Fantastic Reviews - Science Fiction Book Review
The Telling hardback cover The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin

Harcourt hardcover - copyright 2000
264 pages (left)

Book read in October 2000

Rating: 8/10  (Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes


       This review does not give away the ending or any plot twists of The Telling.  It does discuss some of the philosophical issues at the heart of the novel.  If you prefer to come to The Telling fresh and have all of LeGuin's thoughts unfold for you as you read the novel, you may prefer to read The Telling first, and then to come back to this review and let me know what you think.

Ace trade paperback - 2001 edition
cover art by Victor Stabin
246 pages (right)
The Telling trade paperback cover

          Science fiction readers have to be delighted that Ursula LeGuin is once again focusing her energies on her Hainish sequence of stories and novels, set in the universe of the Ekumen.  She has written several short stories in that universe recently, including the outstanding related novellas collected in Four Ways to Forgiveness, and now The Telling is LeGuin's first full-length Hainish novel in over twenty years.

LeGuin has no equal in writing the sort of anthropological science fiction typically featured in her Hainish stories.  But then, LeGuin arguably has no equal in writing science fiction, period.  Indeed, LeGuin arguably has no equal in writing, period.

Sutty, the protagonist of The Telling, has joined the Ekumen to escape an Earth that has come to be dominated by religious fundamentalists.  Sutty has had to suffer not only from persecution at the hands of the fundamentalists in power, in part due to her sexual orientation, but also terrorism orchestrated by fundamentalists not in power.

She is sent as an observer to Aka, an underdeveloped world with which the Ekumen has recently established contact.  While she is in transit, however, Aka undergoes a dramatic upheaval, triggered by its exposure to galactic society.  She arrives to find Aka dominated by the Corporation, dedicated to accelerating industrialization on Aka to catch up the norm on other worlds, including Earth.  The new Akan order is a strange mix of capitalism and communism, whose citizens are labeled "producer-consumers."  The Corporation has successfully achieved rapid industrial and economic advances, but at the cost of eradicating Aka's own history and much of the associated culture.  The Corporation has dictated that scientific knowledge and devotion to economic growth must replace all of the old pre-industrial superstitious beliefs.  Sutty has thus fled from religious intolerance on Earth, to arrive instead at a system of intolerance of religion.  Sutty finds the Corporation's methods no more agreeable.  Ironically, she repeatedly has to admonish herself against her own intolerance of this society's ways.

The Corporation's reforms are so encompassing that all of Aka's own languages save one have been outlawed, in favor of Hainish.  All of Akan literature has been destroyed, except for instructional tapes.  Sutty, who was sent specifically to study Akan language and literature, is very bored.

Things begin to look up when Sutty is permitted to leave the capital city and travel to the rural town of Okzat-Ozkat.  There she discovers that many of the Akan people are defying the Corporation's laws to preserve their language and traditions.  Against the government's wishes, Sutty befriends these people and seeks to learn of the old culture.  This places her in persistent conflict with a Corporation "Monitor," a man whose loathing of the old culture is unnervingly sincere.

Learning the old ways proves a much bigger job than Sutty realizes.  Traditional Akan culture comprises a vast and complex tapestry, called the telling.  At first Sutty perceives the telling as a kind of religion, but soon comes to understand that it is much more, and less, than a religion in the Terran sense.  It includes much philosophy, but apparently no central tenets.  Storytelling is an important component of the telling, but Sutty finds the tales ambiguous in the extreme.  The telling also includes much more, from ideographic written language to herbalism to poetry to communal meditation to cooking methods.

To learn more, Sutty travels high into the mountains to the last great library and storehouse of knowledge of the old culture.  But before long she comes to realize that she will never be able to grasp the whole of the telling in the time available to her.  What she may be able to do, however, is to find a way to help preserve the telling from the Corporation's intolerance.

LeGuin's prose as always is elegant but not overbearing.  She brings the planet of Aka alive with subtle little differences from our own world that always ring true.  For example, Sutty realizes that because Aka's society exists entirely on one large continent, its people have no real concept of what a foreigner is.  LeGuin is also endlessly creative with linguistics, as when she tells us that Akan language has a dual pronoun, which can be used for a married couple or a pregnant woman.

LeGuin defines the concept of the telling in fascinating detail, but she makes no attempt to flesh out the telling itself.  For that kind of a book, I refer you to LeGuin's Always Coming Home, which is loaded with a fictional culture's stories, poetry, even an audiocassette of music.  In The Telling, she just gives us intriguing little tidbits, such as the truism, "Belief is the wound that knowledge heals," and the story of the foolish man who refused to part with his sack of bean meal no matter how much he was offered in return (LeGuin only hints at whether the foolish man did the right thing and, if so, why), and a single enigmatic fragment of poetry:

Where my guides lead me in kindness
I follow, follow lightly,
and there are no footprints
in the dust behind us.

The point of this novel is not to show us all the elements of Aka's culture, but to send a message regarding our own.  You may read it differently, but I don't see this novel as pro-religion or anti-religion or anti-capitalist or anti-Marxist or even anti-materialist; I see it as pro-culture.  I don't imagine that LeGuin would advise the citizens of a poor third world nation to eschew the benefits of the new technologies now becoming available to them, but rather would caution them not to forget their own history and traditions in the rush to "modernize."

The same advice, of course, applies to Western society.  One of the Akans explains to Sutty that without the telling, they would be as a baby caught in a rushing river, tumbling and spinning with nothing to hold on to.  I think LeGuin has seen some folks so fixated on their cellular phones and shiny new SUV's that they haven't noticed the river starting to carry them away.  But these conjectures do not do justice to the intricacies of the ideas LeGuin presents, which you can appreciate only by reading the novel yourself.

          If you are looking for an adventure story loaded with plot twists, this novel ain't it.  Rather, you should read this if you have any interest in a beautifully written examination of what it means to be human and what gives being human meaning.
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Copyright 2000 Aaron Hughes

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Our book club's web pages for Ursula K. Le Guin books (include Le Guin bibliography):
The Telling
The Earthsea Trilogy
The Dispossessed

Links to webpages about Ursula K. Le Guin :
Ursula K. Le Guin's Web Site
Ursula K. Le Guin - Wikipedia
Strange Horizons: Review of The Telling people | Ursula K. Le Guin

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 09 June 2013