Spanning two volumes, The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula Le Guin is the first major retrospective collection of Le Guin’s short fiction—something that’s been a long time coming, considering her significant contributions to the world of American letters. These volumes, Where on Earth and Outer Space, Inner Lands, have been arranged by Le Guin and are published in handsome hardcover editions by Small Beer Press (who make very lovely books, and have done so again this time around). Both volumes were released in late November, and all-together they collect nearly forty stories from across Le Guin’s expansive career.
As noted in the prior post, the second volume, Outer Space, Inner Lands, shifts the focus of Le Guin’s selected stories to her “fantastic” works—again, as the flap copy says—those stories that might be called science fiction and/or fantasy. Of course, those sorts of genre categorizations are essentially arbitrary; this volume’s introduction makes a sharp point of that, and in closing rhetorically asks us to decide “which volume of these two is the Real and which is the Unreal.” In more definite terms, this is the volume full of award-winning and critically renowned stuff: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” “Nine Lives,” “The Matter of Seggri,” “Solitude,” etc.
But, I’d like to return to that introduction before discussing the fiction. That’s because the introduction, in this volume, deserves as much attention as the stories that follow. Le Guin is making arguments in it that I would like to pay attention to, and to use as a lens with which to read the pieces that follow. The majority of her introduction is dedicated not to the stories within the volume, but to problematizing the idea of genre categories as we have received them: arbitrary designations to make life easier for “lazy readers, lazy critics, and the Sales Departments of publishers.” To make a point of this, as she discusses the stories themselves, she notes what they are typically called generically, one after the other, and finally interjects this:
“If you’re getting bored with this classifying, I’m sorry—I’m doing it to show that the whole vocabulary—”realism,“ ”science fiction,“ genre fiction,” and the rest of it—doesn’t give even a remotely adequate description of what I write. Or of what many other serious writers are writing. We need a whole new discourse on fiction.“
Contrasted with the first volume’s introduction, which was about how the divisions were made, this one is concerned primarily with how divisions shouldn’t be made—the ways in which we divide lazily, or stupidly, when discussing fiction. Hence my comment, last time around, about being able to only call Le Guin’s work ”American short fiction“ (she makes a bit of a stab at ”speculative“ as she sees it being used, ach, so I guess I’ll have to drop that one).
And then she closes with the bit that I quoted briefly in this opener to this review:
”I leave it entirely up to you, O Reader, to decide which volume of these two is the Real and which is the Unreal. I believe the science of deciding such questions is called Ontology, but I never learned it. I am strictly an amateur. I don’t know anything about reality, but I know what I like.“
Those last lines make a distinct and fine comedy of the question about separating the volumes out: it’s not about ontology, this time around, but about knowing what is good and what matters. The answer, if we would like to think on the rhetorical question, is both and neither. Both volumes are full of the real and both volumes are full of the unreal—so is life, and so are the stories that matter. One must only read a piece like ”The Shobies’ Story“ to understand what Le Guin argues fiction does or is intended to do. While it does make reality—structures it, gives it meaning and form—its categorization as ”reality“ or ”unreality“ is fairly insignificant. Stories are stories.
A better way to spend the reading of these volumes, as opposed to separating the stories out into genre boxes, is to dig into them for what they mean, what they say about the world, and how they make things.
And as for the stories themselves, they’ve been more talked about even than those in the first volume. I’ve discussed one of them, ”The Wild Girls,“ here previously. Again—it’s the contrasts and conversations that I’d like to pay attention to. It is not surprising that the volume opens with ”The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,“ but it’s interesting to contrast that with another fable of sorts, the biblical retelling that closes the volume, ”She Unnames Them.“ The story of Omelas is bleak and incisive; it doesn’t, really, leave much of a sense of hope. However, Eve’s unnaming is ultimately freeing and free-wheeling, an undoing of bindings and enforced power structures. One opens the volume; one closes it. What does the reader draw from that contrast? I’m not entirely sure I’d argue one thing in particular, myself, except perhaps that there is a significance in the juxtaposition of the acknowledged brutality and cruelty necessary for a functioning society and the hope and pleasure in deconstructing the rules, the names, of that society.
What this contrast (and others) points out, I’d say, is that Outer Space, Inner Lands is doing different work than Where on Earth, though work that is genealogically connected and often touches on similar themes—aging, loss, love, togetherness and apartness. This volume has a wider horizon; the close, quiet, intimate details are not missing, not from stories like ”Betrayals,“ but they are set amongst larger happenings, the ticking gears of socio-political clockwork. The settings matter, here, and this is part and parcel of the nature of the stuff we might call genre or speculative: when making things up, we are inevitably making commentary in what we invent, what we do with those inventions, and the unavoidable metonymic associations those things will have to our own contemporary world. These stories are, often, making arguments—about freedom, about gender, about power, about communication, and particularly about story-telling itself. Their observations are not without pointed purpose, and that is where the power lies in these selected works. They must often be teased out, chewed over, and discussed, but as Le Guin says in her introduction (discussing the packaging of stories into neat little boxes), ”It’s not my job as a writer to make life easy for anybody. Including myself."
It goes without saying, perhaps, that The Unreal and the Real as a pair is brilliant to read, provocative, and handsomely written. What should also be said is this: Le Guin’s organization lends a sense of purpose and conversation to this body of work that’s also worth close examination. Though these stories can be found elsewhere, or elsewhere many times over, they are worth having as one specific, beautifully arranged bundle.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.