The Birthday of the World


Inventing a universe is tough work. Jehovah took a sabbatical. Vishnu takes naps. Science-fiction universes are only tiny bits of word-worlds, but even so they take some thinking; and rather than think out a new universe for every story, a writer may keep coming back and using the same universe, sometimes till it gets a bit worn at the seams, softens up, feels natural, like an old shirt.

Though I've put a good deal of work into my fictional universe, I don't exactly feelthat I invented it. I blundered into it, and have been blundering around in it unsystematically ever since — dropping a millennium here, forgetting a planet there. Honest and earnest people, calling it the Hainish Universe, have tried to plot its history onto Time Lines. I call it the Ekumen, and I say it's hopeless. Its Time Line is like something the kitten pulled out of the knitting basket, and its history consists largely of gaps.

There are reasons for this incoherence, other than authorial carelessness, forgetfulness, and impatience. Space, after all, is essentially gap. Inhabited Worlds are a long, long way apart. Einstein said people couldn't travel faster than light, so I generally let my people travel only nearly as fast as light. This means that whenever they cross space, they scarcely age, thanks to Einsteinian time dilation, but they do end up decades or centuries after they set out, and can only find out what happened meanwhile back on the farm by using my handy device the ansible. (It's interesting to think that the ansible is older than the Internet, and faster — I do let information travel instantaneously.) So in my universe, as in this one, now here is then there, and vice versa, which is a good way to keep history from being either clear or useful.

Of course you can ask the Hainish, who have been around for a long time, and whose historians not only know a lot of what happened, but also know that it keeps happening and will happen again... They're somewhat like Ecclesiastes, seeing no new thing under the, or any, sun; but they're much more cheerful about it than he was.

The people on all the other worlds, who all descended from the Hainish, naturally don't want to believe what the old folks say, so they start making history; and so it all happens again.

I did not plan these worlds and people. I found them, gradually, piecemeal, while writing stories. I'm still finding them.

In my first three sf novels there is a League of Worlds, vaguely embracing known planets in our local bit of the local galaxy, including Earth. This rather suddenly morphs into the Ekumen, a non-directive, information-gathering consortium of worlds, which occasionally disobeys its own directive to be non-directive. I had met the Greek word meaning household, oikumene, as in ecumenical, in one of my father's anthropology books, and remembered it when I needed a word that might imply a still wider humanity spread out from one original hearth. I spelled it Ekumen.' If you write science fiction you can spell things the way you like, sometimes.

The first six of these eight stories take place on worlds of the Ekumen, in my pseudo-coherent universe with holes in the elbows.

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In my 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness the first voice is that of a Mobile of the Ekumen, a traveller, making a report back to the Stabiles, who stay put on Hain. This vocabulary came to me along with the narrator. He said his name was Genly Ai. He began telling the story, and I wrote it.

Gradually, and not easily, he and I found out where we were. He had not been on Gethen before, but I had, in a short story, "Winter's King." That first visit was so hurried I hadn't even noticed there was something a bit weird about Gethenian gender. Just like a tourist. Androgynes? Were there androgynes?

During the writing of Left Hand, pieces of myth and legend came to me as needed, when I didn't understand where the story was going; and a second voice, a Gethenian one, took over the story from time to time. But Estraven was a deeply reserved person. And the plot led both my narrators so quickly into so much trouble that many questions didn't get answered or even asked.

Writing the first story in this book, "Coming of Age in Karhide," I came back to Gethen after twenty-five or thirty years. This time I didn't have an honest but bewildered male Terran alongside to confuse my perceptions. I could listen to an openhearted Gethenian who, unlike Estraven, had nothing to hide. This time I didn't have a damned plot. I could ask questions. I could see how the sex works. I could finally get into a kemmerhouse. I could really have fun.

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In the title story of the collection A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, I invented some social rules for the people of the world called O, which is quite near Hain, as worlds go. The world, as usual, seemed to be something I just found myself on and had to explore; but I did spend genuine thought, respectable, systematic thought, on the marriage and kinship customs of the people of O. I drew charts, with male and female symbols, and lines with arrows, very scientific. I needed those charts. I kept getting confused. The blessed editor of the magazine in which the story first appeared saved me from a horrible blunder, worse than incest. I had gotten my moieties mixed up. She caught it, we fixed it.

Since it took a while to work out these complexities, it may be mere conservation of energy that has brought me back twice to O; but I think it's because I like it. I like thinking about marrying three other people only two of whom you can have sex with (one of each gender but both of the other moiety). I like thinking about complex social relationships which both produce and frustrate highly charged emotional relationships.

In this sense, you could say that "Unchosen Love" and "Mountain Ways" are comedies of manners, odd as that may sound to those who think science fiction is written ray-gun in hand. The society of O is different from ours here now, but not very much more different than that of Jane Austen's England; perhaps less different than that of The Tale of Genji.

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"The Matter of Seggri" is a compendium of reports on the society of a world called Seggri written by various observers over a period of many years. These documents are from the archives of the Historians of Hain, who are to reports as squirrels are to nuts.

The germ of the story was in an article I read about the gender imbalance that persistent abortion and infanticide of female fetuses and babies are causing in parts of the world — our world, Earth — where only males are considered worth the bother. Out of irrational and insatiable curiosity, in a thought experiment that became the story, I reversed and increased the imbalance and made it permanent. Though I liked the people I met on Seggri, and very much enjoyed channeling their various voices, the experiment was not a happy one.

(I do not really mean channeling. The word is just shorthand for my relation with characters in my fiction. Fiction — right? Please do not write me any letters about other lives. I have quite as many as I can handle.)

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In "Solitude" I went out on the fringes of the Ekumen, to a place somewhat like the Earth we used to write about in the sixties and seventies when we believed in Atomic Holocaust and the End of The World as We Know It and mutants in the glowing ruins of Peoria. I still believe in Atomic Holocaust, you betcha, but the time for writing stories about it is not now; and the world as I knew it has already ended several times.

Whatever caused the population crash in "Solitude" — probably the population itself — it was long ago, and is not the concern of the story, which is about survival, loyalty, and introversion. Hardly anybody ever writes anything nice about introverts. Extraverts rule. This is really rather odd when you realise that about nineteen writers out of twenty are introverts.

We have been taught to be ashamed of not being "outgoing." But a writer's job is ingoing.

The people, the survivors, in this story, like most people in these stories, have some peculiar arrangements of gender and sexuality; but they have no arrangements at all for marriage. Marriage is too extraverted for real introverts. They just see each other sometimes. For a while. Then they go off and be alone again and be happy.

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"Old Music and the Slave Women" is a fifth wheel.

My book Four Ways to Forgiveness consists of four connected stories. Once more I plead for a name, and thus recognition, for this fictional form (which goes back at least as far as Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford has become increasingly frequent and interesting): a book of stories linked by place, characters, theme, and movement, so as to form, not a novel, but a whole. There's a sneering British term "fix-up"for books by authors who, told that story collections "don't sell," patch unconnected stories together with verbal duct tape. But the real thing is not a random collection, any more than a Bach cello suite is. It does things a novel doesn't do. It is a real form, and deserves a real name.

Maybe we could call it a story suite? I think I will.

So the story suite Four Ways gives a view of the recent history of two worlds, Werel and Yeowe. (This Werel is not the Werel of the early novel Planet of Exile. It's a different one. I told you already, I forget whole planets.) The slave-based society and economy of these worlds is in process of revolutionary change. One critic scoffed at me for treating slavery as an issue worth writing about. I wonder what planet he lives on?

"Old Music" is the translated name of a Hainishman, Esdardon Aya, who turns up in three of the stories in the suite. Chronologically, this new story follows the suite, a fifth movement, telling an incident of the civil war on Werel. But it's also its own piece. Its origin was a visit to one of the great slave plantations upriver from Charleston, South Carolina. Readers who have seen that beautiful, terrible place may recognise the garden, the house, the haunted ground.

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The title story "The Birthday of the World" may or may not take place on a world of the Ekumen. I honestly don't know. Does it matter? It's not Earth; its people are physically a little different from us; but the model I used for their society is in some respects clearly that of the Inca. As in the great ancient societies of Egypt or India or Peru, king and god are one, and the sacred is as close and common as bread or breath. And as easy to lose.

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These seven stories share a pattern: they exhibit in one way or another, from inside or through an observer (who is liable to go native), people whose society differs from ours, even whose physiology may differ from ours, but who feel the way we do. 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.

The last, long story "Paradises Lost" is not of this pattern, and is definitely not an Ekumen story. It takes place in another universe, also a well-used one: the generic, shared, science-fiction "future." In this version of it, Earth sends forth ships to the stars at speeds that are, according to our present knowledge, more or less realistic, at least potentially attainable. Such a ship takes decades, centuries, to get where it's going. No Warp Nine, no time-dilation — just real time.

In other words, this is a generation-ship story. Two remarkable books, Martinson's Aniara and Gloss's The Dazzle of Day, and many short stories have used the theme. Most of the short stories put the crew/colonists into some kind of deepfreeze so that the people who left Earth wake up at the destination. I always wanted to write about people who truly lived out the journey, the middle generations knowing neither departure nor arrival. I tried several times. I never could get the story, until a religious theme began to entwine itself with the idea of the sealed ship in the dead vacuum of space, like a cocoon, full of transformation, transmutation, invisible life: the pupa body, the winged soul.

— Ursula K. Le Guin

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