I have no memory of the first time I read Ursula K. Le Guin. It must have been sometime in the mid-seventies, when I was a kid indiscriminately devouring piles of tatty SF paperbacks. Her Earthsea books were in wide circulation, and I know she popped up in an anthology or two. I’m pretty sure I had some other titles of hers on my shelf, such as The Lathe of Heaven, about dreams that alter reality. I can’t recall many details of it, and I may in fact be remembering the low-budget TV movie version, which was short on effects but strong on atmosphere. I think it was shown during school for some unfathomable reason. The story is no more than a wispy presence to me, and I don’t know why, but to this day I often confuse it with Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day.” If you charted my reading life on a timeline, she’d have a prominent spot in the prehistorical period, a foundational figure warmly appreciated but little understood.
The announcement that Small Beer Press would be releasing a two-volume retrospective of her short fiction at the end of November seemed like the perfect opportunity to engage in some literary anthropology, as it were. I requested advance copies of both books and started in on them right away. Best idea I’ve had in a while. As I should have known by the work that Le Guin continues to produce and the acclaim that accrues to it, she’s no quaint relic. Her older stories hold up under contemporary scrutiny, and her newer pieces stand with the older ones. The collection covers fifty years of writing and the full range of her style, as its title indicates. The Unreal and the Real comprises fantastical and mundane fiction, chosen and sorted by Le Guin herself. Volume One, subtitled Where on Earth, contains stories with a locatable setting, either an actual place or at least a possible one, while Volume Two, Outer Space, Inner Lands, contains her favorite nonrealistic tales. It’s a method of organization that highlights how blurry categories can be where an author like this is concerned—everyday events can sometimes read like fables, and the characters in a magical kingdom can be as rich and real as the people you meet on the street.
Whether she’s updating Native American myth for modern times, depicting a fractured family bickering over drinks in the suburbs, or setting in motion an extraterrestrial mining disaster, there’s a strong moral dimension to Le Guin’s work. How do we react to change and the unknown, to new technologies, new faces, new ideas? Better yet, how should we? She’s an idealist, but not a utopian, as illustrated by her parable “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” In four short pages she lays out the challenges of achieving social justice as well as anyone ever has.
I was particularly taken with a sequence of related stories set in the imaginary country of Orsinia, a place that blends aspects of several real European nations. We catch glimpses of Orsinia in many ages, as a feudal land transitioning from paganism into Christianity, and as a puppet state struggling to part an iron curtain. By focusing on the day-to-day concerns of kings, commoners, and comrades alike, Le Guin makes us feel what it is to be moved by the inexorable tides of history and politics. A wealth of perfectly chosen detail creates a reality for this fictitious landscape that goes beyond the bounds of the page. A construction site will often be hidden by a fence; each Orsinian tale is like those small windows that provide a peek at the grand edifice being built on the other side.
So fired up was I about these stories that I went in search of more. There are several that aren’t included in this latest collection, comprehensive as it is, and there’s even an out-of-print Orsinian novel about 19th-century revolutionaries called Malafrena. I hunted down a used copy and tore through it with equal alacrity and enjoyment. When I turned page forty-eight of the time-scorched paperback, a slip of paper fell out. It was a receipt from the original purchase, priced at $1.95 and dated October 29, 1977. It had served faithfully as a bookmark for almost exactly thirty-five years, waiting for someone to come along and finish the story. I don’t think it started out on my childhood shelf and found its way back to me after all these decades, but it’s nice to pretend that it did.