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Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
“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,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin in a foreword to her latest batch of stories, “The Birthday of the World.” The foreword is helpful for many reasons, mainly for those readers unfamiliar with Le Guin’s complex universes, but especially for this glimpse of the author’s mind and enthusiasm. The people, places and emotions in Le Guin’s stories are typically strange, but her careful, sudden turns toward the familiar — emotionally, psychologically — seem like revelations of what’s really important or fascinating about human life.
“The Birthday of the World” (which is also the title of one of the seven short stories) includes a novella, “Paradises Lost.” The characters in “Paradises Lost” essentially build two new universes, so that in a sense you feel like you’re experiencing what Le Guin faces each time she sits down to write. It also offers the opportunity to imagine designing a little part of the world as you read. How will these reality architects form language? What will they change about their old society? How much are we molded by our physical environment? Will the same old problems arise again?
In the novella, a spaceship society constructed five generations ago by the idealistic Zero Generation on Dichew, a planet much like Earth (one rife with war and religious destruction), heads toward a new planet, Sindychew, on which the 4,000 spaceship dwellers will eventually land and settle. The residents’ life is one of walls, ceilings and floors: “No cold winds to shiver in or heavy heat to sweat in. No plagues or coughs or fevers or toothaches. No hunger. No wars. No weapons. No danger.” Children experience the outdoors through computer simulations.
These Fifth Generation child characters — specifically Hsing and Luis who are also at the center of a wonderful love story in “Paradises Lost” — don’t need to cope with planetary conditions presumably because they won’t be alive when the shuttle lands at Sindychew. Still, they wonder, will their descendents be prepared to leave their walled-in utopia where “lovers do not run away (where is away?)” Will they even want to?
But, of course, even this world isn’t perfect. Le Guin’s characterization of what corrupts these people is a remarkable twist on organized religion, though as with most things in Le Guin’s work, the conflict makes logical sense. The Zero Generation mandated that they leave religion behind. In a way, their mission took the place of a religious narrative; the planet they’ve left behind is Hell, while where they’re headed is a sort of Heaven. But the persistence of religious conformity, the human need for a new narrative and the inevitable desire for systems of power threaten their placid existence. What emerges is Bliss, a New Age organized cult of atheists who believe in living in the now. They don’t want the ship, engineered to reach Sindychew at specific time, to land anywhere. Unfortunately, as the young heroes Hsing and Luis realize, science also cannot be controlled.
If religion and history are two of Le Guin’s more serious and ominous themes in “Birthday of the World,” sex and gender are the most playful, and perhaps mysterious. “The Matter of Seggri,” an unflinching dissection of love, marriage and sex, takes place in a world where “the men have the privilege and the women have all the power … obviously a stable arrangement.” In “Coming of Age in Karhide,” Le Guin poignantly describes a young person’s adolescence, complete with angst-ridden concerns: “But why did I want to cry all the time? Why did I want to sleep all the time?” Yet in this world, the initiation into adulthood takes place during a specified period, or kemmer, where the protagonist, Sov, can be either man or woman, and mate with both sexes too, in a blissful, experimental, safe ritual that’s devoid of the typical pain and confusion of “the first time.” Sov doesn’t kemmer with Sether, her first love, until much later in her life, but as Le Guin concludes, “The old days or the new times, somer or kemmer, love is love.” For all the exploration and conflict in Le Guin’s universes, she assures us of this one constant.
Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer. More Suzy Hansen.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)