Sierra's Reviews > The Telling

The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin
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's review
Feb 04, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: signed-copies, science-fiction

The Telling is situated in Ursula Le Guin's ingeniously imagined Hainish universe. Six novels and several short stories have previously chronicled the Hainish experience through the worlds they have touched The stories take place several hundred years into Earth's future, where we learn that humanity is the result of Hanish colonization of the habitable worlds in the universe. Le Guin gives each of the numerous Hain worlds, includingbEarth, a distinct society, ensuring herself of a plethora of cultural variety to play in. Her titles have been categorized as feminist literature, utopian soence fiction, reinterpretedmyth and, of course, anthropological fiction but they are so myriad in nature that | hesitate to relegatebthem to any one of these headings. Even the catchall subject of sciencefiction/fantasy does not adequately
describe Le Gukn's unique work. Her penchant for strong, anomalous characters and story lines are too parallelbto reality, too based on a true mythological realm to attract readers ofbonly one genre.

Sutty is an Earthling and a Hain-trained ethnologist, known as an Observer. Because she knows something of their now-proscribed written language, she is assigned to the planet Aka to discover and document what Akan culture was like before the presence of previous Hain Observers unintentionally but significantly changed the culture forever. Her task borders on illegal and brings great personal risk to those who help her since the local government outlawed the planet's entire pre-space history. Planet-wide, all written records and prior cultural tendencies have been destroyed or are very deeply repressedbin the name of progress. The Akans have no desire to look like a backward society to their new, more technologically advanced allies. "What sacrifices these people have made! They agreed to deny their culture
and impoverish their lives for the 'March to the Stars, an artificial, theoretical goal, an imitation of societies?they assumed to be superior merely because they were capable of space flight," records Sutty. Sutty travels to the most rural areas of Aka, where she expects to find the most remnants of the original Akan culture.

During her participant observation, she discovers a prohibited tradition of significant importance, a rich oral tradition, known as the telling. To these rural people, it is nearly holy (for lack of a more culturally significant term) to partake in storytelling, as ether yoz (listener) or maz (teller) Sutty's challenge is in finding a common thread:
connecting the stones, a semblance of purpose for their Importance. As anboutsider, this goal is a struggle, for itbis difficult for the Akans to describe something so innate in their tradttions.

Aka is a realistic, fully fieshed-out fictional world with its own folklore, language and history. Readers are immersed in a well developed alien environment viewed within its own cultural context. Sutty could be an actual person, complete in her imperfect humanity. She harbors ethnocentricbideas despite her very attempts to thwart them. Learning throughout her experience, she eventually develops an unreserved and invoked role in the society she is studying. Shebgrows into this new role of potential
caretaker with the idea that she mght be able to use her knowledge when she returns home to plead the Akan case to their government and helpbthem return to the ways of old.

Like many of her previous novels, The Telling demands careful attenion and an appreciation of Le Guin's s peripherally allegorical subtexts. I mourned with Sutty as she realized that the original Akan culture, a rich. thriving traditionnwas traded away like chattel and replaced by a failed carbon copy of a space-faring society.

This is a reprint of my original review in the Aug/Sep 2000 issue of Explorations.

If I recall correctly, I met Ms. LeGuin at a B&N event that we hosted via James Killen.
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