Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Microreview [book]: Microreview [book]: The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. LeGuin, Vol. 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands

The Meat 

As I ranted at some length in my review of book one of this two-volume collection of LeGuin's short stories, anthologies are suspect for all sorts of reasons, and when I read this volume, I discovered yet another, one moreover that's a bit of a paradox: volume two is, more or less, consistently excellent in the quality of its stories. How is this paradoxically a problem with anthologies, you ask? Why, because volume one was considerably more uneven, with a few truly brilliant stories dimmed just a bit by those surrounding them (mediocrity by association?), while Outer Space, Inner Lands is (just?) very good from start to finish. In other words, volume two had moments of sheer brilliance which stood in sometimes stark relief to other rather ho-hum stories in the collection, whereas volume two has no ho-humitude...but also, arguably, no such stand-out moments either.

   On the other hand, it would be remiss of me to complain about the fact that volume two was so consistently good. And there are some stories I personally found more appealing than others. For instance, there was "Semley's Necklace," which LeGuin, in her forceful and witty introduction (which while an essay is in some ways really almost a short story in itself, and a good one at that) somewhat reluctantly concedes could be labeled 'science fantasy'. She's quite self-deprecating about it, essentially claiming she only wrote it because at the time she didn't yet know any better, but she was selling herself, and the entrancing Semley, way short with that assessment.
Artist's rendering of the eponymous ultra-valuable necklace
(one school of thought claims it may not be the original, however)
   "Semley's Necklace" shares a theme with several others in the collection, namely speculative explorations of the wrenching sense of temporal displacement, or to put it in more human terms, the loss of all those one loves, that would surely come with NAFAL (no, this isn't a clever amalgamation of Raphael Nadal's name, though it would be pretty cool if that caught on; it stands for "nearly as fast as light") travel. We've all seen Avatar, and we accept too readily—because Cameron, the King of the World, demands it—that it would be a simple matter to jump on a ship, get frozen, and spend the six years or whatever in a heartbeat, and we all think it's awesome because the people on the ship won't have aged hardly at all! LeGuin refocuses our attention on that dreadful gap in perception...suppose you left your parents or lover or cat or whatever back on Earth, and once your journey was complete, you spend a few years on the planet and head right back to Earth because you miss those loved ones you'd left behind. Bam! Dare to imagine all that would have happened in those twelve or fifteen or twenty years, and I think you'll see, as LeGuin certainly has, the wisdom in saying, as you depart, "We are dead, you and I"—for even if both you and your beloved still live at the end of that awful separation, what you were is dead, and you cannot ever hope to recover the shattered synchronization of your lives.

   LeGuin believes that the final two stories in the collection are the finest, but I remain unconvinced of that. They're not bad—none of these stories is less than very good—but "She Unnames Them" is merely cute, and "Sur", in particular, was of only mild interest. How she could choose their blandness over the fiery challenge of, say, "The Matter of Seggri" puzzles me. "Seggri" intrigues with its bold speculations about how a world might develop in which female human(oid)s outnumber males 16 to 1, and its wry lack of judgment, as though forcing all the men and women who read it to wonder with her, "Which world is better?" Ours, with today's growing hope of equality, not to mention deeply meaningful relationships between men and women, overshadowed by the dismally violent record of all human history, or theirs, with the (not necessarily?) terrible fate of the men balanced against their apparently more or less eternally peaceful society?

   Fans of Earthsea will be intoxicated by "The Rule of Names", about a certain critically important if minor—though by no means small-statured—character from the first book, and the socks of William James fans (if anyone cares about him anymore) will be blown clean off by "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas". I would count myself among the likely walkers, so to speak, but I freely admit such a utopia would be hard for almost anyone to reject.

   Ultimately, if there is one theme running through nearly all these stories, it is that of loss, its consequences and our painful efforts to recover, rebuild, remake ourselves.  And in a strange way, this theme felt more immediate to me, more 'real', in this volume, rather than in book one, where many of the stories are much more transparently about the 'real' world.  LeGuin herself, in the intro, playfully leaves it up to the reader to determine which book is which in this two-volume series called The Unreal and the Real...my TLDR answer is: this **** is Real!

**** = 'book', of course.

The Math

Baseline score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for being "all good", +1 for Selmey's tragic and incomprehensible journey and the shudders of tearful sympathy it induced in me

Penalties: -1 for LeGuin making it crystal clear she and I don't see eye to eye on her work, e.g., claiming that what are probably the two least interesting/challenging stories are her favorites

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 Well and totally worth your time and attention

["8" is the new "great"! Check out an explanation of our utterly uninflated scores here.]