"Inventing a universe is tough work," confesses Ursula Le Guin in the Foreword to this collection of short stories. Reading about it can be quite tough too, as I found out the first time I tried to start the book. I failed to get past page four, such was my inability to get to grips with Sov Thade Tage em Ereb's explanation about Sedern Geger, the Harges, and Argaven. The visual bombardment of strange words of unknown pronunciation put me off and served to increase my belief that sci-fi stories of weird planets, aliens and space ships were not for me.
But I like short stories and I enjoy speculative fiction, especially by female writers, so I tried again. This time, before starting on the tales, I spent time reading the Foreword, where Le Guin explains what the eight stories are about, and what inspired them. The first six, and possibly the seventh, take place on worlds of her invented universe of Ekumen. The last is primarily set on a space ship that is on its way to a new world that earth-dwellers hope to inhabit.
With a bit of advance warning and understanding I began reading about characters who, although from other worlds, were credible and likeable, because, regardless of their differences, they all behaved in understandably human ways. Their traditions and mores were of greater interest. How would society develop if a child's sex was not determined until puberty? What would a marriage of four people look like? How would a community of introverts interact?
Of the eight stories, three stood out.
The Matter of Seggri observes a world where there are very few men. It is told in a series of reports: two by researchers from other worlds, two by Seggri women, and one by a native male. The men are highly valued, but their only function is to enable women to become pregnant. I laughed at the irony that men were refused employment because their "hormones would make male workers unreliable."
Mountain Ways is one of two tales that relate the complexities of love in a culture where a marriage consists of two males and two females. Isolated farming communities have the additional problem of a lack of sufficient partners. Le Guin describes it as a "comedy of manners."
Finally, Paradises Lost, the longest tale in the book, observes what happens to a generation of travellers who have never seen the world from which their ancestors departed, nor will they set foot on the new world to which their children are heading. What would it be like if your "world" is a means of transport and your life is literally a journey?
The book's writing style often reflects that of a disinterested observer or researcher, which precludes an immersive reading experience. However, it does tend to raise more questions for the reader about how and why these alien societies developed as they did. More importantly, it provokes the same thoughts and questions about our own world.