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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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Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read: The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas

blog-ursula-le-guin-omelasWelcome to the first installment in the Ursula K. Le Guin (Re)read, in which I geek out about her work and invite you to join me! We’re starting with her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, because (a) it’s so well-known, and (b) it’s short, so it makes a good read-along.

The story was first published in 1973. To put that in context, her first novel was published in 1966. Here are the dates for some of Le Guin’s best-known novels:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea #1) — 1968
  • The Left Hand of Darkness (a Hainish Cycle novel) — 1969
  • The Lathe of Heaven (standalone) — 1971
  • The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea #2) — 1971
  • The Farthest Shore (Earthsea #3) — 1972
  • The Dispossessed (a Hainish Cycle novel) — 1974

So by the time she published “Omelas”, she was already at the top of her game as a professional science fiction writer. And it shows…

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The story starts off like any other fantasy story — describing the city of Omelas and its people in grand, sweeping terms. Sounds pretty typical. But a few paragraphs in, we get this:

Given a description such as this one tends to look next for the King, mounted on a splendid stallion and surrounded by his noble knights, or perhaps in a golden litter borne by great-muscled slaves. But there was no king. They did not use swords, or keep slaves. They were not barbarians. I do not know the rules and laws of their society, but I suspect that they were singularly few.

Whoa…suddenly we’re in a meta-story. The narrator is making comments on the story, in first person, while telling it. This isn’t a normal story at all–in fact, there aren’t even any characters (except one, whom we’ll get to later). It’s a thought experiment that actually works.

Having said that, there’s also some beautiful, lyrical writing. From the same paragraph:

The trouble is that we have a bad habit … of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.

…and then she goes on to show, through the rest of the story, how happiness can be complicated, even poisoned. Do the people of Omelas have true happiness? …I don’t know, what do you think?

She goes on in this vein for a while, speculating about what Omelas does and does not have (cars? probably not. orgies? sure, let’s give them orgies. Good thing I wasn’t drinking anything just then…). The point is to illustrate that Omelas isn’t an inane utopia, it’s complex enough to be believable.

And then we get to the real meat of the story: the child hidden in the closet, who must be unhappy so that everyone else in Omelas can thrive.

I knew this about the story going in, so I was surprised how effective it still was for me as I read it. Le Guin describes the child’s circumstances in unflinching, brutal detail after detail. The pure happiness described earlier begins to sound horrifically callous.

Then the narrator explains how the people of Omelas justify the suffering to themselves, once they learn of it around the age of puberty: the child is too far gone to benefit from kindness, they can do nothing to change its circumstances anyway, and all the good in Omelas depends on this one child’s misery. It all sounds fairly reasonable to most of the people in the city, since they go along with it.

…except for the few who refuse to participate, and just opt out by leaving the city. They don’t come back and start a revolution to rescue the child, they don’t take their loved ones with them; they just make a decision, one at a time, to leave.

The question is left hanging: would you accept this deal? To have a prosperous society, everyone in it happy and content, at that price? But…no matter how awful the price, would you really be able to walk away?

There are any number of parallels one could draw. It’s tempting to ask: What is this an allegory of? What is Le Guin really writing about? We could come up with any number of answers, based on contemporary issues or issues that were big at the time when she was writing.

My copy (the ebook edition) includes an afterword by Le Guin herself, who talks about her influences, and then writes:

In talking about the “meaning” of a story, we need to be careful not to diminish it, impoverish it. A story can say different things to different people. It may have no definitive reading.

And a reader may find a meaning in it that the writer never intended, never imagined, yet recognizes at once as valid.

What do you think? How should we read the story? What does it “mean”?

As I mentioned earlier, I knew the basic premise of the story ahead of time, but I was amazed and delighted by the mastery of craft woven around it. The story’s not just a fable or a philosophical question; she has fun with it too, and knows exactly when to throw in meta-commentary or immerse us in the moment, when to draw on our emotions and when to make us think. And I was blown away by the ending. That’s quite a feat for a story with only one character (and no character arc…unless you count the society as a whole, or the reader’s reaction? What do you think?).

Over to you! Did the story work for you? How effective is it in what it sets out to do? If you’re familiar with Le Guin’s work, is “Omelas” a good representation of her writing?

Next up: We’re going back to the beginning! I’m aiming to read the Hainish Cycle (both novels and short stories) straight through in publication order, with maybe some unrelated short stories thrown in for variety. Here’s what’s lined up for the next couple of posts:

 

  • “Semley’s Necklace” (short story; also published as “The Dowry of the Angyar”)
  • Rocannon’s World (novel; note that it starts with a prologue, which is actually “Semley’s Necklace”)
  • [short story, TBD]
  • Planet of Exile (novel)

…and then we will see! Hope to see you back here to join the (re)read on May 7.

 

Women in A Game of Thrones

One of the strengths of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, is its gritty realism. His writing doesn’t pull its punches. Among other things, that sensibility extends to his society-level worldbuilding. Today we’re looking at his treatment of women through that lens.

(Note: I’ve read the first two books, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, and haven’t yet watched the HBO series. There will be spoilers for both books. If you’d like to chime in, you’re most welcome, but please limit your discussion to the first two books/seasons.)

Cersei Lannister

Cersei Lannister. Image credit: http://www.hbocanada.com/gameofthrones/

Martin’s world is a classic medieval fantasy world, based on a feudal society where women are bargaining chips and their possible futures are severely limited. Many fantasy writers working in similar worlds take some liberties here to allow their female characters more autonomy and a greater range of options. Martin has chosen to stick with historical realism. This isn’t a bad thing in itself — science fiction and fantasy author Lois McMaster Bujold wrote an extremely strong noblewoman in Paladin of Souls under the same constraints. Let’s look at how well Martin does.

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