Unlocking the Air


This collection of mainstream stories, written from the early eighties to the mid-nineties, is a stunning example of the virtuosity of the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin. Diffusing the traditional boundaries of realism, magical realism, and surrealism, Le Guin finds the detail that reveals the strange in everyday life, or the unexpected depths of an ordinary person. Written with wit, zest, and a passionate sense of human frailty and toughness, Unlocking the Air is superb fiction by a beloved storyteller at the ...

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This collection of mainstream stories, written from the early eighties to the mid-nineties, is a stunning example of the virtuosity of the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin. Diffusing the traditional boundaries of realism, magical realism, and surrealism, Le Guin finds the detail that reveals the strange in everyday life, or the unexpected depths of an ordinary person. Written with wit, zest, and a passionate sense of human frailty and toughness, Unlocking the Air is superb fiction by a beloved storyteller at the height of her power.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hugo and Nebula awards cling to her writings like iron filings to a magnet. Even so, Le Guin has written numerous stories with no hint of scientific speculation or fantasy-like the majority of the 18 tales in this collection, many of which first appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, Playboy and elsewhere during the past 14 years. Set partially in an abortion clinic and steeped in realism, "Standing Ground" is a truthful and difficult story, first published in Ms., about the plight of a teenage girl and her pregnant, retarded mother. On the other end of the spectrum is "Poacher," an inversion of the Sleeping Beauty myth wherein the use of mind and spirit is itself the ultimate reward. Also particularly strong is "Half Past Four," a virtuoso literary exercise that evokes a wide range of emotions as Le Guin rearranges the situations and sensibilities of a small group of characters, focusing primarily on three adults and their relationships to a retarded infant. The collection flows like water: it's sometimes rough and agitated; sometimes playful, as in "Limberlost," in which an author returns to the campground of her youth, now the site of a rustic literary conference; and sometimes reflective, as in the title story, a parable/fairy tale about love and political change in a place where "[t]hey stood on the stones in the lightly falling snow and listened to the silvery, trembling sound of thousands of keys being shaken, unlocking the air, once upon a time.'' Admirers of fine literature, fantastic or not, will cherish this rich offering. (Feb.)
From Barnes & Noble
Written by the winner of the National Book Award, as well as several Hugos and Nebulas, the 18 stories in this collection have been published in such distinguished magazines as The New Yorker, Harper's Omni, and Playboy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060928032
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/28/2005
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 417,040
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Ursula K.  Le Guin

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in 1929 in Berkeley, and lives in Portland, Oregon. As of 2014, she has published twenty-one novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry, and four of translation, and has received many honors and awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, and PEN/Malamud. Her most recent publications are Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems and The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories.


Speculative fiction, magic realism, "slipstream" fiction -- all these terms could apply to the works of Ursula K. Le Guin. Unfortunately, none was in common use when she started writing in the early 1960s. As a young writer, Le Guin weathered seven years of rejections from editors who praised her novels' elegant prose but were puzzled by their content. At a time when the only literary fiction was realistic fiction, as Le Guin later told an interviewer for The Register-Guard in Portland, Oregon, "There just wasn't a pigeonhole for what I write."

At long last, two of her stories were accepted for publication, one at a literary journal and one at a science-fiction magazine. The literary journal paid her in copies of the journal; the science-fiction magazine paid $30. She told The Register-Guard, "I thought: 'Oooohhh! They'll call what I write science fiction, will they? And they'll pay me for it? Well, here we go!' "

Le Guin continued to write and publish stories, but her breakthrough success came with the publication of The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. The novel, which tells of a human ambassador's encounters with the gender-changing inhabitants of a distant planet, was unusual for science fiction in that it owed more to anthropology and sociology than to the hard sciences of physics or biology. The book was lauded for its intellectual and psychological depth, as well as for its fascinating premise. "What got to me was the quality of the story-telling," wrote Frank Herbert, the author of Dune. "She's taken the mythology, psychology -- the entire creative surround -- and woven it into a jewel of a story."

Since then, Le Guin has published many novels, several volumes of short stories, and numerous poems, essays, translations, and children's books. She's won an arm's-length list of awards, including both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and a National Book Award for The Farthest Shore. Over the years, she has created and sustained two fictional universes, populating each with dozens of characters and stories. The first universe, Ekumen, more or less fits into the science-fiction mode, with its aliens and interplanetary travel; the second, Earthsea, is a fantasy world, complete with wizards and dragons. As Margaret Atwood wrote in The New York Review of Books, "Either one would have been sufficient to establish Le Guin's reputation as a mistress of its genre; both together make one suspect that the writer has the benefit of arcane drugs or creative double-jointedness or ambidexterity."

More impressive still is the way Le Guin's books have garnered such tremendous crossover appeal. Unlike many writers of science fiction, she is regularly reviewed in mainstream publications, where her work has been praised by the likes of John Updike and Harold Bloom. But then, Le Guin has never fit comfortably into a single genre. As she said in a Science Fiction Weekly interview, "I know that I'm always called 'the sci-fi writer.' Everybody wants to stick me into that one box, while I really live in several boxes. It's probably hurt the sales of my realistic books like Searoad, because it tended to get stuck into science fiction, where browsing readers that didn't read science fiction would never see it."

Le Guin has also published a translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, a book that has influenced her life and writing since she was a teenager; she has translated fiction by Angelica Gorodischer and a volume of poems by Gabriela Mistral; and, perhaps most gratifyingly for her fans, she has returned to the imaginary realm of Earthsea. Tehanu, which appeared in 1990, was subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea," but Le Guin found she had more to tell, and she continued with Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. "I thought after 'Tehanu' the story was finished, but I was wrong," she told Salon interviewer Faith L. Justice. "I've learned never to say 'never.' "

Good To Know

The "K" in Ursula K. Le Guin stands for Le Guin's maiden name, Kroeber. Her father was the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber; her mother, the writer Theodora Kroeber, is best known for the biography Ishi in Two Worlds.

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    1. Hometown:
      Portland, Oregon
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 21, 1929
    2. Place of Birth:
      Berkeley, California
    1. Education:
      B.A., Radcliffe College; M.A., Columbia University, 1952
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Half Past Four

A New Life

Stephen blushed. A fair-skinned man, bald to the crown,he blushed clear pink. He hugged Ann with one arm as she kissed hischeek. "Good to see you, honey," he said, freeing himself, glancing pasther, and smiling rather desperately. "Ella just went out. Just tenminutes ago. She had to take some typing over to Bill Hoby. Stay aroundtill she gets back, she'd be real sorry to miss you." "Sure," Ann said. "Mother's fine, she had this flu, butnot as bad as some people. You all been OK?"

"Oh, yeah, sure. Youwant some coffee? Coke? Come on in." He stood aside and followed herthrough the small living room crowded with blond furniture to thekitchen where yellow metal slat blinds directed sunlight in moltenstrips onto the counters.

"Hey, it's hot," Ann said.

"Want somecoffee? There's this cinnamon and mocha decaf that Ella and I drink alot. It sure is. Glad it's Saturday. It's up here somewhere."

"Idon't want anything."

"Coke?" He closed the cupboard, opened therefrigerator.

"Oh, sure, OK. Diet if you've got it."

She stood bythe counter and watched him get the glass and the ice and the bottle, aplastic half-gallon of cola. She did not want to open doors in thiskitchen as if prying, as if entitled, or to change the angle of the slatblinds, as she would have done at home, to shut the hot light out. Hefixed her a tall red plastic glass of cola, and she drank off half ofit. "Oh, yeah!" she said. "OK!"

"Come on outside."

"No ball game?"

"Been doing some gardening. With Toddie."

Ann had assumed thatthe boy was with his mother, or rather her imagination had linked him tohis mother sothat if Ella wasn't here Toddie wasn't here; now she feltbetrayed.

Indicating where she should go but making her go first, aswhen he had brought her through the house, her father ushered her to theback-porch door, and stood aside and followed her as she went past thewasher and dryer and the mop bucket and some brooms to the screen doorand down the single cement step into the back yard.

He batted thescreen door shut with one foot and stood beside her on a brick path, twobricklengths wide, that ran along dividing the flowerbeds under thehouse wall from the small, shrub-circled lawn. Two small iron chairspainted white, with rust stains where the paint had come off, faced eachother across a matching table at one side of the grass plot. Beyond themToddie crouched, turned away, near a big flowering abelia in the shadeof the mirrorplant hedge that enclosed the garden.

Toddie was biggerthan she had remembered, as broad-backed as a grown man.

"Hey,Toddie. Here's ah, here's Ann!" Stephen said. His fair, tanned face wasstill pink. Maybe he wasn't blushing, maybe it was the heat. In theenclosed garden the sunlight glaring from the white house wall burned onthe skin like an open fire. Had he been going to say, "your sister"? Hisvoice was loud and jovial. Toddie did not respond in any way.

Annlooked around at the garden. It was an airless, grass-floored room withhigh green walls and a ceiling of brightness. Beautiful pale-coloredpoppies swayed by the hose rack, growing in clean, weeded dirt. Shelooked back at them, away from the stocky figure crouched in the shadeacross the lawn. She did not want to look at him, and her father had noright to make her be with him and look at him, even if it wassuperstitious, he should think of protecting the baby, but that wasstupid, that was superstitious. "Those are really neat," she said,touching the loose, soft petal of an open poppy. "Terrific colors. Thisis a nice garden, Daddy. You must have been working hard on it."

"Haven't you ever been out back here?"

She shook her head. She hadnever even been in the bedrooms. She had been three or four times tothis house since Stephen and Ella married. Once for Sunday brunch. Ellahad served on trays in the living room, and Toddie had watched TV thewhole time. The first time she had been in the house was when Ella wasone of Stephen's salesgirls, not his wife. They had stopped by her housefor her father to leave off some papers or something. Ann had been inhigh school, she had stood around in the living room while her fatherand Ella talked about shoe orders. Knowing that Ella had a retardedchild, she had hoped that it wouldn't come into the room but all thesame had wanted to see it. When Ella's husband died suddenly ofsomething, Ann's father had said solemnly at the dinner table, "Luckything they had that house of theirs paid off," and Ann's mother hadsaid, "Poor thing, with that poor child of theirs, what is it, amongoloid?" and then they had talked about how mongoloids usually diedand it was a mercy. But here he was still alive and Stephen was livingin his house.

"I need some shade," Ann said, heading for the ironchairs. "Come and talk with me, Daddy."

He followed her. While shesat down and slipped off her sandals to cool her bare feet in the grass,he stood there. She looked up at him. The curve of his bald foreheadshone in the sunlight, open and noble as a high hill standing bare abovea crowded subdivision. His face was suburban, crowded with features,chin and long lips and nostrils and fleshy nose and the small, clear,anxious blue eyes. Only the forehead that looked like a big Californiahill had room. "Oh, Daddy," she said, "how you been?"

"Justfine. Just fine," he said, half turned away from her. "The Walnut Creekstore is going just great. Walking shoes." He bent to uproot a smalldandelion from the short, coarse grass. "Walking shoes outsell runningshoes two to one at the Mall. So, you been job hunting? You ever talk toKrim?"

"Oh, yeah, couple weeks ago." Ann yawned. The still heat andthe smell of newly turned earth made her sleepy. Everything made hersleepy. Waking up made her sleepy. She yawned again. "Excuse me! Hesaid, oh, he said something might would open up in May."

"Good. Good.Good outfit," Stephen said, looking around the garden, and moving a fewsteps away. "Good contacts."

"But I'll have to stop working in Julybecause of the baby, so I don't know if it's worth it."

"Get to knowpeople, get started," Stephen said indistinctly. He went to the edge ofthe lawn nearest the abelia and said in a cheerful, loud voice, "Hey,great work there, Toddie! Hey, look at that! That's my boy. All right!"

A blurred, whitish face under dark hair turned up to him for a momentin shadow.

"Look at that. Diggin' up a storm there. You're a realfarmer." Stephen turned and spoke to Ann from shade across the whitemolten air to her strip of shade: "Toddie's going to put in some moreflowers here. Bulbs and stuff for fall."

Ann drank her melted-icewater and got up from the dwarf chair that had already stained her whiteT-shirt with rust. She came over nearer her father and looked at thestrip of upturned earth. The big boy crouched motionless, trowel inhand, head sunk.

"Look, why not sort of round off that corner, see,"Stephen said to him, going forward to point. "Dig to here, maybe. Thinkso?"

The boy nodded and began digging, slowly and forcefully. Hishands were white and thick, with very short, wide nails rimmed withblack dirt.

"What do you think, maybe dig it up clear over to thatrose bush. Space out the bulbs better. Think it'd look good?"

Toddielooked up at him again. Ann looked at the blurred mouth, the dark-hairedupper lip. "Yeah, uh-huh," Toddie said, and bent to work again.

"Kind of curve it off there at the rose bush," Stephen said. He glancedround at Ann. His face was relaxed, uncrowded. "This guy's a naturalfarmer," he said. "Get anything to grow. Teachin' me. Isn't that right,Toddie? Teachin' me!"

"I guess," the low voice said. The head stayedbowed, the thick fingers groped in earth.

Stephen smiled at Ann."Teachin' me," he said.

"That's neat," she said. The sides of hermouth felt very stiff and her throat ached. "Listen, Daddy, I justlooked in to say hi on the way to Permanente, I'm supposed to have acheck-up. No, look, I'll just leave this in the kitchen and go out thegate there. It's real good to see you, Daddy."

"Got to go already,"he said.

"Yeah, I just wanted to say hi since I was over this way.Say hi to Ella for me. I'm sorry I missed her." She had slipped hersandals back on; she took her empty glass into the kitchen, set it inthe sink and ran water into it, came out again to her father standing onthe brick path, bald to the sun. She put one foot up on the cement stepto refasten the sandal. "My ankles were all swelled up," she said. "Dr.Schell took me off salt. I can't put salt on anything, not even eggs."

"Yeah, they say we should all cut down on salt," Stephen said.

"Yeah, that's right." After a pause Ann said, "Only this is becauseof being pregnant, that I have high blood pressure and this edema stuff.Unless I'm careful." She looked at her father. He was looking across thelawn. Unlocking The Air And Other Stories. Copyright © by Ursula K. Leguin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Table of Contents

Half Past Four 1
The Professor's Houses 39
Ruby on the 67 47
Limberlost 51
The Creatures on My Mind 61
Standing Ground 67
The Spoons in the Basement 81
Sunday in Summer in Seatown 87
In the Drought 89
Ether, OR 95
Unlocking the Air 125
A Child Bride 141
Climbing to the Moon 145
Daddy's Big Girl 151
Findings 163
Olders 167
The Wise Woman 187
The Poacher 191
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