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.
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.”