Online Edition: Fall 2000

The Telling by Ursula LeGuin

The Telling

Ursula LeGuin

Harcourt Brace ($24)

by Alan Deniro

Early in her new novel The Telling, Ursula LeGuin writes about a fundamentalist monoculture trying to squash the "old ways" of learning. Upon encountering this I was hesitant. What literary territory regarding the dangers of fundamentalism hadn't been tread and retread by countless authors before her? What could LeGuin have possibly considered terra incognita? Even with her previous track record as one of the finest writers of science fiction--writing, always, with unquestionable moral tenacity and grace--there was the fear that even LeGuin would falter against the temptation of easy accusations and shrillness against cardboard cutout bad guys.

I'm pleased to report that, when the temptation for those very sentiments presents itself in The Telling, LeGuin openly refuses them, and then subtly discusses (primarily through the discursions and heart-pangs of Sully, her protagonist) the refusal itself. It's a delicate balancing act, but what earns the novel's keep are the strengths that are nearly always associated with any of LeGuin's work: the taut, lucid prose, the exploration of cogent archetypes (both in the natural world and those constructed from human society), the assurance of tone and pace. This is a novel with a great deal of imagined history behind it, both ballasted with "back story" and filling in the nooks and crannies--especially rich if you are already familiar with LeGuin's other works in the "Hainish cycle" Deep in the recesses of history, a species called the Hain seeded and populated a myriad of worlds, including Earth. In other words, the Hain were the ancestors for countless species throughout the galaxy, all more (or less) alike genetically, but also carrying profound cultural differences, so that the word "human" between them is barely applicable. At some point in the future, humankind has entered the concourse of galactic society. One of the apparatus of the Ekumen, a kind of diplomatic bureau that observes and exchanges information with burgeoning cultures on planets that haven't yet "broken through" technologically to space travel yet.

Against this centuries-long backdrop, Sutty is one of only four members of the Ekumen on the planet Aka, with a singular, technology-driven culture that has rapidly been accelerating with Hain technology. LeGuin has drawn on the cultural shifts in Maoist China as a taproot source for her extrapolation. Sutty is one of only four representatives of the Ekumen on Aka, and stuck in the sterile capital city, she knows the older culture and writing-system from her training on Earth, but the "superstitions" have mostly been eliminated by the present government, in which people are not necessarily people but "producers-consumers." A surprising chance to visit the rustic, outlying areas comes up, and Sutty finds herself eventually in the town of Okzat-Ozkat, where the older, quasi-Taoist lifestyle still lives, albiet underground. It is a culture in which storytellers and wise-people, known as maz. To the new, technology-craving government, the maz are seen as plague carriers; thus, books are burned, and learning of ancient traditions is virulently suppressed. As Sully delves deeper into this culture, first as a dispassionate observer, and later as more of an active participant, she continually returns in her mind to her own haunted past, on Earth, with her family's run-in and hiding from the theocratically fundamentalist Unists. The outcome--involving a dour technocrat of the state who continually pesters Sully in the countryside--is moving because through the course of the book, Sully struggles with her own assumptions.

The cycle of stories and novels LeGuin has written in the "Hainish cycle" has been a constant recurring well LeGuin has drawn on throughout her career. One would call The Telling a coda of sorts to the cycle, except for the fact that I doubt that LeGuin has exhausted this milieu's possibilites. It's a large tapestry that encompasses her early, semi-apprenticeship novels (Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions), two of the signal SF novels in recent memory, (The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness) and a good deal of novella and short story work over more than thirty years. In particular, it's worth noting that LeGuin has found river gold with a string of innovative shorter pieces in the 1990s based in the Hainish milieu. "The Shobie's Story" precipitates many of the concerns of The Telling, engaging the reader with a kind of quantum narrative on a spaceship voyage, in which each character experiences separate realities--anchored by the easy, almost "Mom, are we there yet?" banter of a well-rendered family. It is as if "Schrodinger's cat" has become a disturbing Escher-esque chimera and an easy-going housepet at the same time.

In all of these fictions, LeGuin is rarely interested in priviledging the "macros" of panoramic space opera: great battles and treaties, larger than life heros saving the day against all odds. When these events do occur, the backdrop is inverted--relatively ordinary people go through ordeals on a human scale, even when interplanetary history and intrigue swirls around them. In this fashion, The Telling hones in on the commonplace of the alien, as Sutty and the Akans interact through meals, sex, storytelling, and folk medicine.

This, of course, is not to say that LeGuin is somehow a "domestic" writer, content to dwell only on home life (whatever that is). Indeed, her feminism continually informs much of her best work, and LeGuin has provided for us some of the most sustained critiques of hidebound notions of gender in the latter half of the twentieth century. This is intricately tied to the science fictional modes that she writes in; it is nearly inconceivable to think of the tropes taken away from her if the speculative, "unreal" elements were taken away from her. As she writes in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness: "Yes, indeed the people in [the novel] are androgynous, but that doesn't mean I'm predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I'm merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of the day in certain weathers, we already are." In a similar fashion, it is clear in The Telling that nothing is clear, that the dialectics are always blurring into each other.

Although there are gaps and diffractions in the storyline, loose ends that unravel at times, this is also a novel that teaches the reader how to read it. The novel is filled with elliptical fragments, over and over again told by the characters to each other. "We're not the outside world," one of the teachers tells Sutty. "You know? We are the world. We're its language. So we live and it lives. You see? If we don't say the words, what is there in our world?" The Telling is a permeable novel, loosely bound together in order to let the prose breathe. It is also, in of itself, a snippet of a conversation (and I think LeGuin is consciously positing the novel as such) without end. Ultimately, it is not a novel about radical dogmatism, or the frail chances of healing between wide cultural gulfs. The Telling is about the telling. "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--/Success in Circuit Lies," Emily Dickinson wrote, and this koan-like sensibility envelops the book. Once again, by LeGuin's hands, the audience is in the story's thrall.

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Fall 2000 Table of Contents