Sixteen To One

The Matter of Seggri

by Ursula K LeGuin

‘Their gender inbalance has produced a society in which …. the men have all the privilege and the women have all the power.’

The Matter of Seggri is the second story in LeGuin’s collection The Birthday of the World. It depicts a planet where the ratio of women to men is as indicated in the above title. This balance is not entirely natural. At puberty, all boys are taken away from their families and locked up in a castle to spend their lives in games and contests, like wrestling or bareback riding, designed to develop not only their skill but their beauty and attractiveness to women. Women do all the work, they make up the police force and in a society largely Lesbian in nature have reproductive choices according to their ability or willingness to pay.

The story is told in sections. The first is a report by a starship captain entered in his ship’s log which describes the Seggri society and the sexual ‘status quo.’ The second is a report to the Ekumen, written some thousand years later by a female Mobile, Merriment, who has been separated from her male companion on the planet.

I should explain these terms for the benefit of readers who do not know LeGuin’s universe. Mobiles are a bit like the officers of the starship Enterprise, sent out from their home planets to explore strange new worlds and new civilisations etc etc. For Ekumen, think the Star Trek Foundation, except there is no warp drive and travellers are contained by the laws of Special Relativity. [How they get over the problem of mass/energy is a mystery.] A double journey can take centuries so a Mobile may never see his/her family again.

Even as an alien, Kaza, the male Mobile, has to conform to the rules and he too is locked up in a castle and Merriment never sees him again.

Then we have the memoir of a Seggrian woman given to an alien ambassador, detailing the sad events of her life and family. Finally, there is a short story-within-a-story from the planet Seggri’s literature, entitled Love Out Of Place.

‘ “I want my own family,” I said. “Not to live in my mother’s house, where I’m always a child. Work …. I want life, not games!” ‘

You might think this Seggrian inbalance invites mutiny, revolution, and indeed a rebellion does come. But in the end most citizens, male and female alike, seem unwilling to change their ways, however the rest of the galaxy (or most of it) behaves.

As in Coming of Age in Karhide, which I reviewed a couple of days ago, the narrative and vocabulary are explicit. LeGuin describes the sexuality and the sexual activity of her creations with the eye of a scientific observer. We are left thinking, maybe, with Hamlet, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in OUR philosophy.

‘ “Relationships formed against the negatve pressures of a society are under terrible strain; they tend to become defensive, over-intense, unpeaceful.” ‘

A final article on the collection will follow in a few days.

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