Under The Sun

Friday, June 27, 2003

I dislike stories that fail miserably. "Paradises Lost" by Ursula Le Guin, a novella from the collection The Birthday of the World, fails miserably. The premise is worthwhile: it's a 'generation ship' story--colonizers from Earth on a 200-year interstellar voyage--about what happens psychologically to the generations that never experience Outside. But the conflicts it sets up--a political conflict between ideological factions aboard the ship, and the ideological conflict itself with its resolution at The Destination--never materialize: they both fizzle quietly behind the scenes. It strikes me as implausible that a powerful religious faction would yield its control with barely a whimper; it is certainly implausible (a clear deus ex machina) that an unknown Earth-like planet will just happen to be obviously viable as a colony world. The story ends with everyone getting what they want without any significant trial or tribulation, and the result is simply that there is no story.

Perhaps I'm just not someone who should be reading Le Guin; to me, several of the other stories in the collection similarly end up being about nothing. "Coming of Age in Karhide" is excused, because it is self-avowedly merely a description (Le Guin says so in the introduction). But several other stories also either lack endings entirely or have endings that don't fit. "Old Music and the Slave Women", for instance, is 60 pages long but could profitably have been reduced by half: there simply isn't enough insight to sustain interest, and in the end nothing happens. It's a worthwhile depiction of war-torn lives, and there are insights; just not enough. (But perhaps I'm just unable to properly appreciate the extended depiction of torture that dominates the first part of the story.) "Unchosen Love" is another deus ex machina--two, actually, though one is almost subtle enough to make sense--and in "Mountain Ways", again the interesting conflict is a dud. "The Birthday of the World" (the title story) has a good ending--appropriately depressing--but no story to support it: it depicts the breaking of a culture but fails to depict the culture that breaks.

Fortunately, there are two superior stories in the collection. "The Matter of Seggri" actually addresses its fundamental conflict--restrictive gender roles in a society in which females outnumber males 16:1--and uses multiple perspectives to excellent effect. And "Solitude" is a brilliant reflection on culture and identity. Those two stories are worth reading, and possibly even worth returning to. Perhaps it is too much to ask for every story to be up to that standard.

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