The Telling by Ursula le Guin (Harcourt, 2000)
Ursula le Guin is a giant of American literature. She has won more awards than you can shake a stick at – and she’s done it predominantly in the field of science fiction, using SF as a lens to consider questions of anthropology, environmentalism and political systems. Her Complete Orsinian Tales has recently been published in the prestigious Library of America series.
The Telling is not one of her well known books. The Earthsea series (beginning as children’s fantasy and later becoming more adult and more feminist) is more famous. It was serialised on Radio 4 recently, along with The Left Hand of Darkness, in which a human envoy encounters a race which is androgynous most of the time.
The Telling is the story of another such envoy, sent to the planet Aka to study the natives there. But by the time Sutty gets to the place she has studied, everything has changed. The religion has been suppressed, the old literature has been destroyed, and the people are in the process of ‘re-education’.
It’s not hard to see the parallels with China during the period of The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Sutty perseveres with her work, and finds the fragments of the old civilisation that still survive. There’s nothing hi-tech here – Sutty works by talking to people, and listening to their stories, their Telling.
The most terrible thing that the Corporation that rules the planet has done is to destroy the libraries. And what Sutty can do for the people who are preserving the traditional culture is to help them to save the Library they have managed to keep from destruction. This is a very topical book, in that respect.
The Telling is a good introduction to Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels – the stories that deal with the Ekumen and all the planets that belong to it. And because it is concerned mainly with the workings of a culture and civilisation, it is accessible even to readers who think they don’t like science fiction.
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