Ursula LeGuin: The Birthday of the World

October 29, 2014

9780060509064As I’ve got older, I’ve sometimes been surprised, when coming back to a writer or a book that I’m familiar with, how vague my recollections have become over time. I’ve always liked Ursula LeGuin: I’d forgotten just how astonishing she is, but this collection of stories brought it back to me.

I’ve mentioned, in recent posts, her Hainish novels and stories, and most of the stories in this collection link into that universe. She has imagined a number of variations on the human species, all descended from the same ancestors way back in time, but that have undergone separate development on their various planets. LeGuin is convincing in a Swiftian or Defoean sense, almost journalistic in the way she writes about these people; we receive glimpses into their possible lives, tantalising us, and then they are left: often her narrators are ambassadors or reporters sending information back to base, as it were, so their writing has a specific purpose, one different from ours as consumers of fiction. Sometimes we are left feeling frustrated, but we have our own imaginations…

LeGuin’s main idea is to explore a whole range of different gender and sexual possibilities in her almost-human types. There are androgynous races, races which are asexual most of the time, but then assume – randomly – a gender temporarily for the purposes of sexual pleasure and/ or procreating, races which have complex marital arrangements and sexual preferences. Yes, it’s all fantasy, if you like, yet LeGuin puts our own world, our own gender and sexual issues under a microscope, in the sense that there could be other possibilities and just because we are what we are doesn’t mean that we can’t think outside our own cultural and social conditioning. She challenges her readers: I wish that rather more of these stories had been available when I was researching my MPhil thesis back in the early 1980s: I had only come across The Left Hand of Darkness then.

There are a couple of other, unconnected stories in the collection; the title story The Birthday of the World imagines life on a spacecraft travelling to an Earth-type planet over a period of two centuries. How does contact with the home planet change, become less relevant as new generations who have never lived on Earth grow and run the ship? Why should their priorities be the same as those of their originators? What can they know of the risks and dangers of life on a planet when they finally get there? Isn’t the luxurious and safe coccoon of the craft a heaven, away from danger. Brilliant!


I’m tempted to go back and re-read everything I have by her…

One Response to “Ursula LeGuin: The Birthday of the World”

  1. […] read several volumes of stories over the last few months (posts here, here and here), all part of her Hainish cycle, and I think this is the last volume (if you know […]


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