Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight

“Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight” by Ursula Le Guin is an intriguing story concerning a little girl Myra who falls from our world into a mythic world of talking animals and strange events. Her guide from the beginning is Coyote, and the narrative reads like a variant of Native American trickster stories. Is this fantasy or SF? It seems to be fantasy as it has a high degree of estrangement compared to a classical science fiction story, but there is a didactic element that suggests we are being taught something about reality. The story is about becoming if not adapted, then at least adjusted to this world, Myra arrives only able to see through her left eye, and leaves with permission to keep the pine pitch eye that was given her to replace her damaged right eye. So she will keep her “strange”  new vision even in our ordinary reality. Perhaps we should keep the initials SF but give them multiple meanings, as Donna Haraway does: “SF is a multi-stranded pattern, including speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction, science fact, string figures, so far”. “Speculative fabulation” and “speculative feminism” seem particularly apt here.

At first the archetypal symbolism is quite familiar. The first line reads:

“You fell out of the sky,” the coyote said.

 The Sky symbolises the head, civilisation, patriarchal values, hierarchy, anthropocentrism, dualist thinking, monist reality. Myra falls from our ordinary reality into a world where the body and instincts are primary,  where the majority of the characters she meets and interacts with are feminine, where animals are the most important “people”, where dualist thinking is marginalised:
There are only two kinds of people.” “Humans and animals?” “No. The kind of people who say, ‘There are two kinds of people’ and the kind of people who don’t”.
This is a big joke to Coyote, who howls with laughter at the paradox. Reality is perspectival here, there are multiple ways people are perceived. Also the archetypes begin to lose their familiarity. We have references to Coyote, Crow, Blue Jay, but also less familiar figures such as “Mrs Chipmunk”. Coyote, usually male in traditional stories, is here female. Myra perceives this only after Coyote, referred to as “it” up to this point, heals the pain in her damaged right eye by licking it. Thereafter the text says “she-coyote” and uses feminine pronouns to refer to her, and she even transforms into a woman soon after (though she pees standing up like a man). Surprising details such as Coyote talking to her turds make us wonder whether they are made-up or have some basis in tradition.
So the text itself is tricky, plays tricks with the archetypes, which are only fixed as in a dictionary of symbols when seen from the “sky” perspective (which denies that it is a perspective). The Coyote-trickster is amongst other things the writer of speculative fabulation, a figuration of Ursula Le Guin, and also of the reader trying to weave sense out of the happenings in the story. Sky language is rational and used to state facts, coyote-language is playful and imagistic, ranging from logical paradox and philosophical wisdom to silliness and scatology. We may note that even names are relative, and “Myra” can be pronounced “Gal”:
“Come on, Gal!” She said it as a name; maybe it was the child’s name, Myra, as spoken by Coyote.
For me this is a “teaching story”, educating us into a different metaphysics, ethics, logic, aesthetics, and even politics (this is a non-hierarchical world, as the introduction tells us). Yet it is not a treatise of head-generated concepts and literal affirmations, preferring to teach by way of metaphor and embodiment.
We do not have to choose between logic or not, explanations or not. Dream logic may not be good for building sturdy bridges, but it may be quite helpful in building sturdy relationships.
A lot of so-called “hard” science fiction gives explanations that are more imagistically motivated than they pretend to be. It has always amused me, for example, that Larry Niven’s RINGWORLD is considered to be hard science fiction when there is so much silliness and fun in it. The idea of breeding for luck may be couched in genetic terms but it is just as far-fetched as coyote’s own explanations.
Logic even in scientific research is often an after-thought, put in afterwards to cover up the intuitive leaps and the groping in the dark.
See also:


I was listening to the latest SFFaudio podcast and was intrigued by the question posed concerning books in science fiction that had some relation to wisdom. FLOWERS OF ALGERNON was mentioned, as effectively making us feel the distinction between wisdom and intelligence. However, I am a little surprised that in the discussion of SF “wisdom” literature no mention was made of Heinlein’s HAVE SPACESUIT WILL TRAVEL, which was discussed in episode  SFFaudiopodcast 256 as containing a good philosophy of life and of self-culture: http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=51536. To balance that I would include Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS TRILOGY. On the surface Heinlein’s and Butler’s vision of positive human qualities are in opposition, yet both advocate that the prime motivation of humans is resistance and the struggle to be free.

Ursula Leguin’s stories are about gaining wisdom, and she explicitly includes a taoist-inspired perspective of wisdom in both her children’s books and her more adult works.  The story of the WIZARD OF EARTHSEA trilogy, but also her ANNALS OF THE WESTERN SHORE trilogy, contain coming of age and coming to maturity narratives that involve coming to wisdom. Leguin also places great emphasis on ecological awareness and the overcoming of patriarchal blindness and oppression.

Frank Herbert in the DUNE cycle was explicitly trying to inculcate an ecological wisdom of affirmation of difference and plurality, and adaptation to complexity and change. Further once one sees that Paul is not finally a hero, but rather an anti-hero, we can see the first book as a critique of the ego narrative or the myth of the hero, as the sort of attitude that takes us away from wisdom into a cynical, manipulative, and ultimately tyrannical relation to life.

I do not wish to give in to TRUE DETECTIVE mania, but I would argue that one of the faces of wisdom is horror. No defintion is given of wisdom, but if it is to be anything different than useful advice on how to get ahead in the rat-race or how to bow your head and be subservient to those who do get ahead, it is about seeing with your own eyes, speaking  and acting in your own name. Conventional and conformist masks and filters must fall. Reality is discovered as vaster, but also as weirder and more dangerous than comfort-zone consensus suggests. So I would add H.P.Lovecraft to the list. I think that this is behind Slavoj Zizek’s repeated commenting of John Carpenter’s film THEY LIVE, where donning new spectacles allows them to see through the ideological consensual illusion imposed by infiltrated aliens to control us.


THE WONDERFUL WINDOW is a short story by Lord Dunsany from THE BOOK OF WONDER a collection of his stories published in 1912. You can read the text of the story here, and listen to a reading and discussion of the story on the SFFAUDIO PODCAST.

Plot: Mr Sladden, a young man,  frequent day-dreamer, and lover of “romance”, who works in an emporium and lives alone in a single barely furnished room, buys a “magic window” in the street from a strange “Oriental” old man, who installs it in a wall in his room for him. Through the window Sladden can see, looking down from a very high vantage point, a beautiful medieval city. Although he can here nothing of what is taking place he becomes fascinated by the City of the Golden Dragons, as he calls it, until one day when he sees it under attack he tries to break the window open to come to the aid of the city and is left with a bare wall, and no way to see the city ever again.

This is a quite short and  very evocative story, that remains quite enigmatic. Sladden does not neglect his work and stay at home to watch the city, he doesn’t lose his job, or his friends, or have anything negative happen to him. He has a tendency to day-dream, finds a focus and confirmation of his daydreams in the magical window, and then loses all contact with the other world it revealed. He does not become insane or depressed but becomes older and more knowledgeable (and one can presume wiser), has a “Business” of his own, and hears no rumour of such a land ever again. If anything then he has even come out improved by the experience, as he moves from working for Messrs Mergin and Chater to setting out on his own Business adventure. Indeed in his relation to the spectacle of the window he moves from passive gazing in his “dingy room” to a desire, an “ambition”, to “be a man-at-arms or an archer in order to fight for the little golden dragons that flew on a white flag for an unknown king in an inaccessible city”. It is only after the birth of this ambition that the city is besieged and that Sladden moves to fight back, only to lose all access to the other world. One can think that his active energies have been mobilised enough to help him fight for his desires in the world of Business.

The story is constructed out of the oppositios between Business and dreaming, but they are never exclusive polar opposites. Sladden daydreams at work, hears London noises while he watches “his” city, becomes even more dreamy at work yet remains “wise and wakeful” enough not to talk about his magic window. Despite being timid and dreamy he is already a bit of a rebel at the beginning of the story as what attracts him to the old man is his strange and marginal appearance, and that the police are making him move on. The first lines of the story are:

The old man in the Oriental-looking robe was being moved on by the police, and it was this that attracted to him and the parcel under his arm the attention of Mr. Sladden, whose livelihood was earned in the emporium of Messrs. Mergin and Chater, that is to say in their establishment.

There seems to be a symbolic or allegorical atmosphere, coming from Sladden himself, to the story, as the emporium is next called Business, no article, always capitalised, like an allegorical figure. “Emporium” is a word with a poetical aura to it, and one of its senses, at least up to the 18th Century, was the brain, more specifically the “common sensory of the brain, becuase it is in the brain that our mental transactions are conducted. One can see a quotation exemplifying this on the marvelous site THE MIND IS A METAPHOR, talking of the “Business” of Sensation, Memory, Reflection, Imagination, etc. Mergin and Chater suggest merging and chatter, the superficial world of fusional relatioships (merging) and idle talk (chatter). The old man is constantly referred to as “strange” and a “stranger” and the intial opposition is set up between the strange man and the forces of order, and between the young dreamer and the “establishment”. I say “opposition”, but in the semiotic sense of paired contrasting items. As explained above the opposition is incomplete or “soft”, not so much conflictual as contrastive and complicitous.

I cannot help associating “emporium” with “empirical”, which goes in the same direction as the definition of emporium as common sensory brain. Sladden daydreams and sees through the walls of the emporium, and London itself becomes myth. Yet the “magical” window gives him empirical confirmation of these imaginative impressions. Once again, we do not have a hard and sharp dualism, or binary opposition, but a softer more equivocal duality. There exists today a method for learning maths, and perhaps other subjects, that is not based on lectures but on interactivity, personal progression, and problem-solving, called the “emporium model”. The old man is almost like an exotic extension of Sladden’s emporium, as the imagination is one of the extensions of the sensory brain. Sladden is a both a daydreaming businessman and an empirical visionary, having found at least visual (and olfactory at the end) confirmation of the reality of the imagination.

What I like about this story is precisely the absence of “Romantic” pathos. Sladden is no man transformed into a beetle who loses everything and then dies, as in Kafka’s THE METAMORPHOSIS (published only a little later, in 1912). He finds confirmation of the values of the imagination and relativises even further the familiar reality of his daily life. He does not “escape” into passive spectatorhood but finds that his imagination reinforces his active forces: seeking information by active inquiry, being careful what one says and to who, taking action to intervene. Nothing suggests that he gave up daydreaming, he succeeds in business yet he has no contempt for his success, there is nothing harsh about this story except the conquest of his little city – which shows him that the world of imagination is not a passive idyll but that a fighting spirit is necessary. I find the end happy and peaceful rather than tortured or cynical. Sladden has become that happy synthesis, the imaginative businessman.


Review: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Identity is synchronic, or belonging seamlessly to a larger collective; individuality is diachronic, or narrative, differentiating. That’s the lesson of the book for me.

Leckie has written a very gripping book, despite certain flaws (above all, too many useful coincidences). I think the double narrative (present day and flashbacks) is quite effective not only in advancing the world-building, but also of what might be called “history-building”. This use of history is a very adroit way of giving depth to a character who is supposed to have a zombie flatness to her. After this individuality present behind the hive-mind has been established, the final part of the book can proceed in linear fashion and we will feel the depth to the encounters that Breq has with various figures from her past. “Breq” is well-named, a part that fate “breaks” from a collective mind, a shard from the former Ship hive mind. Her nemesis the emperor Anaander Mianaai,contains a fatal flaw that is the key to her own more complex than was foreseen subjectivity. Anaander to me evokes otherness (ander) and also the bliss of loss of ego in Brahman (ananda). Miannai (pronounced me-an(d)-I in the audiobook) evokes a personality divided against itself. So we have several signs of the theme of a questioning of identity, of its reality and of its legitimacy. The Big Coincidence at the beginning when Breq comes across Seivarden (“severe” and “ardent”) is no doubt very useful to the advancement of the plot towards the end. However we need more than half the book to understand why Breq (who is constructed as a sort of emotionless soldier) unthinkingly saved, and later risked her life for, someone who she had never liked and who has become even more unlikeable. We come to understand that Breq is capable of empathy, and in several different ways. Seivarden is not just a souvenir from her distant past when she was a Ship, his condition as a human out of his time and shorn of his status makes him a shard like her. I think the history-building is very deftly handled. Leckie recounts two events, the genocide of the Garseddai and the rebellion of Ime, that resonate through the book and give depth to Breq’s motivations. Slowly we begin to see Breq as not an emotionless zombie, but as someone exceptionally gifted for empathy because of her situation as shard tragically ripped away from her captain and her Ship mind.

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