Anthropology arrived a little later. Cultures were discovered in remote places that were very different from the modern West, and rather than being wiped out or subjugated, they were taken seriously and studied. How are these people like us? How are they different? Is it possible to understand them? What are their foundation myths, their beliefs about an afterlife? How do they arrange their marriages, how do their kinship systems work? What are their foods? How about their (a) clothing and (b) sex? Which were usually discovered—through the work of various perhaps overeager inquirers such as Margaret Mead—to be (a) scantier and (b) more satisfactory than ours.
Anthropologists do—or are supposed to do—more or less what the Mobiles in Le Guin’s Ekumen construction are supposed to do: they go to distant shores, they look, they explore foreign societies and try to figure them out. Then they record, and then they transmit. Le Guin knows the tricks of the trade, and also the pitfalls: her Mobiles are mistrusted and misled while they are in the field, just as real anthropologists have been. They’re used as political pawns, they’re scorned as outsiders, they’re feared because they have unknown powers. But they are also dedicated professionals and trained observers, and human beings with personal lives of their own. This is what makes them and the stories they tell believable, and Le Guin’s handling of them engaging as writing in its own right.
It’s informative to compare two of Le Guin’s introductions: the one she wrote for The Left Hand of Darkness in 1976, seven years after the book was first published, and the foreword she’s now written for The Birthday of the World. The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on the planet of Gethen, or Winter, where the inhabitants are neither men nor women nor hermaphrodites. Instead they have phases: a nonsexual phase is followed by a sexual phase, and during the latter each person changes into whichever gender is suitable for the occasion. Thus anyone at all may be, over a lifetime, both mother and father, both penetrator and penetree. As the story opens, the “king” is both mad and pregnant, and the non-Gethenian observer from the Ekumen is nothing if not confused.
This novel appeared at the beginning of the hottest period of 1970s feminism, when emotions were running very high on subjects having to do with genders and their roles. Le Guin was accused of wanting everyone to be an androgyne and of predicting that in the future they would be; conversely, of being anti-feminist because she’d used the pronoun “he” to denote persons not in “kemmer”—the sexual phase.
Her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness is therefore somewhat brisk. Science fiction should not be merely extrapolative, she says; it should not take a present trend and project it into the future, thus arriving via logic at a prophetic truth. Science fiction cannot predict, nor can any fiction, the variables being too many. Her own book is a “thought-experiment,” like Frankenstein. It begins with “Let’s say,” follows that with a premise, and then watches to see what happens next. “In a story so conceived,” she says, “the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed…thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.”
The purpose of a thought-experiment, she writes, is to “describe reality, the present world.” “A novelist’s business is lying”—lying interpreted in the novelist’s usual way, that is, as a devious method of truth-telling. Consequently the androgyny described in her book is neither prediction nor prescription, just description: androgyny, metaphorically speaking, is a feature of all human beings. With those who don’t understand that metaphor is metaphor and fiction is fiction, she is more than a little irritated. One suspects she’s received a lot of extremely odd fan mail.
The foreword to The Birthday of the World is mellower. Twenty-six years later, the author has fought her battles and is an established feature of the sci-fi landscape. She can afford to be less didactic, more charmingly candid, a little scattier. The universe of the Ekumen now feels comfortable to her, like “an old shirt.” No sense in expecting it to be consistent, though: “Its Time Line is like something a kitten pulled out of the knitting basket, and its history consists largely of gaps.” In this foreword, Le Guin describes process rather than theory: the genesis of each story, the problems she had to think her way through. Typically, she doesn’t concoct her worlds: she finds herself in them, and then begins to explore them, just like, well, an anthropologist. “First to create difference,” she says, “…then to let the fiery arc of human emotion leap and close the gap: this acrobatics of the imagination fascinates and satisfies me as almost no other.”
There are seven shorter stories in The Birthday of the World, and one that might qualify as a novella. Six of the first seven are Ekumen stories—they’re part of the “old shirt.” The seventh probably belongs there, though its author isn’t sure. The eighth is set in a different universe altogether—the generic, shared, science-fiction “future.” All but the eighth are largely concerned with—as Le Guin says—“peculiar arrangements of gender and sexuality.”
All imagined worlds must make some provision for sex, with or without black leather and tentacles, and the peculiarity of the arrangements is an old motif in science fiction: one thinks not only of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, where the genders live separately, but also of W.H. Hudson’s A Crystal Age, featuring an ant-like neuter state, or John Wyndham’s “Consider Her Ways,” also based on a hymenoptera model, or Marge Piercey’s Woman on the Edge of Time, which tries for absolute gender equality. (Men breast-feed: watch for this trend.) But Le Guin takes things much farther. In the first story, “Coming of Age in Karhide,” we see Gethen/Winter not through the eyes of a Mobile, but through those of a Gethenian just coming into adolescence: Which gender will s/he turn into first? This story is not only erotic, but happy. Why not, in a world where sex is always either spectacular or of no concern whatsoever?
Things aren’t so jolly in “The Matter of Seggri,” where there’s a gender imbalance: far more women than men. The women run everything, and marry each other as life partners. The rare boy children are spoiled by the women, but as men they must live a segregated life in castles, where they dress up, show off, stage public fights, and are rented out as studs. They don’t have much fun. It’s like being trapped in the World Wrestling Federation, forever.
“Unchosen Love” and “Mountain Ways” take place on a world called O, created by Le Guin in A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. On O, you must be married to three other people, but can have sex with only two of them. The quartets must consist of a Morning man and a Morning woman—who can’t have sex—and an Evening man and an Evening woman, who also can’t have sex. But the Morning man is expected to have sex with the Evening woman and also the Evening man, and the Evening woman is expected to have sex with the Morning man and also the Morning woman. Putting these quartets together is one of the problems the characters face, and keeping them straight—who’s for you, who’s taboo—is a problem for both reader and writer. Le Guin had to draw charts. As she says, “I like thinking about complex social relationships which produce and frustrate highly charged emotional relationships.”
“Solitude” is a meditative story about a world in which conviviality is deeply distrusted. Women live alone in their own houses in an “auntring” or village, where they make baskets and do gardening, and practice the non-verbal art of “being aware.” Only the children go from house to house, learning lore. When girls come of age they form part of an auntring, but boys must go off to join adolescent packs and scratch a living in the wilderness. They fight it out, and those who survive become breeding males, living shyly in hermit huts, guarding the auntrings from a distance, and being visited by the women, who “scout” for purposes of mating. This setup, despite its spiritual satisfactions, would not suit everyone.
“Old Music and the Slave Women” comes very close to home, inspired as it was by a visit to a former plantation in the American South. On the planet of Werel, slavers and anti-slavers are at war, and sex among the slavers is a matter of raping the field hands. The chief character, an intelligence officer with the Ekumen embassy, gets into arguments over human rights and then bad trouble. Of all the stories, this one comes closest to substantiating Le Guin’s claim that science fiction describes our own world. Werel could be any society torn by civil war: wherever it’s happening, it’s always brutal, and Le Guin, although at times a movingly lyrical writer, has never shied away from necessary gore.
The title story is constructed on an Inca base, with a splash of ancient Egypt. A man and a woman together form God. Both positions are hereditary and created by brother–sister marriage; the duties of God include divination by dancing, which causes the world to be born anew each year. Governance is carried out by God’s messengers, or “angels.” What happens when a foreign but powerful presence enters this highly structured world and the belief system that sustains it crumbles? You can imagine, or you can read The Conquest of Peru. Nevertheless, this delicate story is strangely courageous, strangely hopeful: the world ends, but then, too, it is always beginning.
The last story, “Paradises Lost,” continues the note of renewal. Many generations have been born and have died on board a long-distance space ship. During the voyage a new religion has sprung up, whose adherents believe they are actually, now, in Heaven. (If so, Heaven is just as boring as some have always feared.) Then the ship reaches the destination proposed for it centuries earlier, and its inhabitants must decide whether to remain in “Heaven” or to descend to a “dirtball” whose flora, fauna, and microbes are completely alien to them. The most enjoyable part of this story, for me, was the release from claustrophobia: try as I might, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would prefer the ship.
Le Guin is on the side of the dirtball, too; and, by extension, of our very own dirtball. Whatever else she may do—wherever her curious intelligence may take her, whatever twists and knots of motive and plot and genitalia she may invent—she never loses touch with her reverence for the immense what is. All her stories are, as she has said, metaphors for the one human story; all her fantastic planets are this one, however disguised. “Paradises Lost” shows us our own natural world as a freshly discovered Paradise Regained, a realm of wonder; and in this, Le Guin is a quintessentially American writer, of the sort for whom the quest for the Peaceable Kingdom is ongoing. Perhaps, as Jesus hinted, the kingdom of God is within; or perhaps, as William Blake glossed, it is within a wild flower, seen aright.
The story—and the book—ends with a minimalist dance, as an old woman and a crippled old man celebrate, indeed worship, the ordinary dirt that sustains them after they have left the ship. “Swaying, she lifted her bare feet from the dirt and set them down again while he stood still, holding her hands. They danced together that way.”