Book Review: The Unreal and the Real by Ursula K. Le Guin

Feb 14, 2018

The Unreal and the Real Volume One: Where on Earth

For fifty years, National Book Award winner Ursula K. Le Guin’s stories have shaped the way her readers see the world. Her work gives voice to the voiceless, hope to the outsider, and speaks truth to power. Le Guin’s writing is witty, wise, both sly and forthright; she is a master craftswoman.

This two-volume selection of almost forty stories taken from her eleven collections was made by Le Guin herself, as was the organizing principle of splitting the stories into the nominally realistic and fantastic.

Where on Earth focuses on Le Guin’s interest in realism and magic realism and includes eighteen of Le Guin’s satirical, political, and experimental earthbound stories.

Highlights include World Fantasy and Hugo Award winner “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” the rarely reprinted satirical short, “The Lost Children,” Jupiter Award winner, “The Diary of the Rose,” and the title story of her Pulitzer Prize finalist collection Unlocking the Air.

Stories in this volume were originally published in venues as varied as Playboy, TriQuarterly, Orbit, Redbook, and The New Yorker.

Companion volume Outer Space Inner Lands includes Le Guin’s best known nonrealistic stories. Both volumes include new introductions by the author.

I love Ursula K. Le Guin. I wrote a post about just how much she sparks my imagination and makes my insides tingle. I really enjoy her science fiction and I haven’t read any of her “realistic” fiction. This is where the books title originates. The Unreal and the Real is a two volume anthology of Le Guin’s short stories. The first volume, Where on Earth, is a collection of stories that do not have any science fiction elements in them.

This volume was actually a hit or miss on a couple of the stories. I can barely remember most of them however the ones that stuck out in my mind were: Brothers and Sisters; Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come out Tonight; and Half Past Four.

Half Past Four

I had already read this short story before. I own the book, Unlock the Air and Other Stories. The first time I read it, I was wholly confused. There were mini stories in this one story and the same characters were in each story. It seemed like their circumstances were different in each of the stories.

The introduction in Where on Earth really put the story in perspective. They were all separate and distinct stories despite having all the same characters. This was inspired from writing exercise Le Guin taught a class of poets: write a story about people with varying positions of authority.

Knowing the whole story now made me appreciate it much more. I don’t know which mini-story I preferred the most. I liked how each story kept the main traits of the characters and it seemed to actually add to their personalities. It was interesting knowing how each character would act in different circumstances and relationships with each other.

Essentially there are four characters: Ella, Ann, Todd, and Stephen.

Ella is a woman who is either Ann’s mother, step-mother, or sister. Ann is pregnant or a new mother and a sister to Todd or Ella or Stephen’s daughter. Todd is Stephen’s step-son or Ella’s brother or Ella’s son. Stephen is Ann’s father or Ella’s brother or the neighbour. It’s all very complicated when I explain it like this but it’s actually easy to keep track of.

Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight

This story was very different but also very Le Guin at the same time. A child survives a plane crash in the middle of the desert and is adopted by animals. These animals can talk and take the appearances of humans but are still very much animals. I love how Le Guin can capture the characteristics of these animals in a humanized way. For example, Coyote, is a wild and brash character, not unlike a real coyote. The animal society in the desert is also extremely fascinating.

Brothers and Sisters

Maybe it’s because Brothers and Sisters was the first story that I remember it very well. This is a story of two brothers, one pretty exceptional and the other a dreamer. Of course, in the middle of them is a girl. I was quite pleased with the outcome and while I grew to dislike some of the characters, I couldn’t fault them for their personalities.


I liked this book quite a bit. There were some stories that I didn’t particularly care for unfortunately but I enjoyed it nevertheless. I would give this book a solid 35. Le Guin is great with her words and I would recommend it to people who don’t expect her science fiction. I think in the end I prefer her fantasy/sci-fi works.

Category: books
Tags: #urusla k le guin #sci-fi