Review: The Birthday of the World

In an attempt to read more women authors, I grabbed a book of short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, who has been on my to-read list forever. But with a to-read list like mine (487 and counting), it seemed like a collection of short stories was easier to tackle then a full novel.51n5X6yiSlL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
The Birthday of the World is Le Guin’s musings that are set in her already incredibly complex universe. Imagine you are dropped onto a world that is so different than your own and you have to figure out what’s going on. For some of the stories, this was incredibly easy to do. In others, I was a little lost. But these little windows into the Le Guin universes made me want more, which is also the value of this collection of short stories.

Favorite chapters

  • Forward – I’m not kidding. I loved Le Guin’s musing on the worlds she herself created. Plus it was nice to have a little bit about each story so I could pick which ones to start with. Even in a section as forgettable as a forward, Le Guin is a master of words, even when she is just describing how she puts them together.
  • The Matter of Seggri – To observe civilizations and understand if they are ready to move to the next level, people are dispatched to different worlds. Their reports make up the content of the fascinating “The Matter of Seggri.” As an outsider to these worlds myself, I empathized with how people might view these societies and not completely understand the intricacies and rules encountered. It also reminded me of Star Trek, in which characters explore the universe but are expected to not interfere and to observe a civilization in hopes of one day welcoming them into the fold of the wider galaxy.
  • Mountain Ways – In this short story, Le Guin puts the traditional concept of marriage on its side in just the right way to help us understand the true meaning of love. The intricacies of rules on love and marriage highlight our own misguided rules we write up around marriage. I came away from this story positive that marriage and connections and couplings should be about love, not about social contracts and genetic compatibility.
  • Paradises Lost – This one might have been my absolute favorite, perhaps because it is a future we might all face given the fact that we are beginning to consume so much. What will happen on the seemingly inevitable day when we have to all get on a space ship to escape the ruined Earth? How long will the trip take us? What will we look like by then? How will we grow up and find love? Will we be free trapped in a metal tube for the generations it will take us to find a new Earth? How will we avoid the historic horrors that plague humanity? This story considers these questions and offers an interesting viewpoint on what the future may hold and a commentary on religion in society.

Favorite quotes

Since Paradises Lost is my favorite story, it stands to reason that both of my favorite quotes come from this tale.

First, an interesting perspective on freedom, coming from the perspective of someone born and lived her whole life on a spaceship:

“You don’t need fields and hills and all that stuff to be free! Freedom’s what your mind does, what your soul is.” (268)
My final favorite quote speaks to the power of words and the many meanings that can be applied. In a self-contained world hurtling through space, the meaning of wind and grass and sunshine begin to fade. How would we understand and assign value to words once they lose their meaning? Le Guin provides a possibility:
“He mentally perceived words as having various sizes, densities, depths; words were dark stars, some small and dull and solid, some immense, complex, subtle, with a powerful gravity-field that attracted infinite meanings to them. Freedom was the biggest of the dark stars.” (278-279)
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