operas that were published in pulp magazines and followed by films and television shows that drew heavily on this odoriferous cache. (Who could ever forget The Creeping Eye, The Head that Wouldn’t Die, or The Attack of the Sixty-Foot Woman? A better question: Why can’t we forget them?)
In brilliant hands, however, the form can be brilliant, as witness the virtuoso use of sci-trash material in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, or Russell Hoban’s linguistically inventive Riddley Walker, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles. (Jorge Luis Borges was a fan of this last book, which is no surprise.) Sci-fi is sometimes just an excuse for dressed-up swashbuckling and kinky sex, but it can also provide a kit for examining the paradoxes and torments of what was once fondly referred to as the human condition: What is our true nature, where did we come from, where are we going, what are we doing to ourselves, of what extremes might we capable? Within the frequently messy sandbox of sci-fi fantasy, some of the most accomplished and suggestive intellectual play of the last century has taken place.
Which brings us to Ursula K. Le Guin. No question about her literary quality: her graceful prose, carefully thought-through premises, psychological insight, and intelligent perception have earned her the National Book Award, the Kafka Award, five Hugos, five Nebulas, a Newberry, a Jupiter, a Gandalf, and an armful of other awards, great and small. Her first two books, Planet of Exile and Rocannon’s World, were published in 1966, and since then she has published sixteen novels, as well as ten collections of stories.
Collectively, these books have created two major parallel universes: the universe of the Ekumen, which is sci-fi proper—space ships, travel among worlds, and so forth—and the world of Earthsea. The latter must be called “fantasy,” I suppose, since it contains dragons and witches and even a school for wizards, though this institution is a long way from the Hogwarts of Harry Potter. The Ekumen series may be said—very broadly—to concern itself with the nature of human nature: How far can we stretch and still remain human? What is essential to our being, what is contingent? The Earthsea series is occupied—again, very broadly speaking—with the nature of reality and the necessity of mortality, and also with language in relation to its matrix. (That’s heavy weather to make of a series that has been promoted as suitable for age twelve, but perhaps the fault lies in the marketing directors. Like Alice in Wonderland, these tales speak to readers on many levels.)
Le Guin’s preoccupations are not divided into two strictly separate packages, of course: both of her worlds are scrupulously attentive to the uses and misuses of language; both have their characters fret over social gaffes and get snarled up in foreign customs; both worry about death. But in the Ekumen universe, although there is much strangeness, there is no magic, apart from the magic inherent in creation itself.
The astonishing thing about Le Guin as a writer is that she managed to create these two realms, not only in parallel, but at the same time. The first Earthsea book, A Wizard of Earthsea, appeared in 1968, and The Left Hand of Darkness, the famous classic from the Ekumen series, in 1969. Either one would have been sufficient to establish Le Guin’s reputation as a mistress of its genre; both together make one suspect that the writer has the benefit of arcane drugs or creative double-jointedness or ambidexterity. Not for nothing did Le Guin invoke handedness in her fourth title: as soon as we start talking about the left hand, all sorts of biblical connotations gather. (Although the left hand is the sinister one, God too has a left hand, so left hands can’t be all bad. Should your right hand know what your left hand is doing, and if not, why not? And so forth.) As Walter Benjamin once said, the decisive blows are struck left-handed.
Ursula K. Le Guin has continued to explore and describe and dramatize both of her major fictional realms over the thirty-six years that have passed since her first novel was published. But since the stories in The Birthday of the World are Ekumen stories—with two exceptions—it’s as well to concentrate on the science-fiction world rather than on the fantasy one. The general premises of the Ekumen series are as follows. There are many habitable planets in the universe. Long, long ago they were “seeded” by a people called the Hainish, space travelers from an earthlike planet, after which time passed, disruptions occurred, and each society was left alone to develop along different lines.
Now, a benevolent federation called the Ekumen having been established, explorers are being sent out to see what has become of these far-flung but still hominid or perhaps even human societies. Conquest is not the aim, nor is missionary work: noninvasive, non-directive understanding and recording are the functions required of such explorers or ambassadors, who are known as Mobiles. Various gizmos are provided to allow them to function amid the alien corn, and they are provided with a handy widget called the “ansible,” a piece of technology we should all have because it allows for instantaneous transmission of information, thus canceling out the delaying effects of the fourth dimension. Also, it never seems to crash like your Internet e-mail program. I’m all for it.
Here it is necessary to mention that Le Guin’s mother was a writer, her husband is a historian, and her father was an anthropologist; thus she has been surrounded all her life by people whose interests have dovetailed with her own. The writing connection, through her mother, is obvious. Her husband’s historical knowledge must have come in very handy: there’s more than an echo in her work of the kinds of usually unpleasant events that change what we call “history.” But her father’s discipline, anthropology, deserves special mention.
If the “fantasy” end of science fiction owes a large debt to folk tale and myth and saga, the “science fiction” end owes an equally large debt to the development of archaeology and anthropology as serious disciplines, as distinct from the tomb-looting and exploration-for-exploitation that preceded them and continued alongside them. Layard’s discovery of Nineveh in the 1840s had the effect of a can opener on Victorian thinking about the past; Troy and Pompeii and ancient Egypt were similarly mesmerizing. Through new discoveries and fresh excavations, European concepts of past civilizations were rearranged, imaginative doors were opened, wardrobe choices were expanded. If things were once otherwise, perhaps they could be otherwise again, especially where clothing and sex were concerned—two matters that particularly fascinated Victorian and early-twentieth-century imaginative writers, who longed for less of the former and more of the latter.