Ursula K. Le Guin
Completed 12/15/2018, Reviewed 12/15/2018
“The Telling” is the last book Le Guin wrote in the Hainish cycle, a group of eight books that share a common universe, but can be read separately and as standalones. The few terms that may be unfamiliar, like Ekumen and ansible, can be found on the internet easily, so you don’t really need any background from the other books. Despite my love of Le Guin, I didn’t enjoy this book that much. It’s soft science fiction in the classic sense, that is, more anthropological than the hard science. Normally, this is where Le Guin shines, but I found the world she built to be not that interesting. She says a lot of interesting things about books and religion and theocratic oppression. However, it simply didn’t grab me as much as I would have thought these topics would have.
As usual, there isn’t much plot. Sutty is from India in the distant future. She’s chosen to go to the planet Aka as an observer from the Ekumen, a confederation of planets of which Hain is the originating world. When she arrives, she finds that the culture she has been sent to study has been usurped by a corporation government that is trying to raise the level of technology to match the alien visitors. Rather than absorb the new technologies and sciences, the corporation has chosen to outlaw and purge the old culture, including books, religion, and people. After finding almost nothing in the big city on Aka, Sutty gets to go to small village where the last vestiges of the culture are still alive. However, she is closely watched by the Monitor, a corporate agent who is also looking to rout out the remnants of the old ways.
My biggest problem with the book was that nearly nothing happened. While this isn’t unusual for a Le Guin novel, I found it problematic here. In the place of the action, there’s a lot of research of the old culture. Sutty spends a lot of time trying to figure out the old religion. Specifically, she realizes that it’s not really a religion at all, but a way of being and remembering and sharing stories. That’s all well and good, and normally, I would really embrace that. However, I found it to be very meandering to the point of being confusing. Sure, Sutty is confused as she studies the religion and traditions and stories, but the way it was written, I felt like Le Guin never really had a firm grip on it either. She wrote all around it, giving Sutty and us a sense, but never a good solid grip on the culture. On the other hand, this non-religion which Sutty calls The Telling does not fall into the trappings of religion that we have here on Earth, like forced duality, fear of the other, and bigotry.
I found the prose to be not nearly as beautiful as I found it in Le Guin’s other books. It was at times muddled, especially in trying to relate Sutty’s research. I found the readability to be tough.
On the positive side, Sutty is an interesting character. She’s a lesbian, which I think is a first for Le Guin. Her sexuality is not in the forefront, but it creates a well-rounded background for Sutty, and conflict with the rightist corporate regime on Aka. The Earth itself is also an interesting character. It parallels to the experience of Aka, with an oppressive world theocracy that also destroys books and culture.
I give the book three stars out of five. It’s a decent book, but probably one of the weakest books by Le Guin I’ve read. It has a lot of interesting concepts and great moments, but it’s bogged down by muddled prose and less than stellar execution. My next Le Guin read will be her earliest Hainish book, written over thirty years before this one. It will be interesting to contrast the style of an earlier work with her later style, which I’ve read a lot of lately.