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The Wild Girls
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 31, 2023

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There is misinformation about the title story on quite a few sites across the web, all of which seems to come from the publisher's blurb. "The Wild Girls" did not win a Nebula, in fact was not even nominated, for either its original publication nor this book. It was a finalist for Hugo and Sturgeon awards, and won a Locus and the Asimov's readers poll. Some other sites say it is a novella, but it was published in the March 2002 Asimov's as a novelette, and that is the category for which it won and was nominated for its awards. It is possible the version in this PM Press edition is a novella, since it states that it was revised, but I don't know by how much. I read it on my Kindle, so page count/word count is hard to determine. Amazon says the print copy is 112 pages, but for Kindle only 88. In addition to the story, there are two essays, five poems, an interview, a bibliography, and a short biography, with "The Wild Girls" comprising only 52% of the total. I received the ebook free from Edelweiss a couple of years ago, along with several other older titles. This was the sixth volume in PM Press's Outspoken Authors series, published in May 2011.

I'm surprised it was in Asimov's, it reads more like an F&SF story. Asimov's does publish the occasional fantasy, but this barely qualifies, although it would be hard for me to place it in any other genre. Anthropological SF perhaps? The only thing that comes close to being fantasy is people's ideas about ghosts, but a lot of that could just be superstition and psychological trauma. Because of the ghosts, whether real or not, I suppose it could be considered horror. Horrific things do happen for sure. Another thing I'm not sure about is the setting. Is it a society of the far past, a post-apocalyptic one, is it even on Earth? Hard to tell. The Crown people are a certain class in this world, ones who live in the City of Earth. That doesn't mean it's our Earth though. They call the stars the lamps of the City of Heaven. Other groups are the Root people, which I take it are a merchant class, and the Dirt people, nomads. Some of the descriptions reminded me of something I once read about Australian aborigines. There is a tradition of taking slaves, and/or mates, from other tribes, in order to avoid interbreeding. Here Crown men must marry Dirt women, Crown women must marry Root men. I can't recall anything said about Root women though. Bela ten Belen leads a group of five or six other Crown men on a raid of a Dirt encampment, capturing several young girls, although one of the youngest is injured and brutally discarded.

It seems even the Dirt people accede to tradition, for once a Crown man grants a slave a name, that is the name they accept. Modh was not captured, at least not at first. She followed the Crown group in order to be with her younger sister Mal. At that time, Modh was about eleven, Mal six years old. Crown men either kept girls as house slaves, intending later to marry one when she came of age, or else they sold or bartered them to another Crown family. Bela's family had once been rich and prosperous, but they traded off a lot of property and goods to obtain the beautiful Nata, now wife to Bela's brother. Bela later marries Modh, who spends her nights with her husband, but her days with her sister. That is, up to the time Mal begins hearing the cries of the infant left for dead after the raid, so Bela allows Modh to stay with her at night too. Sometimes Modh hears the cries, but others don't. Supposedly, the cries of the dead infant were because she was not buried. I won't reveal the story's end, both because I'm not sure of certain particulars, but also because it is not pleasant. It's emotionally draining, and apparently the social class system remains intact.

The essay "Staying Awake While We Read" was originally printed in Harper's Magazine in February 2008. It speaks to issues in both the world of readers, and the world of publishing, and both are unfortunately still very relevant. She says the height of reading in America was from mid-19th Century to mid-20th, give or take a few years either way. Up until the 1960's (which I can confirm) high school students were expected to read quite a bit of serious literature, from Shakespeare to Dickens, Chaucer to Dickinson. That doesn't mean students had to understand and enjoy reading those, but at least it was required. Now it's difficult just teaching kids how to read. (An aside: a high school in a town near me just had to cancel its graduation ceremony, since only about 20% of the seniors qualified.) And of course the publishing world is wrapped up in profits just like every other industry, rather than it being a proponent of literature for pleasure and enlightenment. I know there are many editors and small press publishers for which this does not apply, but they aren't the ones driving the best-seller lists, and the mid-list and backlist titles of too many authors have been abandoned.

Five short poems come next, then the second essay, "The Conversation of the Modest," original to this book. It is remarkable what a talented writer can do in examining simple words and their changing meanings through time. In this case it is modesty, and in comparison, humility. Then comes the interview, "A Lovely Art," conducted by the series editor Terry Bisson. I've read at least ten of the Outspoken Authors books so far, and most of the interviews are good and informative. For this one it seemed possible Bisson and Le Guin had agreed beforehand that it would occasionally be like a comedy stage act, with Bisson providing the set-up, Le Guin the punchline. Or else Le Guin reacted to an unexpected joke-like question with sarcasm. It does open with a serious question though; "What have you got against Amazon?" for which Ursula's reply is, "Nothing, really, except profound moral disapproval of their aims and methods, and a simple loathing of corporate greed." I know it's ironic I'd include that, considering I read this on a Kindle, and this site is (regrettably now) an Amazon Associate. Another highlight of the interview comes right after that, when Bisson asks why she has never shied away from the fact she writes science fiction and fantasy.

"…the only means I have to stop ignorant snobs from behaving towards genre fiction with snobbish ignorance is to not reinforce their ignorance and snobbery by lying and saying that when I write SF it isn't SF, but to tell them more or less patiently for forty or fifty years that they are wrong to exclude SF and fantasy from literature, and proving my argument by writing well."

"Writing well" is a massive understatment for what Le Guin accomplished. I've read what I had thought were her major novels and stories, yet I now realize how much still lies before me. For instance, all of Orsinia, at least six stand-alone novels, and many collections, although there may be duplications among them, along with several volumes of poetry. "The Wild Girls" was later collected in The Unreal and the Real (Bookshop / Amazon), which has the subtitle of The "Selected" Stories. I have that now, but I didn't at the time I got this digital copy from Edelweiss. At the same time Saga Press released The Found and the Lost: The Collected Novellas (Bookshop / Amazon), which does not include "The Wild Girls," even though it does have a few duplicated from the other collection. Seems to me that confirms it is a novelette, not a novella. This is the tenth page I've devoted to Le Guin's work, covering seventeen individual titles. I'm now thinking about which of her books I will read next.

Perhaps PM Press should have waited on this volume, in order to provide a transcript of Le Guin's 2014 speech in acceptance of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. You can probably find that somewhere else, I'm sure I've read at least excerpts of it, but you can see and hear her comments in full on YouTube. From that speech, echoing comments from the above essay: "Books are not commodities. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art." Same as it ever was.


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Ursula K. Le Guin

Title story March 2002
Book: May 1, 2011

Title story won:
ASF Reader's Poll

Finalist for:

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