I really wanted to start this review off by saying, 'The Birthday of the World and Other Stories is all about sex.' In the broadest sense it's still true to say as much but it is equally inaccurate to say as the word sex can mean so many things. So… The Birthday of the World and Other Stories is mostly all about sex. Now, I'll try to clarify and define a word that has such great surface level transparency.
Many of the stories in this collection read like narrative anthropological studies written by one not from the society being discussed. The stories involve unique interactions between men and women and are usually observed by a foreigner.
The strangest concept for me to wrap my head around was 'sedoretu' a marriage involving four people: one pair of men and one of women, where homo and heterosexual relationships are the norm. The rules that govern these marriages as laid out in 'Unchosen Love' and 'Mountain Ways' were far more difficult to understand than the pairing of men and women. Ultimately the concept was so well developed as to detract from the stories being told. Who can have sex with whom and why, when, and why one person of the four will always be left out from having sex with one other weren't as interesting to me as the narrative that could have been told. Perhaps as the concept is so foreign Le Guin wanted to be sure to establish clarity. If so she succeeded, only at the expense of the narrative. At times these two stories felt like reading rules or law more than a story.
'Coming of Age in Karhide' was about the first sexual experience of a hermaphroditic person or perhaps 'gender neutral' is more accurate seeing as those on Karhide can choose and morph gender. This story in particular presented it's ideas with no judging or favoritism. It was fascinating and addicting in a sensual way that was very hard to describe as I can't exactly say what I was attracted to.
The title story was nothing spectacular or original, but it had all the good familiar elements and was done extremely well. A very primitive people on a very sheltered planet believe that God is a man and a woman; brother and sister and that only their hereditary line can perpetuate the lineage of God. Such a belief is fraught with difficulties particularly when generations have passed and God has trouble reproducing. A new God is crowned when outsiders arrive at the same time a usurper from within claims to be God. This story was fun to read and very well done but not the highlight of the collection and probably the least in terms of dealing with sex.
'The Matter of Seggri' isn't merely a good story or the primary reason to buy this book; it's the kind of story that gets you thinking, makes you pause in your reading and leads you to ask questions not only about a fictional world and it's rules that Le Guin has created, but it also makes you do the same about our world that we live in.
There is a complete segregation of the sexes on Seggri and a very large gender imbalance that heavily favors women. Boys, being so rare, are prized family jewels until the age of eleven when they are sent off to live in the men's only citadels. There, they further their status as trophies and seek glory in a dangerous and often gory sport, learn to become phenomenal dancers, and most importantly how to take care of bedroom matters. Concepts as these are what makes men men on Seggri. Women do everything else: anything that could be construed as work, business, or an enterprise beyond entertainment is solely relegated for women. Men remain uneducated and ignorant of everything; they are prizes who develop a reputation and are sold nightly to women who have saved long, hard-earned money for a night of pleasure, or to conceive a child.
Homosexuality is normal on Seggri in large part due to the seclusion of the men. While it is seen as normal among the women and usually leads to marriage there are factions for and against it among the men even if both sides practice it. It's the presentation of this story that makes it work as well as it does: the view from multiple outsiders trying to understand a bizarre foreign culture. There are multiple reports about life on Seggri in this story; each gives enough to develop its' idea and collectively they paint a broad, detailed picture that indulges the imagination in the most realistic of ways. Le Guin could set many a story or novel on Seggri. This is not a happy story. It's brutal, blunt and lacking anything that resembles sentiment. It's disturbing and that is why it works.
This collection isn't all about sex. It's about gender, identity, and what intercourse means to an individual or to a society. Not all the stories hit the mark (the closing story 'Paradises Lost' felt particularly cumbersome) but there are a few of those rare wonderful stories--of any length--that make you want to run out and tell people about what you're reading. Those are the ones I've talked about here. Now go read them for yourself and see why I feel as I do.