Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read: “April in Paris” and “The Masters”

Welcome back to the Le Guin (re)read! Today we’re tackling the first and second stories she sold to paying markets. “April in Paris” was published in the magazine Fantastic in 1962, and “The Masters” was published in 1963 in the same magazine.

I’m reading them in a collection of her early stories, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. According to her introductory notes, before she was published she amassed a long string of rejections (and practiced her perseverance!). This for a writer who would later go on to win all of the major science fiction and fantasy awards, become one of only five women to be named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by her peers in SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), and be awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. So if you’re an aspiring writer in the “collecting rejections” stage, take heart!

But I digress…

Note: This post is an analysis of two stories, so there will be minor spoilers throughout. I’ll flag those that are more major.

April in Paris

The first thing you notice as a reader is that the speculative element isn’t immediately apparent. Le Guin devotes a chunk of words to describing the forlorn state of Barry Pennywither, and then another chunk on the even more forlorn state of Jehan Lenoir before finally introducing the summoning/time-travel spell that connects the two. I suspect that if this had been a later story, she would have gotten there quicker.

As in her novels, she stays in deep third-person POV, describing the moment of connection first from Lenoir’s perspective, then from Barry’s very different one. There’s a funny moment when Barry realizes that the other man is speaking not English but French…and there’s something funny about his French…and then a page later he realizes that the man’s speech is odd because it’s very old French, something he has only ever seen written. (Le Guin uses the same device in City of Illusions – coming up a little later in this blog series – when a character has to draw on his knowledge of an ancient language that he has never heard spoken.)

[SPOILERS]

Although this is an early story, it’s clearly in dialogue with others of its subgenre: she has obviously read other time-travel tales and decided to explore a different angle. So her characters exchange knowledge, but quickly realize there’s no point in trying to apply that knowledge in their respective times. What would they do with it? Who would believe them? What would be the point, really? Instead, they simply revel in having it, and even more, sharing it.

For that is the crux of the story: the human connection. That’s what our duo is really looking for, not knowledge for its own sake. Later on, when more characters join the initial pair, they build even stronger connections (though rather heteronormative and even sexist to today’s sensibilities). Finally, they realize that connection (and its flip side, loneliness) is what has created the magic at the core of the story, literally. And ta da, there’s the theme.

[END SPOILERS]

So the story is pretty straightforward, by Le Guin’s later standards. But one can already see the preoccupation with relationships and psychology over the speculative-fiction trappings. She’s using SF to say something; she’s not interested in the cool SF ideas for their own sake, but what she has to say cannot be said without SF.

The Masters

By contrast, this story is all about knowledge: the control and withholding of it, the reinvention and secret sharing of it.

Again, it starts with a very tight focus (though the initial point of view is omniscient): the protagonist, Ganil, in the middle of a scene that’s vivid and visually arresting but has no context. Gradually Le Guin pulls back to give us information about the world (aka worldbuilding): this is an initiation, and Ganil is a Master of what in our world we would call a guild.

One interesting note: Ganil’s friend and mentor, Mede, is described as having blue eyes, but this is so unusual in Ganil’s world as to be seen as a deformity. Le Guin’s Earthsea world is famous for being a rare early fantasy setting full of brown and black people. “The Masters” is six years before the first Earthsea book, with the desire to upend racial assumptions already on her mind.

We learn that although Ganil is a master of his craft, being a master doesn’t involve calculation or critical thinking, just memorization. Mede is the one who nudges Ganil along to (re)discovering this dangerous knowledge, not by telling him outright, but by planting the seeds for Ganil to figure it out himself. It’s exhilarating watching this happen, the excitement of discovery and then of explaining it — rather like “April in Paris”, in fact.

[SPOILERS]

The only woman in the story is Ganil’s love interest. It’s a rather feeble attempt at inclusion, as in Le Guin’s early novels. Thank goodness she realized that she could write about women (and other genders, as in The Left Hand of Darkness) if she wanted to.

By the end, control has come down heavily on our thinkers. Mede is dead, and Ganil is forced to endure terrible punishments and then flee. But, like Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451, he flees with his knowledge and Mede’s still intact. All is not lost; there is hope in the darkness.

[END SPOILERS]

“April in Paris” is a story that would not be possible without its core fantastical device, and it centers around two intellectuals who bond over sharing knowledge, but it’s really about human connection. By contrast, “The Masters” is less about science fiction than it is about science, the joy of it and the suppression of knowledge and the unbeatable relentlessness of human curiosity.

 

Next up, we’ll return to the Hainish Cycle with Planet of Exile. I hope you’ll join me!

 

 

 

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