The stories in Ursula Le Guin’s newest collection, The Unreal and the Real — which were culled from her long publishing career — are perhaps not what most readers would expect out of Le Guin, who is most well known for her science fiction and fantasy writing. Many of them are what we might call pure realism, and many of them resist any category at all. The title is like a little joke Le Guin had with herself. Which stories are “real,” and which are not? Le Guin doesn’t really care, and makes it clear in the refreshingly honest introductions to each volume, written in the tone of a woman who is too old to think much of what others think of her. Le Guin has spent much of her career defying genre while finding success within it, and these volumes are no exception.
Rather than writing stories that can be neatly placed into one category or the other, Le Guin uses science fiction and fantasy as a way to set up hypotheses about the world we live in. If only one-sixteenth of births were male, what would happen? If, in some distant future, we had the ability to read other’s thoughts as pictures, what would they look like, and what would that mean for human dignity? If society were made up of three castes in a strict hierarchy that were forced to intermarry, what would marriage and gender dynamics look like? Le Guin presents one of many possible scenarios, and lets us imagine whether or not she is right.
My favorite stories in The Unreal and the Real all deal explicitly with the idea of rewriting, and more specifically, with renaming. In “She Unnames Them” — which Le Guin calls her favorite story in the introduction to the second volume — Eve, pondering the world from the Garden of Eden, takes back the name of every animal in the kingdom, letting them decide for themselves how they will be called, and takes her leave of Eden forever. It is a simple gesture, but a powerful one. If language defines how we interact with other objects and beings, the ultimate power lies with those who name them.
Le Guin further plays with this theme of naming in “May’s Lion.” She lets us imagine for a moment what it would look like if the power to name were given back to each one of us, and forces us to stare into the void that the lack of names creates. How would we re-write the world, given the chance? “May’s Lion” is a story about a story. The narrator first tells the tale of an old woman, May, who lived alone in an old farmhouse in their small town, spending her days caring for her cow. A mountain lion comes to the woman’s yard to die. The woman, afraid for her cow’s udders, debates her options: leave the house to milk her cow and risk attack, or stay inside while her cow needs her. Finally she picks the only other option she sees, which is to call a couple of neighbors to come shoot the mountain lion. Unceremoniously, the story is over: the beautiful creature is dead, the practical choice made. The narrator rejects this version. “It is a tiny part of the history of the Valley, and I want to make it part of the Valley outside history,” she says. She then tells the version that, were we able to re-write stories to be what we need them to be, would have happened. In the new version, May and the lion come to an understanding; May lets the lion die in peace, providing shade and comfort in the last moments of its dignified life. The narrator gives the lion back to May; the re-write is a gift to her and a tribute to a better version of the truth. “It’s still your story, Aunt May; it was your lion,” she says. “He came to you. He brought his death to you, a gift; but the men with the guns won’t take gifts, they think they own death already.” The power to re-write a narrative isn’t something we can rely on in the real world. But the way we tell stories matters, and fiction, Le Guin seems to be saying, can be more truthful than the truth.
“Buffalo Girls Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” which follows a little girl after her plane crashes in the desert, is, to me, the crowning jewel of this collection. Coyote, the ancient, wily creator of the universe from Native American origin stories, discovers the hungry and injured girl. Coyote — portrayed as a clever woman, with many coyote men in her life, who lives in her own filth and sometimes talks to her own shit — guides the girl into the world of the “Old Ones.” The Old Ones are the first animals, former rulers of the world and contemporaries of the first people, who have been relegated to the edge of the desert as it is slowly taken away by the same people who have long since forgotten them. Le Guin’s tale is a modern re-telling of Native American myth and a jarring coming-of-age tale about a little girl struggling to accept her inevitable passage into the adult world. Coyote becomes the girl’s makeshift mother, irresponsible but wise, and the girl finds a temporary place within the village of the first animals. Drawn back to the world of people, the girl and her new guardians come to the border between the timeless desert of the Old Ones and the ranches and roads of the world of people. The girl sees roads, cows, and cars for the first time since the plane crash, and says the names of each out loud. “The words tasted like iron, like salt in her mouth,” Le Guin writes. “The things she named wavered in her sight and faded, leaving nothing — a hole in the world, a burned place like a cigarette burn.”
“Naming is a widespread form of magic,” Le Guin said in a recent conversation at UC Berkeley with Professor Michael Lacey. “If you know the name of something, you have power over it.” In the case of “Buffalo Gals,” the act of naming can also expose the gap between the real and the unreal. If the language we use to describe things has no meaning in the context we’re in, our understanding of things dissolves until there is nothing left but the basic elements of the thing, like iron and salt on our tongues. The same could be said of this collection. At the very least, Le Guin shakes up our view of the world we live in. At her best, she strips the most common things of meaning, and allows us to look at them for what they really are.