And a thought provoking lens through which to ponder the unrecorded millennia of real prehistory, between homo sapiens' expansion from Africa and the arrival of Europeans on certain far flung shores.
Certainly, the Americas and the Global South would be very different today if those Europeans had been more inclined toward Hainish observation and strictly benign influence.
I also find the Hainish premise - a civilisation's collapse, amnesia, and rediscovery - a fascinating idea in itself; not just a convenient trick to explain away aliens who differ from us only by their eyes or size or genitals, but also a fecund source of interesting possibilities.
Even in the cases where the characters are cardboard, it's not hard to bring to mind examples of actual humans who are like that. It made me realise that real people can be comically low-dimensional. Truth can be shallower than fiction.
I often find #LeGuin's take on the 'what if' to be far more optimistic than mine would be, but even so, her 'happy endings' are seldom really happy. The natives succeed in exiling their colonisers, but at terrible cost to their culture. The enslaved achieve emancipation, but their society is still rife with inequality and violence.
'Birthday of the World...' also includes a couple of inserts for previous novels:
- Coming of Age in Karhide: an appendix to The Left Hand if Darkness in which we finally find out what sex is like in their genderless world.
- Old Music and the Slave Women: A 'fifth way to forgiveness', this is a further story of slave revolt, where finally the Hainish share some of the suffering of the assets.
'Birthday of the World and other stories' zips through a handful more hypotheticals:
- The Matter of Seggri: What if women far outnumbered men?
- Unchosen Love and Mountain Ways: What if marriage involved four instead of two?
- Solitude: What if the meek really inherited the earth?
- Birthday of the World: What if the visitors were marooned in small numbers and died out?
- Paradises Lost: (not in the Hainish universe) What would society be like after a couple of generations on a generation ship?
In 'The Telling': What if the dogmatic suppressor of history and knowledge were science instead of religion?
In 'Four Ways to Forgiveness': What if an enslaved people managed to free themselves? Four stories that chronicle tumult in a post-slavery society.
'The Word for World is Forest': What if a dreamy society with no murder met a capitalistic one with murder as a defining characteristic? It doesn't end well for anyone.
'The Dispossessed': What if there were no property? An anarchists uncomprehending foray into a capitalist world.
Experimenting with the form in the late sixties, she turned her microscope more directly on society and gender in the seventies:
'The Left Hand if Darkness': What if there was no gender? A rescue from a gulag followed by escape across ice and volcano.
In 'City of Illusions': What if the alien visitor had amnesia? What if civilization and progress were forbidden? Wizard of Oz with extraterrestrial overlords.
In 'Planet of Exile': What if a year lasted almost a lifetime? What if the alien visitors were marooned for generations? A story of star-cross lovers and barbarian hordes.
Each of the Hainish stories poses at least one big 'what if?'
1966's 'Rocannon's World': What if human evolution diverged to produce elves and dwarves? What if the alien visitor was marooned? A quest across mountain and ocean.
In the Hainish universe #LeGuin makes her extraterrestrials plausibly similar to us by framing the stories in a universe where, aeons ago humanity explored and populated the galaxy, then civilisation collapsed and forgot, then explored again, rediscovering miriad descendants of our shared ancestors. Much like humanity did on Earth, actually, but without the subsequent genocide and colonisation.
These stories turn an oft-imagined anthropological question 'what would alien visitors make of us?' on it's head: 'what would we make of aliens?'. But the aliens are different versions of us; each a thought experiment that tweaks humanity to see what would happen. This is one of the reasons I like #SF, it's counterfactual nature allows us to escape the tyranny of the actual as much as we like.
My 11yo's voracious appetite for reading has been giving me flashbacks to my discovery of the #SF section in the public library at that age. Partly because of nostalgia, I've been working though the 'Hainish Cycle' books by #UrsulaLeGuin, but also to see if they'd be a good way to introduce my 11yo to a fantastic woman writer.
He's an open source developer, know him by his PGP ID: 59822F8E
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