by Ursula K LeGuin
This, the third story in the collection The Birthday of the World, is set on a planet called O, where ideas of sex and family are even more bizarre than on Gethen or Seggri. [See my two previous posts, here and here.]
‘When I explained our concept of incest to a fellow student on Hain, she said, shocked, “But that means you can’t have sex with half the population!” And I in turn said, shocked, ‘Do you WANT sex with half the population?” ‘
Rather than describe the peculiar and fascinating arrangements on this planet, I’ll allow Le Guin’s narrator to do it for me. Maybe, when you get to the end, you will see why.
‘When I marry – for love, for stability, for children – I marry three people. I am a Morning man: I marry an Evening woman and an Evening man, with both of whom I have a sexual relationship, and a Morning woman, with who I have no sexual relationship. Her sexual relationships [ie the Morning woman] are with the Evening man and the Evening woman. The whole marriage is called a sedoretu. Within it there are four submarriages; the two heterosexual pairs are called Morning and Evening, according to the woman’s moiety; the male homosexual pair is called the Night marriage, and the female homosexual pair is called the Day.’
If you have grasped that – I’m still working on it – we’ll move on to the story.
Hadri is a Morning Man on a fact-finding mission to a remote part of the country. There he meets, Suord, an Evening Man who belongs to a small, reclusive community that makes its living from the sea. They fall in love.
Suord wants Hadri to stay with him and marry into the community, becoming part of a new sedoretu of four. But Hadri has doubts. The local women (including the two Suord proposes for their liaisons) treat him as an outsider and won’t speak to him. He doesn’t even have a room of his own. One misty night, he meets attractive woman on the roof of the house where several ‘families’ live. Her name is An’nad and she seems different from all the others. She tells Hadri she has been away for a while. They talk and discover they have much in common.
‘Yet a kind of happiness had started in him …. and it grew as he breathed the foggy air. He stood still a while and then spoke, almost in a whisper. “Are you there?” ‘
Hadri tries without success to identify this woman with one he has met in daytime. He tries talking to Dunn, one of the women Suord has proposed, but she spurns him. On another foggy night, he meets An’nad again. She questions him about his feelings and tells him love should be chosen.
Unchosen Love ends in a kind of happy-for-now situation, though maybe not the one we expect. This isn’t a tale full of action and (despite the theme) sex, and not for readers who prefer these things in abundance. It is a love story of sorts, with an unexpected twist that almost turns it into another genre altogether. However, it is a story full of ideas, one that, like the first two in the collection, can make us question some of the moral assumptions of our own society.