Tue
Jun 3 2014 2:30pm

Short Fiction Spotlight: The Unreal and the Real

The Unreal and the Real Ursula K Le Guin Where on Earth

Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a weekly column dedicated to doing exactly what it says in the header: shining a light on the some of the best and most relevant fiction of the aforementioned form.

I’ve reviewed a number of award-winning shorts for the Spotlight in recent weeks. A happy accident, in that I’d opted to blog about both ‘The Waiting Stars’ and ‘The Men from Porlock’ before they were winners, but that pattern did play a part in my selection of the tale I want to talk about today, namely ‘Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight’ by Ursula K. Le Guin: a 1987 novelette, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which went on to win a Hugo, as well as a World Fantasy Award.

I haven’t actually read a whole lot of Le Guin’s fiction. That which I have, however, I’ve held high. When I was a kid, I spent many magical months with my mum’s dog-earned omnibus of what was then the Earthsea Quartet; later, in an attempt to catch up on a couple of classics, I read The Left Hand of Darkness—a high watermark for feminist fiction entirely entitled to the masterwork status it lays claim to today; and though I didn’t love Lavinia, I remember it with remarkable clarity.

Le Guin, in my opinion, is one of the most important authors telling tales tall and true today, and I regularly regret that I haven’t had more time to spend with her work. To wit, in tandem with my desire to shine the Spotlight on another award-winner, the recent rerelease of The Unreal and the Real—a two-volume collection of short stories identified by the author as personal favourites—proved irresistible to this reader.

The first of the set, Where On Earth, focuses on fiction which takes place in what is recognisably the real world. That isn’t to say said stories are in any way mundane, as Le Guin asserts in her introduction; indeed, their ordinary aspects are often the origin points of extraordinary events, like the months Myra spends in the strange care of Coyote in today’s story.

‘Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight’ begins in the aftermath of an aircraft crash. Myra—a little girl travelling to Canyonville to spend the summer with her father—is the sole survivor. Shaken, she awakens in the high desert of Eastern Oregon with a talking coyote curled up beside her. Rather than leading her to her people, the creature—Le Guin’s riff on the frisky trickster figure from so many myths—guides Myra across “a hundred miles of sagebrush,” far away from all traces of human civilisation.

The Unreal and the Real Usula K Le Guin Where on Earth

Oh, Coyote!

At the end of their journey “across the falling land,” Myra and this manic animal arrive at a town—a town populated not by people, but beasts: beetles and bluejays; horses and horned toads. Marvellously, Myra’s time in the company of Coyote has given her a new outlook on life:

They were all children, she thought at first, and then began to understand that most of them were grown people, but all were very short; they were broad-bodied, fat, with fine, delicate hands and feet. Their eyes were bright.

Bright with intelligence. Bright with life.

That is not to say the creatures she walks amongst are necessarily friendly, as Myra learns the longer she lives in this uninhibited animal kingdom—for there she stays, in Coyote’s debauched cottage, for many, many days. Days she spends getting to know the locals:

Some persons in town made it clear that as far as they were concerned she didn’t and never would belong there. Hawk’s furious stare burned through her; the Skunk children made audible remarks about what she smelled like. And though Whitefoot and Chipmunk and their families were kind, it was the generosity of big families, where one more or less simply doesn’t count. If one of them, or Cottontail, or Jackrabbit, had come upon her in the desert lying lost and half-blind, would they have stayed with her, like Coyote? That was Coyote’s craziness, what they called her craziness. She wasn’t afraid. She went between the two kinds of people, she crossed over.

But the time is coming for Myra to make a decision. She can’t belong to both worlds, can she? So which will it be? Big breakfasts in broken homes or salmon mush courtesy of Coyote when she isn’t too busy talking to her droppings?

I can think of no better representation of the reverberations resulting from the bleed between the real and the unreal that this collection refers to than the two places portrayed in today’s tale, and the innocent caught like a clot in the middle. Le Guin’s depiction of the wilderness is wonderful: it’s beautiful, but brutal; peaceful; decent.

The careless cruelty and utter ugliness of human civilisation stands in stark contrast with this image, as Myra and the creature she comes to call mother discover when they take a pivotal trip to the closest conurbation:

All around them the pressures increased. It was as if the air itself was pressing on them, as if time was going too far, too hard, not flowing but pounding, pounding, pounding faster and harder till it buzzed like Rattler’s rattle. Hurry, you have to hurry! everything said, there isn’t time! everything said. Things rushed past screaming and shuddering. Things turned, flashed, roared, stank, vanished.

As they do, to be sure.

Real meaning arises from the coming together of these two worlds, and the consequences of that clash, from which Le Guin fashions a life-affirming last act, and finally a fitting finale.

It’s as well that ‘Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight’ won awards in the year of its release; it would if it were published today, too. It’s no less relevant or resonant now that it was way back when, I warrant.

Roll on the rerelease of the second part of The Unreal and the Real, please! I for one intend to do this thing again then.


Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.

2 comments
Colin Bell
1. SchuylerH
Ah, the new Gollancz editions at last! I already own most of these stories ("Buffalo Gals" is an exception, a story I really must get round to reading) but I suspect I will still feel the need to get these. And yes, more Le Guin commentary is always appreciated.
Eugene R.
2. Eugene R.
A great collection; I have the Small Beer Press edition and enjoyed both the selection of stories and the great production (e-readers, be darned!).

I think that "Buffalo Gals" also poses a neat dilemma for both genre and non-genre readers, in that neither group can rely exclusively on their usual reading protocols. To read the story as "real" (lost girl hallucinating) is to remove its insights into Nature and humanity's place within it. But to read it as "fantasy" is to remove its underlying tension of life-and-death choices (those animals are not Disney-cute, and Coyote is crazy). It comes close to the hybrid of "magic realism", though it is overtly more fantastical. It reminds me of Hamlet, where it is a mistake for us to say, "Oh, it's a ghost story, OK, get on with it", without recognizing the protagonist's struggle with a fundamental contradiction (ghosts are not real) in a "real" environment. Award-winning, indeed.

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