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.
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2 thoughts on “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight

  1. Fascinating and thought-provoking as always!

    I was listening to Guillermo del Toro’s commentary on Hellboy a few weeks ago. He said something interesting that connects here:

    He said: “I think that a lot of people approach screenplay writing in the post 1980s as an exercise in logic, and I despise this.”

    And then to clarify: “Mythologies sometimes just are because they are. The fact that Mercury has wings in his feet; you don’t have to explain the genetic process by which he got them. Or you don’t need to explain why Cthulhu creatures have tentacles and not feathers.”

    Also: “In a lot of American genre product, mythologies are crafted with an eye towards logic, and that to me is a big mistake.”

    Certainly, this is something I need to consider more deeply.


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