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The Birthday Of The World And Other Stories by Ursula LeGuin

01/04/2003. Contributed by Jane Palmer

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Pub: Gollancz. 362 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-575-07479-5.

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There is an elegance to these stories that lift them above the need for a taut plotline.

The earlier ones deal with the not quite human mating and gender behaviour of people in a way that makes them seem comfortable and familiar.

The marriage arrangements on ‘Planet 0’ need mathematical acumen to work out, rather like four horse double bets that are sometimes increased to a factor of six.

The Birthday Of The World And Other Stories by Ursula LeGuin‘The Birthday Of The World’ encapsulates philosophy, emotion, delusion, a little action and visitors from space. It is easily the most readable of the collection.

‘Solitude’ hinges on the author's predilection with the social division and management of the sexes. However well dealt with, these scenarios never come over as very much fun. Perhaps they're not meant to be.

In ‘Old Music And The Slave Women’, a senior alien diplomat is caught up in civil strife and warring factions and finds himself depending on the menial 'assets', the society's abused slave class. Includes interesting reversals in racial stereotyping.

‘Paradises Lost’, by far the longest story, rambles through the lives and growing pains of a generation travelling on a space ark. Being in transit for so long, the idea of 'outside' has become intimidating and alien. Sometimes the narrative conveys the sense of the never-ending journey.

It is easy to lose interest by the time the point of the story arrives. That said, when the travellers eventually set foot on their new planet their disorientation is supremely described. This new world, an ideal environment for hominids, is unaccountably free of any life forms larger than an insect, no doubt to avoid the scenario of everyone being devoured before they can decipher what the word 'carnivore' in the ship's database means.

Having placed her characters in carefully crafted and plausible situations not too dissimilar from our own, the author fleshes them out with logic and feelings generated by their environment and predicament.

There is very little tension in the plots - no battles, starship chases or heroic conflicts, just an unerring observation of the reality most mortals have to deal with. They may dwell on the humdrum and internalised feelings but the skill of the narrator adds a piquancy few other writers can match and draws you on.

Ursula Le Guin has an addictive readability where many plots would need to depend on the obligatory and all too often common-sense defying, cosmic strife that could only be generated from the human subconscious.

Science Fiction needs her sane view of what can only be conjecture, after all. Her characters may not be alien enough but then it is a valid supposition that the only aliens our species may ever encounter are the descendants of human spacefarers who have evolved away from their ancestry.

This book is the antidote to a galaxy filled with warriors, stroppy aliens and antiseptic soaps played out on implausible starships.

Jane Palmer

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