Thursday, September 20, 2007

The Birthday of the World

That's the title of a collection of Ursula K. Le Guin short stories that I'm currently reading. The majority of the stories are from her science fiction universe of the human diaspora, the Ekumen. Anyone who's ever read any of Le Guin's science fiction (as opposed to her fantasy) knows that she doesn't really dabble in hard science in the style of Clarke, Asimov or Niven - although her science is usually 'tight' - and more sets up big civilizations that she can explore through the story or novel.

The different human worlds of the Ekumen are all incredibly well imagined, and her prose is about the best in the genre. The ice-bound world of Gethen, also known as Winter to its inhabitants, featured prominently in The Left Hand of Darkness, her Hugo & Nebula winner from - quick check on Google/Wiki - 1969, makes a return appearance in the lead story in this collection, Coming of Age in Karhide. An element in the original novel that gave it flavor was the nature of gender on Gethen: all people are gender neutral until a particular time in the biological cylce (maybe annually) where they become gendered for a brief period. And since anyone can become either gender, anyone can give birth. Also, since sex is not an issue most of the time, they have houses set aside for those who are in the Kemmer part of their cycle. In heat, in other words.

As I said, when Kemmer is brought up in the original novel, it isn't so much in the foreground. Although gender and sexuality are strong themes in the novel, it's more about communication and societal change (There's also a cool bit about survival in hash conditions). In the new short story though, it's all about the fuckin', with the climax (ho ho) taking place in a Kemmer House. Which leads me to believe that Ursula is becoming a dirty old woman. Still, what can I say? It's a great story, and a nice appendix to the original novel. At some point, I hope they treat her two major 'universes' - Ekumen and Earthsea - with the same obsessive sort of scholarship and complete volumizing that Tolkien gets, because she's worth it.

The closing story is a generation ship story. Anyone who has ever read much science fiction has come across a story of this kind. It's a staple of the genre. To quote her introduction:

"The generic, shared, science-fiction 'future.' [...] Earth sends forth ships [that] take decades, centuries, to get where [they're] going. [...] Most short stories [of this type] put the crew/colonists into some kind of deep freeze so that the people who left Earth wake up at the destination. I always wanted to write about the people who truly lived out the journey, the middle generations knowing neither departure nor arrival."

Since Paradises Lost is more of a novella than short story, Le Guin really gets into the nitty gritty of the type of society that develops after five generations of being sealed inside a flying biodome. Since the entire system is self-contained and all materials are recycled, and population control must hold as well, life and death take on different meanings. In the vacuum left in the absence of any religion (the original crew members were generally atheists), a new religion forms (founded by a man named Kim Terry) that makes the journey itself the purpose, not the destination. Therefore, when the ship arrives at New Earth, or Hsin Ti Chiu (as expected the blend of cultures on the ship means names not only in English), about 60% of the fourth and fifth generation crew - the ones who have joined this space borne relgion, known as Bliss - elect to stay on the ship and continue their lives as they've known them, despite the fact that the ship only has enough materials to support life for a couple of centuries more.

For a few years after leaving orbit, the ship sends constant personal greetings and news back to Hsin Ti Chiu. But then, in a bone-dry paragraph that's presented almost as an aside:

"Abruptly, the material received from the ship ceased to contain any personal messages or information, consisting instead of rebroadcasts of the three recorded talks given by Kim Terry, talks by Patel Inbliss, sermons by various archangels, and a recording of a male choir chanting, played over and over."

Maybe it's the fact that the colonists are powerless to learn what happened, and the reader never does. Maybe it's just the brilliant, pointed use of the word 'abruptly,' but that little bit towards the end of the story rang out in such pure horror for me that it drove the story up several levels in my esteem - and it was already pretty high to begin with. What happened to the Bliss group? Mass suicide, ala Jonestown? A refutation of the existence of anything outside the ship, as the core belief of Bliss holds? We don't know. Beautiful.

Anyway, here's my indispensable Le Guin, for those in search of something to read:

The Left Hand of Darkness
The Dispossessed
A Wizard of Earthsea
The Tombs of Atuan
The Farthest Shore
The Lathe of Heaven

Let me know what you all think, if you read or have read any of these.


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