BOOK REVIEW: THE UNREAL AND THE REAL / AUTHOR: URSULA K. LE GUIN / PUBLISHER: GOLLANCZ / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
This collection shows off Le Guin’s skill at using fantasy, the supernatural and science fiction to weave thoughtful and imaginative explorations of alternative realities and perspectives.
Some of the stories, like Mazes and The Wife’s Story, play with our common expectations and twist them to show a different perspective. Indeed, most of the stories provide us with moral dilemmas and challenge our ‘normal’ view of the world.
Sometimes these challenges are provided by technological and scientific changes. In Nine Lives, the arrival of a group of clones changes the dynamics of life on a remote planet and makes us consider issues about identity and isolation.
The Matter of Seggri skilfully shows the social structures that occur on a planet where more girls are born than boys. The men live in castles and compete in violent games, whilst the women nurture the children and pursue knowledge. Basically the women have the power, whilst the men have the privilege - a system that works well for this alien civilisation. We can contemplate whether we should try and change this social structure to make it fit with what we regard as normal or leave it to them. The story makes its point about the differences between male and female expectations due to social expectations and pressures, but labours the point for a few pages more than needed.
The magic of a new way of exploring interstellar space is explored in The Shobies’ Story, where a team on board the Shoby spacecraft use the churten process to instantly travel to a distant planet. The process causes hallucinations and different shifts in the perception of reality, so that they are not even sure where they are or who they are with. Reading the narrative is like going through the churten process, leaving you dazed and very confused like the characters in the story. Crazy.
The best of the stories focus on individuals like Semley in Semley’s Necklace. She travels from the land of legend to the outer reaches of space to reclaim a family treasure, with some rather unexpected and tragic consequences.
Another well written character is the old lady Yoss in Betrayals. She retreats beyond the conflicts and politics of her world, but finds herself observing and getting involved in the petty politics and conflicts of the remote area where she lives with her cat and dog. She is resigned to her solitary life but nothing stays the same for long, even for Yoss.
It is not all philosophy and deep thinking. The First Contact with the Gorgonids is a wonderfully comic take on alien contact in the context of a bossy husband who gets his comeuppance. Le Guin notes that Harlan Ellison commissioned her to write it, but rejected it. Like the heroine of the story she triumphed by getting it published elsewhere for better money!
To paraphrase the subtitle, a great mixture of inner space and outer lands presented with skill and imagination.
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