By Ursula K. Le Guin
Published: 2000 (Harcourt)
Okay, confession time; I have never read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin before. When I heard a review of The Telling and found myself intrigued, it seemed like a good place to start. I know that’s an odd thing to say about the ninth book in a series, but I was assured that it could be read as a standalone book. In hindsight, some background on the Hanish culture may have made it slightly easier to get into this book, but I never got to a point where I didn’t understand what was going on.
The Telling is about a planet called Aka, where the local religious beliefs are outlawed by a totalitarian, technology-worshipping state. Sort of a parallel to the Cultural Revolution of China, where the Communist government suppressed the Taoist beliefs. Interestingly we see this world through the eyes of Sutty; a young woman of Indian descent who grew up on an Earth taken over by a cruel theocracy. The comparison between the two societies; a theocracy destroying opposing ideas and making life hell for those who didn’t agree with it, and an ideologically driven non-religious state destroying opposing ideas and making life hell for those who didn’t agree with it, was interesting. A poignant reminder that it isn’t any particular ideology that threatens history, information, and freethought, but rather dogma and fanaticism. Something that is important for us to keep in mind today more than ever.
I could tell from the start that Le Guin is a great writer. The description of Sutty’s life on Earth at the start was beautifully immersive, and throughout the book Aka feels like a real world, and the Telling feels like a real way of life. Sutty was also a great character, and a great narrator. After leaving Earth, she becomes an Observer; someone whose job it is to learn and the culture of a new planet. Given the contrast between Aka and the Earth she grew up on, this is sometimes an uncomfortable position for her to be in. We also get to see a lot of Sutty’s life on Earth, either through flashbacks or her telling her own story. I liked reading about Sutty’s childhood with her aunt and uncle, and also the scenes with Sutty and her girlfriend Pao.
Unfortunately, I found Sutty to be the only memorable character. Other characters didn’t get the development needed, which was especially problematic during the middle of the book, where lots of new characters with similar sounding names were introduced at once.
In fact, the middle of the book was very slow and boring, as we pretty much just get pages and pages of how The Telling works. As well as being slow, the fact that Sutty could find so many people who practiced the old ways so easily made the conflict between the corporation-state and the ‘maz’ who keep the old ways alive seem non-existent. Even near the end of the book, when the heroes are presented with a threat to their secrecy, the problem ends up resolving itself.
The Telling is a good exploration of ideas. It contains a beautiful world, that explores a lot of interesting ideas about language and culture. It’s a chilling look at the dangers of trying to erase the past; no matter what the motivation for doing so might be. This story is a love letter to history and books and freedom of thought. Unfortunately, it was sorely lacking in plot and action. As much as I loved some parts of this book, there were also parts I found really boring. As interesting as the ideas in this book were, it probably wasn’t the best introduction to Le Guin.