“The Birthday of the World” by Ursula K. Le Guin

Stories set in other universes and in outer space explore the intimate dilemmas of religion, sex, gender and family.

Topics: Books,

“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.

Our next pick: A mixed-race boy’s epic journey through India, England and Africa

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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