Books

Book Review: The Birthday of the World and Other Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin

For more than four decades, Ursula K. Le Guin has enthralled readers with her imagination, clarity, and moral vision. The recipient of numerous literary prizes, including the National Book Award, the Kafka Award, and five Hugo and five Nebula Awards, this renowned writer has, in each story and novel, created a provocative, ever-evolving universe filled with diverse worlds and rich characters reminiscent of our earthly selves.

Now, in The Birthday of the World, this gifted artist returns to these worlds in eight brilliant short works, including a never-before-published novella, each of which probes the essence of humanity. Here are stories that explore complex social interactions and troublesome issues of gender and sex; that define and defy notions of personal relationships and of society itself; that examine loyalty, survival, and introversion; that bring to light the vicissitudes of slavery and the meaning of transformation, religion, and history.

The first six tales in this spectacular volume are set in the author’s signature world of the Ekumen, “my pseudo-coherent universe with holes in the elbows,” as Le Guin describes it — a world made familiar in her award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The seventh, title story was hailed by Publishers Weekly as “remarkable . . . a standout.” The final offering in the collection, Paradises Lost, is a mesmerizing novella of space exploration and the pursuit of happiness.In her foreword, Ursula K. Le Guin writes, “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 noother.” In The Birthday of the World, this gifted literary acrobat exhibits a dazzling array of skills that will fascinate and satisfy us all.

I have found a new favourite author in Ursula K. Le Guin. I first read her work, “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” which piqued my curiosity and I kept searching for her books until now. “The Birthday of the World and Other Stories” is not so different from the book I first read by this author. They are both collections of short stories and even feature some of the same planets. Somehow, I did not tire of the universe that Le Guin has created. There was always something new to learn about a planet or a species, even if I had already read about them before.

While her universe isn’t as carefully crafted as one would think (her prologue discusses this), there is no denying the fact that her universe is extremely immersive. I could get lost in the lore and the people in it. Her characters, although many of them alien, are very understandable. Though their customs may be different, it was still generally easy to empathize with their specific alien problems. Everything is so believable and feels very real. Not once was I pulled out of my suspense of belief.

The stories were very memorable as well. Each culture was so distinct that I found it hard to mix up stories. I will admit that some of my favourite stories are the ones about the people of O and their complex relationship structures. However, my favourite story from this collection is without a doubt the very last story.

Maybe I’m being a little bit egocentric because it’s a story about us humans directly but I found it to be a very touching experience. I envy future generations who get to travel through space and I am always in awe of future generations learning about the past and how they would think of our current ways of thinking. Still, there’s a relationship element in addition to all the nitty gritty sci fi that made my eyes water towards the end.

All in all, I would travel in Ursula K. le Guin’s universes again. Her worlds are a world builders wet dream. Thank goodness I have found Ursula K. le Guin.

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