The Unreal and the Real: The Selected Short Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin
Everyone with even a passing knowledge of SF/Fantasy will likely have heard of Ursula K. Le Guin, one of the giants of the field whose work has transcended genre and literary categories. Her SFF works have ranged from mythical fantasy such as the EARTHSEA CYCLE to brilliant studies of gender, identity, and political ideologies like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. She proudly identifies herself as a SF writer, but one whose intellectual rigor and literary ambitions have forced mainstream readers and critics to take notice and acknowledge. Le Guin has produced a steady stream of fiction, poetry, criticism for over 50 years. She is a champion of feminism, political and intellectual freedom, and ecological preservation. There is even 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.
However, until recently it has been difficult to get her best short stories and novellas in single volumes. Fortunately, Saga Press has recently come out with two books that address this issue. The first volume collects her most famous short stories (it is by no means comprehensive, considering her output over many decades), which are selected by the author herself. This new handsome hardcover edition is currently available for $22.49 on Amazon, but the Kindle edition is available for only $7.99, which is incredible considering you get over 700 pages of some of the most challenging, literary, and intelligent short stories every produced in the genre. I have previously reviewed these stories in two separate volumes but am glad to see them now combined in this attractive omnibus edition.
Part One: Where on Earth
While the quality of LeGuin’s writing is consistently high, it’s undeniable that Part One: Where on Earth may be of less interest to dedicated fans of “speculative fiction,” or “genre fiction.” Having said that, Le Guin is brilliant, fearless, intellectual, and ethical, so anything she writes is worth reading. So it comes down to your personal preferences as a reader. I have always preferred “genre” fiction over “mainstream” or “literary” works, but I do appreciate literary elements in genre fiction.
Part 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 struggled to enjoy the Orsinian and Oregonian stories. That is more a matter of taste than quality, but 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 Diary of the Rose” 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 the 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.
“The Direction of the Road” is a short but imaginative story that uses a unique 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.
“Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” 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. 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.
Part Two: Outer Space, Inner Lands
This is essential reading (or listening) for all fans of SF who want to see why Le Guin is one of the giants of the SF/fantasy field. Part Two: Outer Space, Inner Lands contains a host of impressive stories, both her famous award-winners and lesser-known gems. All of them are intelligent, thought-provoking, understated, and beautifully written. It’s hard to underestimate the influence she has had on the genre, fans, and how much respect she has gained in the greater literary world.
As we journey through the various imaginary worlds she weaves, many set in her shared far-future Hainish universe, what becomes clear is that Le Guin is an anthropologist at heart, which is hardly surprising considering both her parents were well-known anthropologists: Alfred Kroeber, a renowned Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, and his wife Theodora Kroeber, both of whom did pioneering work on California native American tribes, including the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, named Ishi.
The influence of anthropology, sociology, psychology, folklore and linguistics in Le Guin’s stories is pervasive, as well as tremendous writing skills that make her prose and stories seem effortless and timeless. While many SF authors use aliens as proxies for various human behaviors and cultures, Le Guin does something very different. In her Hainish universe, humanity arose on the planet Hain and seeded the stars with numerous human colonies (including Terra), but after this League of Worlds collapsed, travel among these worlds ceased and many human worlds lost track of this galactic civilization and their own origins. This allows Le Guin to explore a limitless number of human societies that are frequently at a primitive level of technology, have developed unusual social structures, and in some cases have been modified dramatically via genetic engineering (such as the androgynous characters of The Left Hand of Darkness).
Le Guin’s stories are mainly focused on humanity in a myriad range of diverse societies and cultures. She dispenses with the easy metaphor of “aliens” to show the alienness of all human cultures including our own. The behaviors of these different humans is often bizarre, unexpected, disturbing, and yet familiar. One of her favorite literary tricks is to lull readers into false complacency with a seemingly-familiar setting before suddenly turning things on their head midway or at the end, exposing all the cultural biases and assumptions we bring to our reading experiences, like “Mazes,” “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” and “The Wife’s Story.” This is particularly the case for gender biases and behaviors, which she explored brilliantly at full-length in The Left Hand of Darkness, but also with great effect in “The Matter of Seggri” and “The Wild Girls.”
Highlights in this collection are:
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1974, Hugo Award for Best Short Story): More of a parable than a story, a thought-experiment about the ethics of the greater good of an entire city vs. the suffering of a single child. Is it okay for a child to suffer, if an entire city of people can live rich and fulfilling lives? I understand this story is used in college classes and it is certainly well-suited to generating healthy debates.
Semley’s Necklace (1964; initially “The Dowry of the Angyar”): The first story set in her Hainish universe, and tells the folklore story of Semley, a high-born woman on the planet Fomalhaut, who enters the underworld in search of a valuable family heirloom that has disappeared long ago. She makes contact with a representative of the Ekumen and gets her wish, but at a heavy cost. This story introduces many of the anthropological themes of her Hainish stories, with a strong mythic fantasy tone.
Nine Lives (1968, Nebula Nominee for Best Novelette): A story about identity, explored by contrasting the friendship of two individual scientists in a remote outpost with a ten-clone, a group of 10 men and women cloned from the same man, John Chow, sent to assist. They seem to be more efficient, self-contained, and mentally stable than the two men, until a crisis situation exposes their weaknesses.
The Shobies’ Story (1990, Nebula Nominee for Best Novelette): This is a fairly challenging story about a diverse crew from the Ekumen group of worlds that suffer the psychological stresses of faster-than-light travel. Using a process called transilience, they must establish a shared reality through story-telling in order to power the ship. Given all their different cultural beliefs and biases, this proves quite challenging. The concept of relativity is explored in very literal terms.
Betrayals (1994): This story is a part of a connected series of stories set in the twin worlds of Werel and Yeowe in the Hainish universe (collected in Four Ways to Forgiveness). It’s the meeting of two people — a retired teacher named Yoss and an exiled leader named Abberkam, whose divergent pasts and beliefs are forced into contact in a desolate place.
The Matter of Seggri (1994, Hugo and Nebula nominee for Best Novelette, James Tiptree Award Winner): This for me was the highlight of this collection. It is a brilliantly developed study of a society in which women are dominant in the economy, politics, education, and all practical professions. That leaves the men with just two roles, isolated in their castles — sports and breeding (siring children and serving as sex workers). In fact, women pay them for their services. While this may seem at first like an enviable position for men, Le Guin meticulously shows us their utter powerlessness. They are reduced to prized breeders and are given no other outlets or means of self-fulfillment.
Switching around familiar gender roles forces the reader to confront all the biases and rigid social barriers that form the basis for men and women’s roles in societies throughout human history, and brings home just how soul-crushing a position women have been frequently subjected to, even to this day and age. In particular, the cruel behavior towards men who are not prized at breeders parallels the intolerant treatment of women who cannot bear children. Towards the end of the story, we also see the vicious in-fighting among the men themselves. There is even the equivalent of an Equal Rights Movement, and it is bittersweet to see the men struggle to gain respect even after they are granted the right to higher education and other roles in society. I think this story is really an eye opener for younger readers in the West who have benefitted from far greater sexual equality than prior generations.
Solitude (1995, Nebula Award for Best Novelette): This is a deeply anthropological study of an female Observer who discovers her only means to study an isolated human society that maintains a strict code of men and women not mingling in adulthood is to use her own children to infiltrate their inner ranks and learn their social practices from within. What they discover is a harsh legacy of rampant overpopulation that led to a collapse in civilization and a warped social response.
Women form aunt rings where they share stories and pass on knowledge. However, they otherwise do not speak to each other. This society is devoted mainly to silence and the development of the soul. The men face their own form of solitude — they spend their teenage years in harsh boy groups in which the strongest bully and sometimes kills the weaker members. For those that survive to adulthood, their fate is to live a hermetic existence in the forest, only being visited by women for child-bearing purposes.
The most powerful part of the story is what happens after the mother takes her children away from these societies in order to gather the information they have learned from their experiences. The son is cooperative but the daughter is extremely resistant and desperately wants to return to her aunt ring and the cultivation of her soul. The conflict in values between mother and daughter is profound, and the difficult position of children bridging vastly divergent cultures is something I have seen first-hand.
The Wild Girls (2003, Hugo Award for Best Novelette): This story also shows the strong anthropological influence of Le Guin’s upbringing. Here we see a practice that is not so unusual in more primitive tribal societies — in this case invading the Dirt people’s tribes and stealing away girls to provide new blood to the Crown people of Sky City. This story is filled with contrasts — the ruthless behavior of the men as they slaughter older people and take only the girls they want, and their fierce protectiveness of the girls as spoils of war. The gender roles of the society are sharply delineated, as are the gaps between the Dirt people and Crown people. The themes of formal slavery (Dirt people) and effective slavery (wives) are also prevalent. This is a grim story with a tragic ending.
The Flyers of Gy (2000): This story reads like a field report about the Gy people, among whom a small minority develop functioning wings at adulthood. However, this is frequently viewed as a curse rather than a gift, and we are shown a myriad of brutal and repressive responses to this trait in various communities. Often the flyers are stoned to death or killed in even more perverse ways. Even when they are not immediately killed, their position in society is strictly proscribed, and the story ends with an interview with a lawyer who has valiantly overcome his “handicap” to be a productive member of society. This is a clear parable of discrimination against those who are different, and how they cope.
The Silence of the Asonu (1998): Here we have a mysterious society that is probably unlikely, but intriguing as a concept. Imagine a society that voluntarily chooses silence after a normal childhood. And yet not a grim silence, but within a well-adjusted and caring social structure, but lacking in both verbal and non-verbal communication. In keeping with religious ascetics, their silence could be a form of spiritual wisdom. Or perhaps just a means of minimizing social conflict. Other people are fascinated by the Asonu, leading to a thriving tourist trade. Some go so far as to kidnap an Asonu child and try to force them to reveal their “secret wisdom.” We are left to draw our own conclusions.
The Author of the Acacia Seeds (1974): Here is a little treat about therolinguistics, the study of animal languages. Written in academic journal style, it is both humorous and completely serious. It reminded me in some ways of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris in its discussion of Solaristics, the study of a possibly sentient ocean by generations of academics. Only someone intimately familiar with academic disciplines could create a story so strange and yet totally convincing.
The article asks “What if art is not communicative? If a non-communicative, vegetative art exists, we must rethink the very elements of our science, and learn a whole new set of techniques. But the problem was far greater. The art he sought, if it exists, is a non-communicative art: and probably a non-kinetic one. It is possible that Time, the essential element, matrix, and measure of all known animal art, does not enter into vegetable art at all. The plants may use the meter of eternity. We do not know.”
This sounds great, Stuart. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it (hoping my local library picks up a copy).