A Matter of Perspective: The Unreal and the Real by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Unreal and the Real is both the companion anthology to this October’s The Found and the Lost, and a re-release of the Small Beer Press 2-part short story anthology originally published in 2012. With an elegant, updated cover, and one new story (“Jar of Water,” 2014), this massive hardback edition would be a stunning addition to any collection, despite some potential repetition. The novelty of the volume is in its placement alongside Le Guin’s novella compendium, and the heaviness (both literal and metaphysical) of a 700-page collection of almost 40 stories, spanning a career of over 50 years.

Some of Le Guin’s most anthologized stories (such as “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”) are present in the collection, as are some of her more experimental, obscure ones (such as “The Author of the Acacia Seeds”). All are written and presented with the characteristic deftness and beauty that has come to define Le Guin’s career; each word of her prose is economical, and each portrayal of intimacy and power is newly striking. The short story form is the real star of the volume, as so many of the collected works stretch the possibilities of the form, utilizing their short formats and compact themes to the utmost affect. And yet among the collection’s many charms, it is Le Guin’s attempt to embody and categorize her work that I am inevitably drawn to.

The Unreal and the Real’s table of contents is divided by the designations in its title; the first volume, “Where on Earth,” has a more “realist” bent, and the second volume, “Outer Space, Inner Lands,” tends towards the speculative or fantastical. In earlier reviews of the Small Beer Press editions, Brit Mandelo does a much finer job than I could in tackling the contradictions and arbitrariness of these divisions. Not only this, but Le Guin herself calls them to attention in her introduction to the second volume, deeming genre distinctions “crude” and “vague,” and arguing that “we need a whole new discourse on fiction” to embody the complexity of her and other authors’ work.

Given all this, and my desire not to retread old territory, I only want to put forward the small degree of pleasure I did take in the genre distinctions of the collection. Not because I view them as in any way ontological or static, but because they force readers to scrutinize each story. In a volume of this size—full of old favorites, anthologized and overanalyzed countless times by students and fans alike—being asked to reconsider a story in a new way can be a real delight. The division highlights, above all, the unreality of Le Guin’s realistic fiction, and the realness of her explicitly speculative works; it’s not just a breakdown of the distinctions, but a small, nagging question inserted into each story. In her WisCon40 Guest of Honor speech, Sofia Samatar quoted Alaister Fowler as saying, “Genre is much less of a pigeonhole than a pigeon.” She said, “It allows me to take flight.” And Le Guin’s work with genre, too, is more a kind of launching pad than it is a roadblock. It is a way to ask questions, a way to challenge assumptions. Sure, it’s also a gross marketing ploy. But as with Le Guin’s stories themselves, nothing is ever just one thing.

Two excellent, but by no means definitive, examples of these twisting designations, are “The Diary of the Rose” and “Sur.” Despite both being alternative histories, the former is placed in the first section of the collection, and the latter in the second. In “Diary,” a psychoscopist (a fictional division of psychology) examines a political dissident in what is obviously a WWI-inspired story about the institutionalization and medicalization of political dissent. The mind-reading machine that the protagonist uses to study her patient, though, is sci-fi technology at its best (if also its most ham-fisted). Why, then, does the anthology consider it realism? The designation, I believe, is meant to state in no small way that the contents of the story are true, even if they aren’t factual. Doctors may not literally lay bare a patient’s thoughts and emotions, but the invasiveness and power dynamic at play are real and true. Conversely, in “Sur,” a team of South American women map and explore the untouched Antarctic frontier in 1909. Beyond the fact that the voyage never historically occurred, there is nothing unreal about the story or its characters. What places it in the unreal portion of the anthology is the compelling question about whether such a journey—by women of color, in the early 20th century—would have been possible. The answer to that question is left to the reader’s discretion (and optimism). Regardless, the question “what makes this unreal?” is subversive at its heart, even moreso in the case of rewriting history from a feminist and postcolonial perspective.

There’s a great deal more here that I’d love to say; these stories are infinitely minable both on their own and in conversation with one another. Each one questions power in their own way, drawing particular attention to perspective as both inhibitor and tool for compassion. It is perhaps Le Guin’s constant questioning of hierarchies and point-of-view that make me so excited to read her works at a macro level. Reading so many in a short period of time, too, has made a more ongoing narrative of them than I’m sure the author intended. Every story, though, is a treasure on its own, worth re-reading with new eyes each time.

The full table of contents, along with the dates of publication and accompanying series are listed below.

The Unreal and the Real: Selected Short Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin is available from Saga Press.


Table of Contents

Vol. 1: What on Earth

  • Introduction
  • Brothers and Sisters (1976, Orsinia)
  • A Week in the Country (1976, 2004, Orsinia)
  • Unlocking the Air (1990, Orsinia)
  • Imaginary Countries (1973, Orsinia)
  • The Diary of the Rose (1976)
  • The Direction of the Road (1974, 2002)
  • The White Donkey (1980)
  • Gwilan’s Harp (1977, 2005)
  • May’s Lion (1983)
  • Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight (1987)
  • Horse Camp (1986)
  • The Water is Wide (1976, 2004)
  • The Lost Children (1996)
  • Texts (1990, Klatsand)
  • Sleepwalkers (1991, Klatsand)
  • Hand, Cup, Shell (1989, Klatsand)
  • Ether, Or (1995)
  • Half Past Four (1987)

Vol. 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands

  • Introduction
  • The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (1973)
  • Semley’s Necklace (1964, 1975, Hainish Cycle)
  • Nine Lives (1969, 1997)
  • Mazes (1975, 2003)
  • The First Contact with the Gorgonids (1991)
  • The Shobies’ Story (1990, Hainish Cycle)
  • Betrayals (1994, Hainish Cycle)
  • The Matter of Seggri (1994, Hainish Cycle)
  • Solitude (1994, Hainish Cycle)
  • The Wild Girls (1994)
  • The Fliers of Gy (2000)
  • The Silence of the Asonu (2000)
  • The Ascent of the North Face (1983)
  • The Author of the Acacia Seeds (1974)
  • The Wife’s Story (1982)
  • The Rule of Names (1964, Earthsea)
  • Small Change (1981)
  • The Poacher (1992)
  • Sur (1982)
  • She Unnames Them (1985)
  • Jar of Water (2014)

Emily Nordling is a library assistant and perpetual student in Chicago, IL.


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