Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Unreal and the Real Vol 1 Where on Earth by Ursula le Guin

I probably should start this review by saying that Ursula le Guin is a hero of mine. I came to her writing embarrassingly late, having managed to miss Earthsea in my youth. I have to thank my son for introducing me to her work. He picked a copy of The Wizard of Earthsea that was lying unread on my bookshelf and, liking the 1970s style cover illustration, decided to read it to pass the time during his university vacation. When he reappeared from his room, he said, “Mum, you should read this. You will love it.” I did read it and I did love it.

What I love about Le Guin is that she doesn't shy away from serious issues in her work. There is a realism about politics and society in her most fantastical writings. The actions and decisions of her characters have consequences. Her writing cannot and should not be put into categories. To be sure she gets slotted into science fiction and fantasy more often than not, but she is above all a wonderful writer with huge literary merit. To my mind she is simply one of the best writers around and her books on writing are also some of the best you can buy.

This book is one of two collections of her short stories selected by the writer herself. It contains stories set on Earth or sort of set on Earth - the selection of Orsinian Tales that opens it are set in a fictional Eastern European country. The second volume explores other worlds.

I have been honoured that on a number of occasions reviewers have compared my work with that of Ursula Le Guin, especially to her Orsinian stories. I am immensely flattered by the comparison. It was on reading Le Guin that I realized that it was possible to create a “real” fantasy world. The collection opens with an introduction by the writer in which she describes Orsinia as the way, lying between actuality, which was supposed to be the sole subject of fiction and the limitless realms of the imagination. In other words the way of magic realism. I identified with Orsinia immediately. The latest Orsinian tale is featured in this book. Written in 1990, it is about the point at which communism fell in Orsinia. Its title, “Unlocking the Air”, refers to protesters waving their keys in the air to indicate it is time for their oppressors to hand over the keys. As a part-time inhabitant of the Czech Republic, I know the power of that very real image.

The collection includes realist tales and magic realist ones (and some which might even lie in between). I could say that I particularly enjoyed Ether, Or a tale set in a town that keeps moving locations, the well-known Buffalo Girls, Unlocking the Air, The Diary of the Rose, Gwilan's Harp and May's Lion. But to say this is in a way to belittle this collection, which has been put together with great care and which is far more than the some of its parts.

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