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The Birthday Of The World

by Ursula K Le Guin

(Gollancz SF, £9.99, 362 pages, paperback, January 2003.)

Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those cover scanauthors who--like Jack Vance--has an unmistakeable voice. In fact, reading The Birthday Of The World, her new collection of short stories, I was for the first time struck by a resemblance between her work and that of Vance. The collection is a series of anthropological excursions, an array of possible worlds, most of them set in Le Guin's Hainish milieu, where different social, sexual, political and moral possibilities can be explored. But these worlds do have a Vancian flavour, a kind of mischievous exoticism, the main difference being that where Vance goes for wit and humour, Le Guin is far more serious.

The first two stories exhibit her style perfectly. 'Coming Of Age In Karhide' and 'The Matter Of Seggri' are delightful, ingenious tales, both of which have didactic elements, both of which have little real plot, yet both of which absorb and enthuse the reader. Equally successful is the novella 'Paradise Lost', which is a stand-alone piece not set in any previously described universe. A generation starship is travelling from Earth, its expected arrival time generations in the future. Le Guin says that she wanted to write about the time between departure and arrival, and she spins an intriguing tale. The tale hots up when the main characters realise that a computer error means they are going to arrive two generations early... and many of the inhabitants of the ship have become weary of talk of arrival, yearning only for perpetual travel. It's an original and very effective tale, a perfect conclusion to the book.

Some of the stories here are like essays, in particular the title story 'The Birthday Of The World' in which an Inca-esque society struggle with their concept of God. Elsewhere, 'Solitude' is a peculiar meditation on introversion whose contents make melancholy reading. 'Mountain Ways' is in many respects the most difficult story of the book, covering the complexities of four-person marriage. Tricky to write (the author admits as much in her introduction) and tricky to read; difficult to enjoy in the same way as the earlier stories, yet still intriguing.

This is a handsome looking novel with a sophisticated and attractive cover to match the sophisticated and attractive content. Recommended to anybody who has ever thought to themselves 'I must read Le Guin' or 'I must read more Le Guin'.

Review by Stephen Palmer.

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