It is difficult enough for an outsider, the objective observer, to select the stories to fill a collection of a particular author. There will always be arguments about those left out – or included as not everyone will see the same qualities in a particular piece of writing. How much harder must it be for the author to do the same task? In the case of a prolific writer like Ursula K. Le Guin there are so many to choose from.
This book, The Real and the Unreal, is the first of two volumes and the stories in it are grounded, Earth-based tales as separate from those set off-world. Those will appear in volume two. As Le Guin admits in her introduction that she has left out many good stories but one criterion for selection was that she had to like them. The eighteen stories that she has chosen for this volume have original publication dates between 1973 and 1996, a span of twenty three years, though her first published stories date from the 1960s.
Many writers, including those who confine themselves to a time contemporary with themselves invent countries that don’t exist. It enables then to say things about society that would get them into trouble of they set the story in a real, named place. Anthony Hope did this with his Prisoner of Zenda where Ruritania was a mid-European principality and in more recent times Jim Crace’s Continent is set in a non-existent place that resembles many a country in South America. The first four stories in Le Guin’s volume are set in her imaginary country of Orsinia. They are just a sample of the stories set there. The first, ‘Brothers And Sisters’ is set in a region where the only real profession is becoming a quarryman. As the title suggests, it involves the relationships between on one hand, Konstan, Stefan and Rosana Fabbre and Ekata and Martin Sachik on the other. It is a story of love and aspiration. At the end of it Stefan and Ekata ride away together. ‘A Week In The Country’ features another Stefan Fabbre. He is a student in the Orsinian city of Krasnoy and is the grandson of the original Stefan. When he travels with his friend Kasimir to spend a week’s holiday with Kasimir’s family, he falls sick and is nursed by Bruna, one of his sisters, with whom he falls in love. ‘Unlocking The Air’ was written fourteen years after the first two and tells of an older Bruna and her daughter, Fana. It is a time of revolution. Although set in Orsinia, ‘Imaginary Countries’ is very different from the other three. It has no connection other than place. In it a family are preparing to move back to the city after spending the summer in the countryside. The children of the family have mixed feelings about leaving. They are giving up the brief freedom they have had to inhabit their imaginations.
A good writer will not be satisfied with the usual, linier approach to a story but will be prepared to experiment with different forms and approaches. ‘The Diary of The Rose’ is, as the title suggests, written in the form of the dated notes of an electroscope operator. The main patient she is using it to diagnose was brought to the hospital as a violent psychopath. She realises that he isn’t but is frightened of electroshock treatment. It is a story where it is necessary to pick through what isn’t said and recognise that the country is one where political, anti-government behaviour is regarded as anti-social and must be eradicated.
‘Direction Of The Road’ is an exercise in an alternative perspective. We have all noticed that as we approach an object, it grows larger, then diminishes in size once past. To a young mind, this can seem to be the truth. This piece is written from the point of view of a roadside tree that does what is seen – grows and shrinks. Here we have its observations as the use of the road changes through its lifetime. It is a charming, innocent story. ‘The White Donkey’ also captures innocence. In this case it is a young goatherd, Sita, who is visited by what she calls a white donkey but what the reader, with greater knowledge, will recognise as something far more magical.
Many of Le Guin’s stories can be read on more than one level. In ‘Gwilan’s Harp’ the protagonist has the gift of producing beautiful music but her life is directed first by that and then by the needs of her family. It is only when she gains her freedom that she discovers her true self. Like so many of these stories it is small in the space it takes up, but large in the scope of imagination it can conjure. Similarly, ‘May’s Lion’ can be thought of in one instance as an anecdote, a small incident; at the same time it is an example of courage and compassion. Its heart is simple. A dying big cat walks out of the wilderness. The way it is told also demonstrates the way in which real life can be turned into fiction.
‘Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight’ is one of Le Guin’s best known stories and one that can have many interpretations. In its essentials, it is a journey. A child, apparently the survivor of a plane crash, is helped by a number of animals. In American Indian lore the spirits that inhabited the land before mankind manifested as different animals depending on their personalities. Here, they are teaching the child her place in the world.
The minds of writers create images which demand to be turned into something to share with readers. At times, it can he so surreal that it is difficult to develop, or has to be woven into a tapestry so large that the individual image is subsumed. In ‘Horse Camp’ Le Guin shows us just the image – a summer camp where people and horses merge.
‘The Water Is Wide’ takes the theme of grief and the effects it can have on the mind. The reader sits uncomfortably in the minds of two people; a professor and his sister who have both lost their partners. The delight of this story is the way that it breaks rules, doing things like changing points of view, things that creative writing teachers tell their students not to do. Not all remember to add that once you know the rules, then you can find ways round them which enhance the writing.
‘The Lost Children’ asks they question about where the child within us has gone, and can it still be coaxed out by the pied piper in modern times and is an indictment on modern life. ‘Texts’ can also be taken in more than one way. the woman who finds writing in commonplace things such as the foam on the shore or the lace edging of a tablecloth has either genuinely unusual abilities or has a mild form of mental delusion. In both cases it suggests that her brain is wired differently from most of us.
Sometimes it is impossible to know properly even people you see every day. In ‘Sleepwalkers’, Ava is a chalet maid at a lake-side resort. The story is told from the points of view of the people living there. All think of her as nice, not knowing her dark secret. Told without huge amounts of description it says what it has to, sparsely and effectively.
Good writers turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. In ‘Hand, Cup, Shell’ one such family has arrived at their seaside holiday home. The members scatter, following their own interests. The person who was recognised for his achievements isn’t there. He died some time ago but when a student researcher comes to interview his widow for a biography another academic, the members of the family begin to display their personalities. Nothing has really changed by the end of the story, except the student’s perception about people.
There have been a number of stories where a town has moved either in place or time. Whether Le Guin’s story ‘Ether, Or’ was the first or not is irrelevant, is an excellent example of the form. Like some of her other stories, she uses multiple view-points to great effect. It is the characters who drive the narrative and give a flavour of what it is like to live in a shifting place.
The final story in this volume, ‘Half Past Four’ was written as a response to a creative writing task that Le Guin set a class. It is eight vignettes. She set the task of writing a story containing four characters with specific qualities. The result shows the variation simple parameters can engender.
Anyone who knows Le Guin’s work will be delighted to find this selection in this volume. For those unfamiliar with it, they will find excellent if challenging stories and a volume well worth exploring.