Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Review: The Telling by Ursula Le Guin

The Telling by Ursula Le Guin is a science fiction story following a woman's attempts to understand a planet's culture. It is a somewhat intellectual and abstract book, with very subtle world and character building, about fundamentalism and the themes of freedom - social, political, cultural, intellectual, religious. I found the ideas engaging, but the story itself was slow. A good book, but definitely not for everyone.

The story, on first impressions, didn't entirely make sense, a lot of the word building was backwards; for example, the opening memories were not explained fully till near end, and Sutty's past was revealed very slowly and in fragments. The emphasis was much more on the exploration of culture and ideas than the personalities and events, although they paralleled each other in many ways. It appears to be set in a preexisting universe, part of the Hainish cycle, so readers familiar with the setting won't feel quite as lost - still, you shouldn't have to head to the internet to figure out what kind of universe a book is set in.

Sutty is Indian and lesbian, with a traumatic history on war torn Earth as it reeled through ecological disaster and religious oppression and terrorism. She escaped Terra by studying to become part of the XX , ultimately becoming an Observer, whose job it is to impartially record new cultures and preserve knowledge for the Ekumen (an advanced galactic race). The story slowly unveils her personality and past to us, and transforms her impartial quest for knowledge into an intensely personal, almost spiritual, one.

She set out to be an impartial observer of the Taoism-like culture of the planet Aka, as her first assignment. Unfortunately, space travel means that by the time you arrive somewhere, a generation or so has passed, and everything has changed. In this case, the early contact from Terran missionaries has triggered a radical overreaction, leading to an oppressive, obsessively anti-religious regime that values consumerism and productivity over individualism, condemns homosexual relations and violently seeks out and destroys remnants of the previous way of life. Especially books. Writing is now anathema, and the advanced technology imparted by galactic contact enables them to make the jump away from the written word and still function. Notably, this cultural shift does have logic to it, and while it essentially becomes 'religious' dogma, much of what it condemns is valid (e.g. blind tradition, faith over reason). And yet, it is odd because the original Aka had no religion, only a philosophy-culture, so it is reacting to an essentially alien concept, much as an oyster forms a pearl around an irritant.

She is trapped in the clean, controlled city for a long time, but finally is granted permission to head into backwaters, and there she discovers the 'real' people of Aka, rural villagers and country folk who preserve the old traditions in secrecy, and are considered savages by the larger, paler skinned Dovsa. And continue to tell the Telling. The Telling is what guides and structures the stable and peaceful lives of the Akans, is enormous and pervasive, and is ultimately, very simple. The Telling is the constant telling and writing and recounting of stories and parables and rules, enforcing morals and connecting people, and endlessly weaving history into people's lives. The foremost 'tellers' are the maz and the yoz, respected persons who take on the mantle of the Telling, and then become ordinary people again.

I had quite a hard time piecing together setting, context and characters. I didn't really know how common space travel was, if the different galactic races were aliens, as the ones we saw were basically human, how they differed from Earth humans - other than in culture - what kind of time span we were operating on, even how old Sutty was. A lot of this could be deduced after you had read the whole book, but I think the main point was that it didn't matter, the story was about the themes, not the details. But the details do help to make a story interesting! (Turns out the Hainish were the original 'humans' who spread them around the galaxy to create a variety of cultures. There's no way to know this from the book itself, but it would have been useful background information).

This is a book best approached for its perspective on culture, religion, learning, prejudice and oppression, rather than for its story. While I liked the main character, she tried so hard to keep herself out of the way out the events, and what she was learning, that it was difficult to get to know her. While she increasingly fails to do this, as she becomes increasingly involved, does let us see much more of her, it doesn't really happen until well into to the book.

For the first part of the book, all we know of her lesbianism is that the homophobia of the Corporation is mentioned as a possible problem. Over time, we get glimpses into her past, which gradually build a sensible picture, including of her lover Pao on Earth. The 'old' culture features a free and easy attitude towards sexuality, with the only truly permanent and monogamous pairings being between the maz, and with homosexual couples being almost as frequent as heterosexual couples. At one point, she 'shares her sheets' with a young woman she is travelling with, but her heart isn't really in it, and she longs for a more mature relationship, and that really, any lover that isn't Pao is enjoyable but meaningless. We don't really see anything of this relationship, only what she recounts, matter of factly, among her other observations. She only outwardly becomes passionate when she vents her fear and hatred and pain on the official, Yara, who follows her, but ultimately resolves that too, gaining painful, valuable insight into the people and the mindset of the Corporation.

As a study of belief and culture and acceptance, it was fascinating, a more gentle read that could have been an theoretical essay, but was instead framed in a fictional context - allowing the situations to actually seem relevant, rather than a simple mental exercise. The narrative in many ways reflects the themes and the story it is tell; lyrical, fragmented, consciously trying to avoid prejudice and 'telling rather than showing'. If you enjoy discussing philosophy, themes of freedom, or looking at what might constitute an ideal society, you'll enjoy The Telling.

In some ways, I felt that Sutty was meant to represent us, pursuing deliberate detachment to allow the culture and events to be seen clearly, but her underlying pain and personal history (which follows valid themes in today's world; gay rights, terrorism, religious fundamentalism) allowing her to emphasise & identify with the people still following the Telling, against the Corporation. Ultimately, she was able to interpret the culture as a whole, as a non-hierarchical, mercantile, non-violent society with an abstract, philosophy-culture, and explain the creation of the Corporation and suggest a way to deal with them.

If you like the idea of books as precious, the war of knowledge versus religion, themes of intolerance, the value of reading, and the effects of invasion on local peoples, but think that The Telling sounds a bit boring for your tastes, then Ursula Le Guin's young adult novel Voices is a very good alternative. I read it just before The Telling, and the similarities in theme made the differences quite interesting. Part two in the Annals of the Western Shore series, Voices is based on a teenage girl called Memer, who lives with a hidden library in a fantasy city overrun by fanatical invaders, who becomes part of taking the city back, and preserving the books and the ability to read. She is, like most of Ursula Le Guin's protagonists, non-white (actually, she's a half breed, with native brown skin and foreign afro hair).

Interestingly, she has no love interest at all, something that is rare in YA fiction. So, while it isn't technically a lesbian YA book, it could be. Or Memer could be an asexual character, or just a girl with more important things on her mind, or one who hasn't had a chance to meet a suitable love interest (though it would have been easy to work one in, so it is still notable that Ursula Le Guin chose not to).

The Telling is available on Amazon as a Kindle ebook, hardback, paperback and audio book (all published by different publishers!). 

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