Warning! Portland author Ursula K. Le Guin's newest collection of eight short stories, The Birthday of the World, is not for the sexually timid. Upon arriving on one of the planets in Le Guin's cosmos, prepare yourself for new discoveries: Le Guin fucks with every notion you've ever had about alien sex. At the same time, the collection's unifying theme--personal isolation within an increasingly communal universe--is familiar to us humans. The stories succeed in their ability to draw the science-fiction virgins into Le Guin's chosen genre--not only through exploration of sexual conduct on other planets, but also with their compelling accounts of struggles that seem closer to home.

Getting the facts straight on sex in science fiction, however, can be a confusing yet intriguing experience. Although Le Guin's communities struggle with gender politics and social codes, you surely don't have to. With so many stories, so many planets, and such a diverse and often confusing range of sexual options, we at WW thought a handy reference guide to the singular planets in Le Guin's sexual universe might help our fellow Earthlings:


This planet in Le Guin's Hainish Universe was made famous in the 1969 classic The Left Hand of Darkness. It houses the nation Karhide, which is also the setting of the first story in the collection, "Coming of Age in Karhide." Gethenians are androgynous but have the potential to become either male or female when they go into what is called kemmer, a recurring, highly sexualized, gendered state of being. The clitopenis, then, either shrinks or enlarges to accommodate the male or female genitalia. Once in kemmer, one should go directly to a kemmerhouse, a sort of sexual Club Med where one may roam free and take pleasure in whomever one wishes until that particular period of kemmer is finished. "Coming of Age" explores the rite of passage of a Karhidean named Sov Thade Tage em Ereb, who, after going through a somewhat uncomfortable puberty, goes to takes a first trip to a kemmerhouse as a woman.

Extra vocabulary:

Somer, the androgynous state.

Halfdead, a "person in permanent kemmer."


Hainish explorers stumble upon this world in the second piece, "The Matter of Seggri." In this world, women are the intellectual and sexual oppressors of men, who are kept in castles and not formally educated because, as one Seggrian woman notes, "what goes to the brain takes from the testicles." Men on Seggri are used by women purely for sex, whether for recreation or procreation. Love is forbidden between men and women, but women can marry as many other women as they wish. The venue for sexual contact with males is called a fuckery, essentially a futuristic bordello where the women have their pick of the top sporting champions for the right price.

Useful numbers and dates:

16:1, ratio of women to men on Seggri.

Dippida, boys ages 15-19 used solely for pleasure by the older women of Seggri.

Open Gate Law, civil-rights measure passed in the year 93/1662 after the infamous Rakedr Mutiny. The law allows men to leave the castles, seek an education and live alongside women, but has met with limited success.


Two stories in the collection--"Unchosen Love" and "Mountain Ways"--take place on the maritally confusing planet O. The population of O is divided by moieties. The moiety of the mother, either Morning or Evening, determines the moiety of the child. If you are a Morning person, you do not have sex with other Morning people, as such sexual coupling is considered incest. (If, however, that's your thing, see the title story and "Coming of Age in Karhide.") Marriage on O is called sedoretu and involves not one sexual pairing but four! "Two heterosexual pairs are called Morning and Evening, according to the woman's moiety; the male homosexual pair called the Night marriage, and the female homosexual pair called the Day." Confused but intrigued? Me, too! Though both stories describe what seem to be pitfalls of this polygamist planet, the options for marital fun are four times greater than our options here on Earth.

For more information on the possibilities of polygamy on the planet O, see another Le Guin masterpiece, "A Fisherman of the Inland Sea." For more information on the possibilities of polygamy on this planet, see Garfield and Sanpete counties, Utah.

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

by Ursula K. Le Guin

(HarperCollins, 362 pages, $24.95)