Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Birthday of the World: and other stories by Ursula K. LeGuin

Up unitl this one, I was a LeGuin virgin. I had heard of her, because of my skirting of the sci-fi genre with Miéville and Gaiman, and various others... but I always thought that I am not "really into science fiction" and would therefore not enjoy a full-blown sci-fi master like LeGuin.

I was wrong.

The Birthday of the World is a collection of 8 short stories; some set on worlds and in universes LeGuin has explored in previous novels, some set in new, strange places. Each story is bizarre in its own way, crafted by an experimental imagination that plumbs the depth of each 'what if'. LeGuin has an uncanny way of delicately creating these stories on near-unthinkable planets, strange and fanciful - while at the same time mirroring the quirks and hypocrisies of our society. It's sci-fi at it's best; and there are no ray guns.

In Coming of Age in Karhide, adolescents of a genderless society reach their sexual maturity and become male or female for the first time. Each time they copulate their gender can change. Going from sexless to multi-sexual is a confusing time, as you can imagine. The Matter of Seggri is set on a planet where women greatly outnumber men, and men are confined to huge castles where all they are permitted to do is fight each other and play sports. The fittest ones are sent to whorehouses... to be whored out to the women and hopefully produce sons (although this is unlikely). Both Unchosen Love and Mountain Ways take place in a society where marriage is a complex four-person knot called a 'sedoretu'. Not all the stories concern gender, though - my favourite of them all was Paradises Lost, which is set on a ship flying through space, between Earth and a possibly-inhabitable planet 200 years away. It explores the 'middle generations'; those that are born and die on the ship, and how they cope with being just a means. Psychologically and socially it is fascinating. The belief systems these people cling to, the 'perfection' of the ship - no diseases, no bacteria, no crime, no money. No open spaces. No animals.

What are science fiction stories but slightly fanciful thought experiments? Take an idea: 'what if ...?' and run with it, as logically as possible. What if robots took over the world? What if there was no such thing as male and female? What if aliens landed? LeGuin is a 'master of the craft' ; her stories are shocking, believable, endearing and thought-provoking. She is a shining beacon of sci-fi writing, and I will definitely be picking her up again.
**EXTRA: For those interested, see what Le Guin has to say about this book here.

No comments: