“The Telling” by Ursula K. Le Guin

leguincoverartOver the next few weeks, Mythgard is running a free online course on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I’m rereading Le Guin’s Hainish books in order to prepare. The Telling is the most recent book in the series, published in 2000.

In some ways, The Telling is a synthesis of Le Guin’s previous Hainish novels. It combines the political skepticism of The Dispossessed, the anti-imperialism of The Word for World is Forest, and the intimacy of The Left Hand of Darkness. Yet, Le Guin never simply rehashes previous work. The Telling has its own identity as an exploration of how cultures survive government attempts to homogenize them.

In The Telling, a a Terran envoy named Sutty travels to the planet Aka to study its culture for the Ekumen. Although Sutty had studied the traditional language and culture before arriving on Aka, the planet underwent a political revolution during her decades-long voyage (Le Guin doesn’t ignore time dilation). The new government, the Corporation, has outlawed the old ways and called for a “March to the Stars” (think the Cultural Revolution under Mao). Meanwhile, priests of the old religion, the maz, attempt to preserve the older culture through oral tradition, i.e. the “telling.”

The legendary science fiction editor  John W. Campbell instructed authors to “show me a creature that thinks as well as a man, or better, but not like a man.” Le Guin meets Campbell’s challenge. Akan culture isn’t simply a twist on a specific Earth culture, or a question of superficial aesthetic differences. The Akans think differently. For example, one maz tells Sutty that the point of the telling is to remind listens “what goes right, as it should go. Not what goes wrong.” In other words, the oral tradition relates positive examples for listeners and shuns cautionary tales. It seems like it would be difficult to translate the phrase “learning from past mistakes” into Akan.

In my review of The Left Hand of Darkness, I noted that Genly Ai felt somewhat vaguely sketched as a character. He served primarily as an objective, scientific point-of-view voice for readers. His background and personal history seldom affected the story. Not so with The Telling. Sutty is a well developed character and brings her own personal baggage to the mission. She lived and suffered under a theocratic government on Earth, so she struggles to put aside her preconceptions. This makes Sutty a less confident character as she struggles to balance diplomatic protocol with her distaste for the Corporation regime.

The Telling is a novella rather than a novel, which doesn’t always work in its favor. On the one hand, there isn’t enough plot for a full novel. The book consists mostly of Sutty talking with Akans and learning about their culture. There isn’t a central conflict or antagonist to focus Sutty’s efforts. Even the Corporation recedes into the background once Sutty embarks upon a journey to the ancient city of Okzat Ozkat. On the other hand, the ending feels a bit too rushed and convenient. I don’t know if the book should have been longer or shorter, but it’s not quite at the sweet spot.

Minor complaints aside, The Telling is yet another reason why Le Guin is rightly considered the master of cultural anthropology in science fiction.

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