There is a misconception about short stories, perpetuated by the publishers who claim that collections and anthologies don’t sell because no-one reads them. This may be because not everyone understands the variety and power of short fiction. They are not miniature novels although many do have a beginning, a middle and an end (though not necessarily in that order). There are as many different forms of short story as there are genres to which they may be attached to, or poetical structures. A short story is a gem whereas a novel can be the whole necklace. Often a story will be constructed around a single idea which is explored in depth. Like the best poems, the best stories need to be read more than once to appreciate the skill of the author.
As she showed in the first volume of The Unreal and the Real, Ursula Le Guin is capable of producing thought-provoking narrative stories. The ones in this second volume (all written between 1973 and 2003) have a very different tone being largely more philosophical. They tend to explore ideas rather than depend on plot for their effectiveness. This isn’t true of all here.
‘Semley’s Necklace’ is based around a misunderstanding. Semley is from a poverty-stricken aristocracy but wants to bring a treasure to her husband, not realising that she is all the treasure he needs. There is a rumour that her family once owned a precious necklace. She is determined to fetch it back not realising that the journey she is about to undertake is between planets. ‘The Wild Girls’ deals with a clash of cultures within complex marital customs. The young men can only take wives from the ‘slave’ class and go on a raid to snatch suitable girls from a nomadic tribe. One of the child dies on the way back but because she is not buried the others believe that her ghost is following them. The result is a dark, tragic story.
The potential for alien cultures to be very different from that we are familiar with, is a resonant theme in Le Guin’s novels and stories. At first glance, stories such as ‘The Flyers Of Gy’ and ‘The Silence Of The Asonu’ could be thought of as fragments. They are descriptions a particular alien society and do not have a main character other than the civilisation they are describing. They are anthropological studies as much as philosophical discussions. Each is beautifully created and described. ‘The Author Of The Acacia Seeds’ is a similar kind of story though using linguistics rather than anthropology to question knowledge and the problems of interpreting a language that has little connection to any known tongue.
‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ has a similar feel as it also describes a society, but has an added dimension, asking what price happiness? ‘Nine Lives’ also has its roots in a philosophical idea. Martin and Pugh are miners of an unstable planet and are singletons, unlike the tenclone that joins them. This group of people are more tightly connected than identical twins. The question here is whether one of the group can survive the loss of the others or are the clones a part of a whole which will die if nine-tenths is removed. ‘Mazes’ is also written to make the reader think. We experiment with animals, testing their problem solving abilities with mazes. What is the subject in intelligent and the creature is trying, unsuccessfully, to communicate with us?
While ‘The Matter Of Seggri’ also deals with an alien society, one in which adult men live separate from the women and are demand for their ability to sire children. This story deals with change brought about largely by contact with a star-faring race and the problems this this engenders. It is a story that is also a commentary on the effects ‘civilised’ societies have on the less technological peoples of Earth. ‘Solitude’ is almost a reverse of this. Here, the children on an anthropologist living amongst the race she is studying are absorbed into the society that had adopted them.
‘Betrayals’ is another story set in a different society but in this case the characters are the focus. Both Yoss and Abberkam are nearing the end of their lives. Each has come to the marsh lands to live in solitude. Their paths to this point have been very different and despite the alienness of the society, it is a very human story.
Some of the stories have their roots in folk myth such as ‘The Wife’s Story’ which is a werewolf story with a twist, and ‘Small Change’. ‘The Poacher’ looks at Sleeping Beauty from a totally different direction but ‘She Unnames Them’ could be regarded as the biblical naming the animals in reverse. Like most folk stories, there is a deeper meaning to them and particularly in the last of these, it shows the importance of language as a tool for communication.
Few writers forget their novels when they write short fiction and a number of these have connection with the Hainish worlds of Le Guin’s novels. ‘The Rule Of Names’ although never stated, is set in the world of the Earthsea novels and illustrates not just the power of true names but also that appearances can be deceptive.
‘Sur’ is about pride and humility. A group of women make it to the South Pole before Amundson does. They don’t tell anyone of their achievement, the fact of having done it is enough. They are content to leave the boasting to the men.
The surreal also has a place in Le Guin’s writing. ‘The Shobies’ Story’ begins ordinarily enough but the crew of the Shobie are testing out a new drive for the space ship, with unexpected side effects leading them to ask about the nature of reality.
Both ‘The First Contact with The Gorgonoids’ and ‘The Ascent Of The North Face’ contain different aspects of humour and have a sense of the ridiculous about them.
This volume is a ‘Best of…’ volume, selected by Le Guin herself. She is never a straightforward writer and it is sometimes difficult to unpick the nuances hidden within the stories. Her interests in language and the structure of societies shine though in many of these stories but all are beautifully written. There is poetry in the prose. Although not necessarily to the taste of all modern readers they are a selection of what is good about the short form of fiction.