Ursula K. le Guin’s book of short stories, The Birthday of the World, reminds us of how flexible and inventive science fiction can be. The stories here are minor pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that forms the world of the Ekumen, where Hainish Mobiles report on other worlds and their customs.
This gives le Guin an opportunity to do what her parents – both anthropologists – must have done: piece together the life of a community over decades, measure their values against the received wisdom of a dominant culture, and constantly question the objectivity of the narrator. That all the communities we see happen to be figments of le Guin’s imagination does not make the book less powerful.
One story in particular stands out for its complexity: ‘The Matter of Seggri’ is a collection of five reports made by several Mobiles over a few generations. Seggri is a world, as the name indicates, where the men live separately in castles, playing competitive sports and fighting for honours. The women run the world and go to fuckeries where they choose desirable men to mate with. With the coming of the Hainish, this segregation becomes a tale of slow but painful integration. How can we merely observe and not bring change or be changed by what we see, le Guin seems to ask.