The Unreal and the Real, Volume One: Where on Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin
Having just read two long, dense space opera epics, I was in the mood for shorter work, and who better than Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the giants of the sci-fi/fantasy field, and a respected American novelist who has transcended genre and literary categories. I discovered two volumes of her stories available on Audible, with Volume One: Where on Earth (2012) set on Earth in what I would categorize as “literary realism” style, though in Le Guin’s introduction she challenges the convenient and inaccurate labels we apply, and the preconceptions and biases that accompany them.
Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that this first volume will be of less interest to dedicated fans of science fiction, fantasy, or “speculative fiction, or “genre fiction.” It is also undeniable that Le Guin is a brilliant, fearless, intellectual, ethical, and challenging writer, so in that sense anything she writes should be worth reading, and probably is. This really depends on your personal preferences as a reader. Though I have always preferred “genre” fiction over “mainstream” or “literary” works, at the same time I do appreciate literary elements used in genre fiction.
Who says you can’t have it all — Le Guin is living proof of this. Just read her take on mythical fantasy, the EARTHSEA CYCLE, or her brilliant studies of gender, identity, and political ideologies, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. These works established her as a genre writer that proudly identified herself as a sci-fi writer and defended the genre, but whose intellectual rigor and literary ambitions forced mainstream readers and critics to take notice and acknowledge. Since then she has continued to produce a steady stream of fiction, poetry, criticism, etc. She is a champion of feminism, political and intellectual freedom, and ecological preservation. There is now a documentary about her life and legacy being produced by Arwen Curry called Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, which raised over $234,000 in pledges on Kickstarter in just a month, and is scheduled for completion by 2017.
The volume of short stories at hand, The Unreal and the Real, Volume One: Where on Earth, features four stories from her fictional Eastern European country of Orsinia, as well as numerous stories set in or inspired by Oregon, her home since 1958. Her prose is confident, luminous, fiercely honest, and firmly centered on people as they really are, flawed but with moments of strength and decency. She frequently sets her stories in small towns or the countryside — places where the sparse conditions let us focus on her characters. Even if you are not a fan of realism in your fiction, you will find elements of the “magic realism” of Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, which can also be found in writers inspired by Le Guin such as David Mitchell, Jonathan Lethem, and Michael Chabon.
While I admired the craftwork of her realistic stories, I did struggle with the Orsinian and Oregonian stories. That is more a matter of taste than quality, but that’s the reason I gave this volume 3.5 stars. I think the stories more likely to interest genre fans would be “The Diary of the Rose” (winner of the 1976 Jupiter award), “The Direction of the Road”, and “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” (winner of the 1988 Hugo Award and International Fantasy Award). The audiobook is narrated by Tandy Cronyn, who has a warm and empathic delivery, well suited to Le Guin’s work.
“The Direction of the Road” (1973): is a short but imaginative story that uses an imaginative point of view to give a voice to the voiceless, and allows us to observe the folly of human affairs from a very unusual perspective. It’s got some great humor and gentle irony, and really forces the reader to rethink our view of the world around us. Moreover, it plays with the concept of “relativity” in a way I have never encountered before. It’s worth a re-read to capture all the subtleties.
“The Diary of the Rose” (1976): is about a psychotherapist who normally treats autistic children. One day she is assigned an adult patient labeled as psychotic, delusional, and violent. However, upon meeting him, he seems intelligent, well-spoken, and lucid. However, he quickly reveals his fear of undergoing electro-shock therapy. Initially she is skeptical of him, but as the sessions proceed she gains sympathy for him and starts to wonder exactly why he has been detained and whether he is truly mentally ill or not. To describe any further would be to ruin the story, but suffice to say that many of the assumptions of her profession and world view are thrown on their head, and the ending is devastating. Another gem from Le Guin that explores her favorite themes of political and intellectual freedom.
“Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come out Tonight” (1987): takes a very creative approach to the Native American mythos of the trickster Coyote and a menagerie of animals in the American Southwest. A little girl is involved in an airplane crash and finds herself taken in by talking animals who don’t make a distinction between various “people,” whether human or animal. Coyote is constantly telling stories and boasting, but shows a rough kindness and takes her to her village. There she meets many animals of different persuasions like Bluejay and Grandma Spider, who don’t seem to mind her presence. As she gets to know them, she learns about their lives and history and how they have had their territories encroached upon by the “new people”, namely humans. And yet they don’t see to hold a grudge.
Their open acceptance is contrasted with the crass behavior of humans in their towns and hunters with their guns who treat the natural world with contempt. This story has a playful tone, but beneath the surface is a condemnation of what humans have given up in favor of technology and modernization, and the dignity and resignation of the “old people” in the face of this. By telling the story through the eyes of an innocent child, Le Guin strips all the layers of the adult civilized world away to reveal the essential spiritual wasteland of the modern world.