Ursula K. Le Guin is considered a modern master of science fiction. The shelf on which she stores her awards must surely be sagging by now. There are probably as many reasons for her popularity as there are people who enjoy her books, but one reason that occured to me as I read The Birthday of the World is that she writes a lot about sex.
Of course, it's more than just sex. While much of the book deals almost exlusively with issues related to unconventional (and yet familiar) biology and marriage customs, others focus more on gender and class distinctions. Still throughout each of the eight stories in this volume, sex is dominant. Not in a detailed or pornographic way, but it is a major factor in almost every story, and the entire focus of several.
It is a collection of eight stories, six of which are set in Le Guin's universe of the Ekumen and explore specific details of the cultures found there. Those familiar with Le Guin will likely be excited to learn more about what goes in a kemmerhouse, and learn some details about how a sedoretu (a kind of group marriage) works. Newcomers might be put off by the apparent fixation with sex, though the ideas in most of the stories are captivating.
With some stories it seems that Le Guin is taking life as we know it and tweaking it just a little in order to reveal something about ourselves that we might not see without it being taken to extremes. In others, Le Guin seem to just be having fun. Several times she appears to just be engaging in thought experiments in the best tradition of science fiction. What if? What if gender wasn't permanent? What if the ratio of men to women was radically tilted? What if marriages involved four people instead of just two?
The writing style is unmistakably Le Guin, and this book does demonstrate why she is considered a master of the craft. The writing is deceptively simple, the kind of simple that only comes with serious effort and practice. Le Guin tends to hint just enough at some things, leaving us to make the little mental connections so that everything makes sense. In that, she create literature for people who think, a welcome relief from many mind-numbingly detailed thrillers.