25. ‘The Unreal and the Real’ (Vol. 1) by Ursula K. Le Guin

I took The Unreal and the Real out of the library because I really wanted to read some sci-fi short stories by a woman, and Ursula K. Le Guin seems like the no-brainer choice of female sci-fi writers. Then I read the Introduction, in which Le Guin talks about how she compiled her best stories into two volumes: one more realist, one more sci-fi. Which volume did I have? The realist one. D’oh!

the unreal and the real ursula k le guin sci-fi short stories

So this isn’t entirely what I was looking for, but it was by no means a waste of my time. Thanks to this book I’ve now discovered a writer whose work I really enjoy, and I’m sure that when I get around to reading her more ‘pure’ sci-fi stuff, it will blow me away.

The Unreal and the Real opens with three stories set in Le Guin’s fictional Central European country Orsinia, and connected by common characters from the Fabbre family. These stories mostly take place in the first half of the twentieth century, and tend to deal with complex family relations set against a backdrop of political unrest. They were probably the most ‘realist’ of the stories in the collection (despite their fictional setting) and although I could appreciate their artistry, I didn’t love them.

The stories which really excited me were, unsurprisingly, the more fantastical/sci-fi ones that made it into this collection. My favourites include ‘The Diary of the Rose’, in which a scientist is able to see a person’s thoughts projected on a screen, and is forced by the regime under which she lives to identify people with rebellious ideas as mentally ill (and, thus, needing to be treated with ECT). There was also the fascinating ‘Direction of the Road’, which is told from the point of view of an oak tree and suggests that we (humans) might not be the centre of the world that we like to think we are.

Of course, I was also drawn to several of the more realist stories. ‘Gwilan’s Harp’ captures a woman’s whole life in just a few pages; ‘May’s Lion’ tells the same story twice, first as a ‘true’ account and second as a ‘fictional’ version that reclaims the story for its teller; and ‘Sleepwalkers’ sees several different characters speculating about a maid called Ana, whom none of them really know. ‘Hand, Cup, Shell’ also uses a really excellent interweaving of different perspectives to examine an extended family living in the shadow of one famous (deceased) relative.

Le Guin’s writing style is often complex and philosophical, and at times I found myself reading beautiful phrases but not entirely understanding them. Le Guin is also a master of characterisation; she can make you believe in and love a character in a very short space of time. I also think that she manages to beautifully balance the ‘concepts’ in her stories (eg: what if I told this story from the perspective of a tree?) with actual plot and characters, the nitty gritty of storytelling that you really need. She can be wildly experimental and brutally down to earth, and it’s this diversity which comes across most strongly in The Unreal and the Real.

I really can’t wait to try Le Guin’s straight sci-fi, but until then, this collection has seriously whet my appetite.

“Let us be drowned together, for it is certain that we shall not be saved alone.” – ‘The Water is Wide’

Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!

Want to read this? You can buy the book here.

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