Subtleties: The Unreal and the Real, Volume One: Where on Earth

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.

The first volume, Where on Earth, focuses “on Le Guin’s interest in realism and magic realism,” including her “satirical, political, and experimental earthbound stories”—as the flap copy says. In her own introduction, Le Guin explores how she chose the pieces and their arrangement, a multi-step process that took into account a number of things (no novellas, no stories too heavily connected to other universes, etc.) and eventually resulted in the first volume’s focus on realistic or “mundane” fiction. (Of course, that’s not necessarily accurate—but we’ll get into that later.) She also introduces and gives brief thoughts on the stories in question that provide the reader a bit of context before they dive into the fiction.

And then, it is time to dive into the fiction.

These stories’ original publication dates span from the seventies through the nineties, and though the book is tagged in the flap copy as containing predominantly realist or magic realist stories, that’s not quite true. “The Diary of the Rose,” for example, is quite science fictional. What this points out to me is the arbitrary nature of genre categories—particularly with Ursula K. Le Guin’s work, which fits into very few boxes other than “American short fiction” and (generally) “speculative fiction.” And, frankly, that dismissal and disregard for boxes or categories is part of what makes the experience of reading across Le Guin’s body of work such a pleasure.

These stories have not gone without discussion over the past several decades, especially not familiar ones like “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” or those Orsinian tales that open the volume. However, some are smaller and less attended-to than others; furthermore, they certainly haven’t been discussed in this combination, this conversational shape, before. Putting stories like “Gwilan’s Harp” next to “May’s Lion” directs the mind of the audience toward the connections between a woman growing old in a fantastical Wales-esque setting and a realist story set in the Napa Valley—the significance of a life’s long experience comes out in both; the ways that the loss of a physical thing outside the self (a harp, a mountain lion’s death) can leave a lingering and permanent scar do, too.

And then there are pieces like “Hand, Cup, Shell,” which demonstrate the toned, complex, evocative qualities of Le Guin’s prose without distraction from it. Though a story is always made up of its words, occasionally the narrative distracts from those words in a playful manner. Here, though, in many of these stories—focused as they are on individuals, intimate tales, and everyday life—the prose is not merely a vehicle, it is the story itself. The words are inseparable from our lush experience of the characters, their lives, their minds, and their world. The young woman, just starting her college degree, who the story partially focuses on in “Hand, Cup, Shell” has a particular and exacting voice; when the story shifts without signal to her mother’s viewpoint, we don’t need a typographical signal as readers to know, because the prose shifts as well. Le Guin’s mastery of voice is wonderfully clear in the stories collected in Where on Earth, and the reading of these stories is an act of pleasure for the person who appreciates being swept up in powerful prose.

Many of these stories, especially in conjunction with one another, also make it necessary to put the book down for a moment after reading them. “The Diary of the Rose” has a genuinely painful ending—it’s a rending sort of story—and then, not much further in the collection, comes “Buffalo Gals,” which has one of the more memorable bittersweet endings of any story I’ve read. The child gets to keep her eye—and nothing else. There is no magical solution; she must return to her world from the world she has come to love. That’s a subtle kick, but a strong one, particularly to a reader of fantasy stories. The lack of simple endings or solutions to problems comes through often in Le Guin’s fiction, and begins to seem somewhat relentless (though that isn’t a negative) in this collection. Even the happy endings, the loves built and the families healed, retain within them the pain and suffering that preceded the positive stuff.

One other unique thing stood out to me in this volume that was hard to see, before, without putting her stories in collected conversation with one another: the singular flaw of Le Guin’s short fiction, particularly her satirical or “message” stories—a tendency toward over-statement, or a touch too much didacticism. The fine line between effective and affected is one that Le Guin’s fiction dances close to, often with stunning results, but also occasionally steps over. “The Lost Children,” for example, is just a bit too obvious in its commentary; the effect is lost in the highly visible intention, the message conquering the narrative. Speculative fiction is, as folks like Joanna Russ have argued time and again, a didactic form—no disagreements here—but it’s interesting to find the places where that tendency slips into artificiality in the fiction itself. Doubly so, it’s interesting to note these flaws in the collected works of one of the most powerful and prolific writers in the field. I find it lovely that there’s a measure of difference and imbalance in these selected works, and that the tone isn’t simply the same throughout.

As a whole, Where on Earth is a strong collection of stories that speak primarily to loss, aging, imperfect connections, and missed opportunities—though they also, often, speak to a joy unearthed from those pains and travails. That, above all, seems to me the overarching theme of this volume: it focuses on the relationships between people and on those people’s daily lives, how we survive or fail to survive together, in towns from Ether, OR to the phantom lands of Orsinia. These are stories about society, and humanity, and power. There may or may not be magic, myth, futurity, or places that don’t actually exist; there may or may not be families breaking up and coming together; there may or may not be love, here—but the stories have each and all of these things in measures, and in their narrative, their prose, they speak deeply and truly.

(And then, of course, there’s the second volume.)

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.


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