Ursula K. Le Guin is the rare writer whose fiction is equally at home in the New Yorker or in Asimov's Science Fiction. Though best known for a number of cerebral science-fiction novels ("The Dispossessed," "The Left Hand of Darkness") and her Earthsea young-adult novels, Le Guin's short fiction reveals an even wider stylistic and thematic range. "The Unreal and the Real" collects decades' worth of work, divided into two books along roughly thematic lines. In her introduction to the first volume, Le Guin describes her methods of selecting work for the anthology: no novellas; no stories that were too closely connected to one of her novels; yes to some overlooked works; yes to a grouping of stories that fit well together. The result is enough to impress; newcomers to Le Guin will walk away with a good sense of the breadth of her work, while those at least somewhat aware of her fiction may well receive an education in just how her preferred methods work in different settings.
The science fiction that abounds in the second volume, "Outer Space, Inner Lands," exemplifies what the best science fiction can do: illuminating other societies, such as the radically altered gender roles in "The Matter of Seggri"; or using advances in technology to illustrate ethical and sociological dilemmas, as in "Nine Lives," which explores the nature of humanity and consciousness through its tale of cloning, exploration, paranoia and disaster. Not everything collected here is perfect; some of these stories ("The Lost Children," for one) feel more clever than empathic. But by and large, the stories are of a uniform level of high quality.
The range of work in "The Unreal and the Real" reveals parallels between its two volumes. The weight of some of these stories amasses gradually: In both "The Matter of Seggri" and "Sleepwalkers," Le Guin presents the story in pieces that don't necessarily seem to cohere neatly. In each, she's after something trickier than a moment of revelation or a sudden twist in the plot. These stories, and several others in the collections, earn their power via the accrual of precise details.
Volume One, "Where on Earth," also serves as a reminder of Le Guin's ability to chronicle daily life in Oregon, whether realistic in tone or abounding with magic realism. "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight," in particular, abounds with it. Its young protagonist survives a plane crash and soon finds herself in a sort of archetypal state, alternately seduced by and wary of the figures around her. Its blend of the cerebral with the visceral (missing and restored eyes figure into the plot) is both welcome and disconcerting. And "Ether, OR" follows a string of narrators in a small town with certain lightly askew properties. It's the sort of work where the non-realistic elements seem as concrete as anything else -- small doses of the unexplained in a tale where seemingly mundane concerns become vital. Whether her stories are set in worlds beyond this one or in the building down the street, Le Guin is an astonishing creator and chronicler of communities, and an observer of the ways in which we interact, for good and for bad. These books serve as a fine reminder of that.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Capital New York, Yeti and elsewhere.