The Birthday of the World and Other Stories by Ursula K. LeGuin
HarperCollins Publishers, 2002.
I am working my way, luxuriously, through Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Birthday of the World and Other Stories. This is my response thus far (in response to the experience, than necessarily a specific story as focus):
I am slowly ingesting Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Birthday of the World and Other Stories and I am really enjoying the read. I have made it through the Foreword, “Coming of Age in Karhide,” and “The Matter of Seggri.” I have peeked into “Unchosen Love.”
True to Poe’s desires, you can sit and read each story (thus far) in an hour or so, certainly one sitting. True to the freedom of the Short Story form, the text can be, and is, plot-less. If you are unfamiliar, the Short Story is an excellent venue for exploration and/of expression. It is also a form fraught with difficulty, not everyone is good or effective with the length; however, LeGuin is excellent.
I do not know if you have read LeGuin, but she is truly fantastic. I admire her skill, and I envy it terribly. Her timing in the telling of a story is impeccable. Her voice is bold, and sly. And her intelligence is perfectly suited to her exceptional imagination. When LeGuin talks about her writing, she mentions the imagination quite a bit; not merely her own, but the imagination (as if it is a collective, a well source, at times).
I realize, reading this book of collected stories, that if science-fiction is inaccessible to you, this will not improve the situation, especially if aliens are involved. If you get tripped up on foreign terms/names/spellings, and do not care to uncover meanings from context (or it is too much work), this book is best avoided. Also, some of the recognizable word choices are a bit stark (profane)—though effective/suited. LeGuin is a craftswoman, diction is naturally of import. We read LeGuin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” in my Short Story class. That is accessible, if not haunting. As is her “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” and is certainly worth the while.
Many of the stories in The Birthday, are opportunities to revisit aspects of places LeGuin has written about in novel form or in other stories. She comments regarding “Coming of Age in Karhid” that she could finally listen to her Gethenians without the competing (dominant) voice of the Mobile of the Ekumen from The Left Hand of Darkness.
This time I didn’t have an honest but bewildered male of Terran alongside to confuse my perceptions. I could listen to an open-hearted Gethenian who, unlike Estraven [who was a deeply reserved person], had nothing to hide. This time I didn’t have a damned plot. I could ask questions. I could see how the sex works. I could finally get into a kemmerhouse. I could really have fun. (ix)
Leguin does see how the sex works. It is really interesting, well-written, and not for the prudish, or those with issues reading about sex (whether heterosexual, or homosexual–this book includes both). Just a non-judgmental warning. Much of the narrative lens belongs to the anthropological observer, but there are also intimate portraits narrated by a protagonist who is not on the outside looking in. This aspect of personalization does not allow for breath, for objective separation. The reader becomes invested in what is going on sexually, whether the concerns are physical, mental, emotional, or political.
I once suggested that Tolkien was a historian of his imagination. LeGuin is the anthropologist of hers. The stories are revelations of what she has discovered as she has studied the inhabitants of her imagination, her universes.
She employs various tropes for her own ends: Travel is evident, the Journal. I like the fictional story account within a story in “The Matter of Seggri.” “The Matter,” overall, is creative telling using differing forms to capture the complex and differing facets of a society’s image. The story of a people requires multiple voices, and multiple forms of expression.
Another thing I appreciate about LeGuin is reading about her writing about her writing, her process. It is inevitable that another would ask someone so gifted, “how do you do it?” It is even more certain that at least one inquirer is someone who is not a ‘writer,’ because they hit a wall in the author’s reasonings. You can hear a sigh when LeGuin writes about her writing. [Then there are the sci-fi and fantasy readers, and probably historians are similar. There is little to zero room for anything “illogical” or “unexplainable” as they view it.]
Here is the opening of The Birthday’s Foreword:
Inventing a universe is tough work. Jehovah took a sabbatical. Vishnu takes naps. Science-fiction universes are only tiny bits of word-worlds, but even so they take some thinking; […]Though I’ve put a good deal of work into my fictional universe, I don’t exactly feel that I invented it. I blundered into it, and have been blundering around in it unsystematically ever since—dropping a millennium here, forgetting a planet there. Honest and earnest people, calling it the Hainish Universe, have tried to plot its history onto Time Lines. I call it the Ekumen, and I say it’s hopeless. Its Time Line is like something the kitten pulled out of the knitting basket, and its history consists largely of gaps.
There are reasons for this incoherence, other than authorial carelessness, forgetfulness, and impatience. Space, after all, is essentially gap. Inhabited worlds are a long, long way apart. Einstein said …. (vii)
She continues into the intelligence that is evidently hers, that she would share with those “honest and earnest people,” and in her way moves into the reality that is her writing, pulling the reader into the reality of the writer, “Of course you can ask the Hainish, who have been around for a long time […] I did not plan these worlds and people. I found them, gradually, piecemeal, while writing stories. I’m still finding them” (viii). Maddening. Brilliant. Lovely.
When Leguin writes about writing “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” in her commentary “The Scapegoat in Omelas,” she is just as elusive—and revealing.
Short does not equate to mindless, nor quickness. Though the length does allow me time to sit and simmer in what I’ve just read. LeGuin’s text asks some amazing and difficult questions. I am not sure how Feminist Critics take LeGuin, but she suits my feminism quite well—she remembers the men. There are plenty of pleasurable approaches to The Birthday and its stories, but the question of gender, of biology and personhood, of identity and capability is a regular topic of discussion in my head: the stories feed that in a clever and entertaining way. LeGuin is a pleasure to read. You don’t have to want to think to enjoy her work—though you do have to be attentive.
Two more quotes from the Foreword and then you’ll have to read it (even if you are squeamish about the Short Stories and possible/probable content, pick up the book just to read the Foreword).
LeGuin is talking about “Solitude:”
Whatever caused the population crash in “Solitude”—probably the population itself—it was long ago, and is not the concern of the story, which is about survival, loyalty, and introversion. Hardly anybody ever writes anything nice about introverts. Extraverts rule. This is really rather odd when you realize that about nineteen writers out of twenty are introverts. (xi)
Found this amusing, and it does provide another example about how she views the conception of stories and how the reader of her stories should as well.
The second quote is one of the main reasons LeGuin is so remarkably successful as a storyteller. This can be found toward the end of the Foreword, moving into commentary on the final story in the collection:
These seven stories share a pattern: they exhibit in one way or another, from inside or through an observer (who is liable to go native), people whose society differs from ours, even who physiology may differ from ours, but who feel the way we do. First to create difference—to establish strangeness—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. (xii)
LeGuin has the compassionate pen that forms that arc, that brings the alien into intimacy: she does this seemingly effortlessly, certainly seamlessly: it is truly beautiful: she is very dangerous this way—in all the ways writing should be dangerous.