Unlocking the Air Essay - Critical Essays

Ursula K. Le Guin

Unlocking the Air

Consistent with Le Guin’s undoing of standard expectations, the stories of UNLOCKING THE AIR defy easy categorization. They can be loosely grouped in terms of story type, narrative voice, or degree of realism. What one story uses as its focusing element, however, the next may refract through a lens, or break up entirely.

This kind of manipulation of story form requires exquisite control of language and structure. The tense shifts of “Climbing to the Moon” are virtually imperceptible. The coherence that moves “A Child Bride” forward through stream of consciousness and the ambiguous identity of the narrator is admirable. The structural permutations of “Half Past Four” are nothing short of stunning. Length is not a factor. “Half Past Four” takes forty pages to tell; “A Child Bride” takes two. Both are captivating.

Besides clean and easy beauty of language, what seems to ground these stories is strongly drawn characters, even those who are observed from the far-off vantage point of mythic detachment, as in “Sunday in Summer in Seatown.” Little is stable in Le Guin’s universe; one washes up onto the characters as if they were islands in a river of wonders, where at no time is the water the same water. In Ether or Camp Limberlost, in the abortion clinic or the professor’s house, in the 67 bus or the wise woman’s hut, we recognize ourselves.

Another unifying force in these stories is the idea that reality is a Protean entity, fluctuating like the waves that move in and out of the boundary of the shore. The waves shape the shore; they are not shaped by it. Reality’s inhabitants, therefore, are not constrained by formula; nor is one inhabitant’s reality quite the same as another’s. Le Guin’s far-reaching imagination constructs alternate realities that stretch the boundaries of tolerance, hope, and change.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, February 1, 1996, p. 917.

Boston Globe. March 3, 1996, p. 44.

Chicago Tribune. February 25, 1996, XIV, p. 5.

Detroit News. March 6, 1996, p. B3.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, December 15, 1995, p. 1731.

Library Journal. CXXI, February 15, 1996, p. 178.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 7, 1996, p. 10.

Ms. VI, March, 1996, p. 88.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, March 3, 1996, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, January 29, 1996, p. 86.