“It takes a very special friend to give a book for a present. Either they don't know what you like, or they give you something you've already read. Kate gave me this, and she knows me well enough that it was quite the right book for me.
Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those authors I remember from long ago, when I was going to science fiction conventions and reading almost no other genre of fiction. She wrote a few truly great books, then veered off into fantasy (dragons and stuff), and I lost touch. So this was especially refreshing to me, as I had not read anything of hers since the 1970s. Each of the stories in this collection, written in the 1990s, is special in its own right. I will review them briefly one by one.
"Coming of Age in Karhide" goes into details left out of "The Left Hand of Darkness," perhaps Le Guin's most famous work. The sexuality of the people may seem odd to us, but then ours seems at least as odd to them: in kemmer all the time??? How do you ever get anything done? The people of Gethen go into season, and when they do, their gender is determined by who they are with. Well, no, it's not even that simple. They are androgynous most of the time, and a few of them are all the time, and some prefer to be female and some prefer to be male, but only during kemmer. If you're like me, you'll come to the end of the story undecided as to whether or not you envy them.
"The Matter of Seggri" involves a planet with a gender balance of approximately 12 to 1: 12 females to every male. Sounds great, guys? Not when you work out the logical consequences.
"Unchosen Love" is also a story of variant sexuality, but you must not get the impression that's all Le Guin cares about. It's just that she's known for her ability to imagine things the rest of us probably can't. The Seggri are male and female, more or less, but the way they marry is pretty complicated. A marriage consists of four people: two of each gender from each of two moieties. What is a moiety? They two are called Morning and Evening, but they seem not to be particularly related to what we call a "morning person" or a "night person."
"Mountain Ways" takes place on the same planet as "Unchosen Love," but has a very different style. These are country folk, dealing with the practical necessities of life as well as the customs and traditions. In some ways, it is my least favorite of these stories, but perhaps just because I'm too old and too long widowed to take as much interest in the sexual side of things as most of Le Guin's readers. I can't help thinking simply being willing to be unconventional is the solution to most of the problems.
"Solitude" is the story of an ethnologist who found that the only way she could study the local culture of Eleven-Soro was to have her young children go native. It was a highly stable culture who were suspicious of an adult who asked questions about things she should already know, but whose children could learn right along with the native children. Yes, they could, with consequences mother probably never imagined.
"Old Music and the Slave Women" is a story of revolution that might well have been written about the middle east of our own time. There are factions within factions, nobody knows who to trust, and the main character is a spy attached to the Ekumenical (off-world) embassy. Fascinating, but you will need a strong stomach for the descriptions of torture.
"The Birthday of the World" is about religion run amok, but so very much more. You may find echos of what you know of ancient Egyptian culture, but this one is really quite original. I won't spoil it by saying more.
"Paradises Lost" is about a generation ship: explorers to another solar system that set out from earth a very long time ago, and how they adapt to the facts of living and dying in transition. It's a very well-designed ship, with recycled everything, and all the comforts that can make it seem like a paradise. So when a religion crops up that says there is nothing outside the ship, that the "destination planet" is a myth and a fiction, things get pretty complicated. I was rooting for the scientific point of view, but I daresay not everyone will.
I love this book. It's one of the few in my library I expect to read again in a few years.”
AuntB93 wrote this review Thursday, April 4, 2013.