No Better Spirit
The incredible stories of Ursula Le Guin make arguments about genre seem foolish.
In my favorites, Le Guin’s stories are being relayed by travelers and researchers, by eagerly observing anthropologists, and by the people who wish to be known themselves. Sometimes by all of those. "The Matter of Seggri," the story of a culture with a deeply divided gender, is told by, in turn: a ship's captain, a first-contact envoy, a memoir collected by another observer, a piece of fiction written by an inhabitant of the planet, and, at last, by one of the culture's few and isolated men. "Solitude" is a final report delivered by the daughter of an explorer: She has taken on the culture and cannot bear to leave. There is something magic in these stories within stories, or stories as stories, and she exploits their form just so naturally and perfectly. These are untouchable as stories. Their perfection resists unpacking.
One thinks of Le Guin, obviously, as a pacifist. (Check her blog for that—she also has a great cat.) It's then a hard reminder how much violence there can be in her work. Reading "The Wild Girls"—about a society of three distinct castes that must always intermarry—you might not realize until it's over just how brutal it is: kidnappings, constant talk of rape, a baby shaken and thrown unceremoniously into the bushes.
Courtesy of Small Beer Press.
There is often the sense of an allegory hanging, fat and dreadful, nearby, but Le Guin always pushes it just beyond, out of mind. The Word for World is Forest is on some level obviously about Vietnam and equally obviously on some level about the environment. But neither it, nor any of the novels, nor any of the stories collected here are "problem" stories (though it is in the shortest stories where she can veer closest to allegory, or "message," or can try something just a bit more silly or ham-fisted). Still, even at the shortest and most close to pat, none of these works are logical arguments. They never descend to lecture. They always transcend, and they are always about people, and she is not a moralist. But it is the project of a pacifist, or leftist, or however she would most happily describe herself, that many of these writings are about horror, and therefore about violence. The distress of people is displayed in the quiet, tooth-drilling way that only Le Guin can command. We must be shaken by what actual humans do for it to be distressing again. We are always having to give up on being horrified by the day to day. It takes an art to reinvigorate our feelings.
The only thing that would be more wonderful than this collection of stories would be the publication of The Complete Novellas of Ursula K. Le Guin, though given her affection for that form, such a book might have to be either back-breaking or digital-only. But even kept to shorts, The Unreal and the Real guns from the grim to the ecstatic, from the State to the Garden of Eden, with just one dragon between. (Every collection needs one dragon.) In every good career-spanning collection, you can observe an author growing into her authority. Here, every story, in its own way and from its own universe, told in its own mode, explains that there is no better spirit in all of American letters than that of Ursula Le Guin.
From 1994’s "Solitude":
I settled down. Some of my time went to gathering and gardening and mending and all the dull, repetitive actions of primitive life, and some went to singing and thinking the songs and stories I had learned here at home and while scouting, and the things I had learned on the ship, also. Soon enough I found why women are glad to have children come to listen to them, for songs and stories are meant to be heard, listened to. "Listen!" I would say to the children ... When they left, I went on in silence. Sometimes I joined the singing circle to give what I had learned travelling to the older girls. And that was all I did; except that I worked, always, to be aware of all I did.
By solitude the soul escapes from doing or suffering magic; it escapes from dullness, from boredom, by being aware. Nothing is boring if you are aware of it. It may be irritating, but it is not boring. If it is pleasant the pleasure will not fail so long as you are aware of it. Being aware is the hardest work the soul can do, I think.
The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories Volume 1: Where on Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin. Small Beer Press.
The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands by Ursula K. Le Guin. Small Beer Press.
Choire Sicha is a co-proprietor of the Awl.