The Matter of Seggri
By Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin’s 1994 novelette The Matter of Seggri won the 1994 Tiptree, an honour it shared with Nancy Springer’s Larque on the Wing. It was an interesting year for Le Guin and the Tiptree: her A Fisherman of the Inland Sea and “Forgiveness Day” both made the 1994 short list. For some reason ISFDB classifies inclusion in the short list as a nomination, probably because they don’t understand how the Tiptree process works.
The Matter of Seggri takes place in Le Guin’s Hainish setting. Perhaps some background would help. As you know, about a million years ago
the ancestors of the Hain spread out from their home world, which was not Earth, and settled the Hainlike worlds of the nearer stars. (One of those worlds was Earth. but that doesn’t matter except so far as it will play into my grumbling about this setting in comments.) One of the more charming habits of the old Hain was shaping humans into interesting new forms 1; it is not all clear what role consent played in the process. If it played a role at all.
For reasons that are unclear, interstellar travel within the Hainish diaspora ceased for a very long time. Hain seems to have retained its history. Worlds like Winter, Earth, and Seggri did not. This allowed all the colony worlds of the Hain to develop in their own ways.
Seggri’s Hainish legacy is their unusual sex ratio: for every man who survives to adulthood, there are a dozen or more women.
The constant on Seggri is strict segregation into communities of women and of men. Exactly HOW it was segregated varied over time.
Renewed contact with Seggri began with a passing generation ship, crewed by the judgmentally pious. Later it was visited by Hainish academics and diplomats, who had to wrestle with a vexing question: how much can they let the people of Seggri know about conditions elsewhere in the Hainish realm? Can they be told how unusual Seggri is? Knowledge might destabilize Seggri society, but whether that destabilization would be good or bad is a question that different emissaries have answered in very different ways over the centuries.
As far as the Seggri know, Seggri men and women have always lived apart. Indeed, the alternative is hardly thinkable and is dismissed as a silly fantasy when it is mentioned. In contemporary Seggri society, men live in sequestered holds, where they engage in manly activities (competitive sports and sex, basically). Everything else (agriculture, crafts, commerce, education, childrearing, etc.) is the realm of women. This seems to work well enough from the point of view of the women. The men live their violent, unhappy lives out of view of women for the most part, so from the point of view of the majority, things tick along quite nicely.
But the slow trickle of information from the stars means the people of Seggri know that other ways of life are possible.…
I like to put the negative stuff early in reviews, so people have a chance to forget it when they get to the more positive material at the end. In this instance, my negative reaction is due to Le Guin’s baffling decision to make humans natives of Hain and not Earth. Given her education (not to mention who her parents were), it’s incomprehensible that she would think this would be plausible. (Yes, yes, Niven and Protectors. Niven’s biology is famously ludicrous.) Humans are part of a lineage that can be traced back in the fossil record hundreds of millions of years.
But, onwards. Excelsior!
The men serve a useful but very specific purpose in society. Many of them chafe at these limits. However, they lead such segregated lives that most people, most people being women, are simply not aware that many men are unhappy. If any men speak up, well, they must be wrong in the head. Unnatural men. There is a system in place to detect, punish, and deter such anomalies.
Some women are a little sad to send their boys off forever at eleven, but not sad enough to do anything about it. The Seggri women show little empathy or imagination as far as men are concerned. It’s probably in no way coincidental that such complacency supports a social system that works pretty well from the point of view of the majority (that is, women).
Le Guin is playing in “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” territory here.
Not many Seggri women know this, but when the first visitors landed on Seggri, the men (even then a minority) treated the female majority as drudges. The current system seems to be a reaction to that state of affairs. Women have gained the freedom to lead the lives that they choose by exiling the men to their holds and taxing themselves to support the men. Their colony evolved from one kind of exploitative society to a different kind of exploitative society. The exploitation remained constant. Though of course the original system had a minority exploiting the majority, and what replaced it was a majority exploiting a minority … so the fraction of society that’s being brutally exploited has diminished over time. The logical progression is for the oppressed minority to dwindle over time. Maybe to one miserable kid in a squalid prison.
Now that the Seggri have been exposed to more advance biological science, they may eventually realize that they don’t need the men, just their sperm. If that. They could use modern biotech to set up gonad farms or pursue parthenogenesis. Like the planet Athos in Bujold’s Ethan of Athos … except of course that’s a society that has decided to do without women. Perhaps Ammonite’s Jeep or the Whileaway of “When It Changed” are better models.
Le Guin’s not especially subtle in her tale of a segregated — or perhaps I should say Seggri-gated — society. Probably she wanted a good strong signal to get her point across to the intended audience.
Now for a diversion re the Tiptree award process. Every year a different jury; every year a different process. Each jury comes up with its own version of the process for winnowing a giant stack of books down to a long list, a short list, and a winner or two. (And I believe there is also some variation in how the long and short lists are handled and denoted.) I was on one of those juries once, and I know how my group did it … but I don’t know the exact details of how anyone else did it. It’s a secret. I am free to imagine that the 1994 jury arrived at a consensus after a lengthy psychic battle that left three cities in flames and completely erased the fifty-first state from memory. Because that would be cool. However, it is much more likely that the process involved lots of email. Or, given that this was 1994, when the fraction of people without email was higher, it may have required actual physical mail. Or even audio signals created by vibrating membranes in the throat, which I hear was a thing once.
“The Matter of Seggri” can be found in The Unreal and the Real Volume Two: Outer Space, Inner Lands, which is available from Small Beer Press. As is, I add, Volume One.
1: I like to think that what ended the first age of starflight. a million years ago, was that the victims of Hainish curiosity started making their displeasure known to the meddling scientists.