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When Sutty went back to Earth in the daytime, it was always to the village. At night, it was the Pale.

Yellow of brass, yellow of turmeric paste and of rice cooked with saffron, orange of marigolds, dull orange haze of sunset dust above the fields, henna red, passionflower red, dried-blood red, mud red: all the colors of sunlight in the day. A whiff of asafetida. The brook-babble of Aunty gossiping with Moti's mother on the verandah.

From its opening sentences onward, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Telling juxtaposes the grandeurs of space travel -- what the technophilic culture of the world of Aka calls "The March to the Stars" -- with the vivid but subtle beauties of everyday life: its colors, smells, sounds, and tastes, its little rituals through which people order their lives and learn to touch one another. Are the march to the stars and the integrity of daily life necessarily in conflict? Through the journeys of her central character, Sutty, a Terran of Indian descent who has traveled to the developing world of Aka to work as an Observer for the Ekumen (a loose interplanetary federation of advanced civilizations, of which Terra is a sometimes reluctant and fractious member), The Telling undertakes a memorable and moving exploration of this question.

For more than thirty years, Le Guin has been one of the foremost writers of anthropological science fiction. Her novels have examined the impact of technology on culture and the influences of culture on human character. Most of her early science fiction novels -- including her two most famous works, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed -- are set in the imagined universe of the Ekumen, in which she has also set The Telling. Many thousands of years ago, humans spread across the galaxy from the world of Hain. After an initial phase of colonization, the colonial worlds were left on their own for uncounted millennia. During this time, most colonies lost their advanced civilizations but developed a myriad of local cultures, religions, philosophies, and sciences. In the time of which Le Guin writes, communication and travel between the worlds have begun again. Representatives of the Ekumen travel to worlds with peoples of Hainish descent to learn about them and to invite them to participate in the culture of the Ekumen, if they wish. Worlds have much to gain from joining the Ekumen, but they also risk the loss of their distinctive identity. This risk is the subject of The Telling.

Sutty, a specialist in language and literature, has come to Aka to supplement the original studies of those subjects done by the first Observers, who made contact with the people of Aka some seventy years earlier. When she arrives, however, she discovers that there is little for her to study. During the time that she has been traveling to Aka (a period of many years -- the technology exists to transmit information instantaneously across any distance, but physical travel through space still takes a long time), the traditional culture whose ideographic writing and literature she had studied has been displaced, brutally suppressed, and completely replaced by a forward looking, technological and technophilic society. Or so it appears to Sutty and her fellow Observers. The ever-polite leaders of the Corporation that governs Aka do not permit the representatives of the Ekumen to travel outside the new cities, which have been constructed and settled since the first contact with the Ekumen. (Imagine your impression of American culture if all you could ever see were government buildings and shopping malls!)

The plot begins to unfold when Sutty unexpectedly receives permission to travel upriver from the capital, Dovra City, to the old provincial town of Okzat Ozkat. There she looks for survival of the older culture about which she has learned. Starting from hints and vestigial signs, she gradually finds her way into the unofficial, traditional culture of Aka, which still survives and, to an extent, thrives in the parts of the world, and the parts of daily life, that are most difficult to police. The beauty and depth of Le Guin's writing gradually appears as Sutty cautiously immerses herself in this culture:

Despite the fact that it was all banned, all illicit, people talked to her quite freely, trustfully answering her questions. She had no trouble finding out about the yearlong and lifelong cycles and patterns of feasts, fasts, indulgences, abstinences, passages, festivals. These observances, which seemed in a general way to resemble the practices of most of the religions she knew anything about, were now of course subterranean, hidden away, or so intricately and unobtrusively interwoven into the fabric of ordinary life that the Monitors of the Sociocultural Office couldn't put their finger on any act and say, "This is forbidden."

The burning question, for Sutty and for the novel, is how she and the Ekumen might help to save this culture whose destruction was inadvertently precipitated by the Ekumen's arrival on Aka.

Long-time readers of Le Guin will note similarities between the outline of this story and some of her earlier novels of cultural contact, especially The Word for World Is Forest, in which the people of a pacifist, traditional forest culture are threatened by Terran imperialism, and The Left Hand of Darkness, in which the First Envoy from the Ekumen to the planet Gethen, a Terran named Genly Ai, must learn the ways of Gethenian culture, shaped by the world's harsh environment and its people's unique ambisexuality, if he is to succeed in his mission or, indeed, survive it. While the imagined culture of Aka and its people do not quite match those of Gethen in brilliance and complexity (The Left Hand of Darkness is rightly counted as one of the great classics of science fiction), Le Guin is not simply treading old ground in The Telling. Rather, she is combining the narrative strategies of these early classics to avoid some of the shortcomings of each.

The biggest challenge that Le Guin faces in The Telling is polemic writing. Le Guin is writing, as she did in The Word for World Is Forest (written during the Vietnam War), about a subject that moves her greatly. Her love and, through her, Sutty's love, are clearly given to the traditional culture of Aka, as to the traditional culture in The Word for World Is Forest. That novel falls short of its potential because Le Guin, in her compassion for those suffering, succumbed to the temptation to demonize the Terran imperialists. In The Telling, Sutty begins with this sort of hostility towards the leaders of the Corporation, personified by the Monitor who tracks her activities in Okzat-Ozkat, but she herself recognizes that hostility as self-destructive ("Hatred consumes the hater," she says) and self-defeating. Her struggle with her own hatreds and self-doubts are as important to the novel, and as beautifully rendered, as her discovery of Akan culture.

Sutty must go through this struggle because of her past and its baggage that she brings from Terra to her work on Aka. She grew up in a period of severe religious repression on Earth, and her life has been indelibly marked by the tragedy of religious warfare and terrorism. These experiences shape her view of Aka, and she must learn to deal with them if she is to deal fairly with the Akans themselves. That's a serious psychological theme, but Le Guin handles it without didactic heaviness. Indeed, some of the funnier moments in the novel come from her deft renditions of Sutty's early attempts to be non-judgmental simply by repressing her opinions as she sets out to explain her initial findings to her superior, Tong Ov:

"Everything that was written in the old scripts has been destroyed. Or if it exists, I don't know what it is, because the Ministry doesn't allow access to it. So all I was able to work on is modern aural literature. All written to Corporation specification. It tends to be very -- to be standardised."

She looked at Tong Ov to see if her whining bored him, but though still looking for the mislaid file, he seemed to be listening with lively interest. He said, "All aural, is it?"

"Except for the Corporation manuals hardly anything's printed, except printouts for the deaf, and primers to accompany sound texts for early learners. . . . Most of the works are actually information or educational material rather than, well, literature or poetry as I understand the terms. Though a lot of the neareals are dramatisations of practical or ethical problems and solutions. . . ." She was trying so hard to speak factually, unjudgmentally, without prejudice, that her voice was totally toneless.

"Sounds dull," said Tong, still flitting through files.

"Well, I'm, I think I'm insensitive to this aesthetic. It is so deeply and, and, and flatly political. Of course every art is political. But when it's all didactic, all in the service of a belief system, I resent, I mean, I resist it. But I try not to."

It's in the complexity of Sutty's background and its influence upon her as an Observer that The Telling goes beyond The Left Hand of Darkness. Genly Ai becomes caught up in the world he is observing, but in many respects he brings a too-perfect scientific objectivity to his task. His personal and cultural past are not essential to the manner in which he handles his mission, and, while he must set aside prejudices, especially about sex and gender, his own investment in his beliefs is hardly evident. Sutty's struggles and development are more complex, and they present a convincing vision of the difficulties and the opportunities of contact between vastly different cultures for the people whose selves are formed by those cultures. Through Sutty's own development, Le Guin treats her highly charged subject compellingly and largely without polemic.

If The Telling is polemic, it is so only in its sustained artistic commitment to rendering ordinary life richly and to explaining the deep connection between humanistic learning and ordinary life. Sutty's psychic tension first begins to ease when she gets out of the city and begins to have conversations with her fellow travelers about the events of their daily lives: "She heard about them, their cousins, their families, their jobs, their opinions, their houses, their hernias. . . . These dull and fragmentary relations of ordinary lives could not bore her. Everything she had missed in Dovza City, everything the official literature, the heroic propaganda left out, they told. If she had to choose between heroes and hernias, it was no contest." It is no contest for Le Guin, either, as she gives her readers a tale that never strays far from the lives of ordinary people and that never ceases to render those lives with sensitivity and profound delight.

That does not mean that Le Guin eschews plot. The stakes in the novel -- the survival of an entire world's traditional knowledge and culture -- are high enough, but the struggle for that survival takes place primarily within the register of daily life, for it is the richness of daily life itself that is threatened by Aka's totalitarian "March to the Stars." Cultural destruction proceeds in the novel by grand and hideous gestures, but culture survives and flourishes only in small acts: choices about what to eat, what words to use, what stories to tell. It is in this sense that the title of the novel should be understood: it asks us to see and to celebrate culture as the telling of stories that give form and meaning to everyday life.

Some reviewers have seen this defense of daily life as an allegory of Tibet's plight under Chinese occupation, and it would be wrong to deny that as one important significance of The Telling. Certainly the means of repression shown in the novel are reminiscent of Mao's Cultural Revolution, and the ways of Akan telling resemble traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice. Yet the reader interested in meanings should remember that the Akan government is called the Corporation. The book's vision is as applicable to the homogenization of culture under corporate capitalism as it is to China's cultural war against Tibet. Le Guin, like most great science fiction writers, has the capacity to show us a vision of the future that is rooted in the choices we face in the present moment. The Telling stretches the reader's imagination beyond the confines of our present world's cultures in ways that better enable us to imagine, appreciate, and preserve our own. That's one of the great potential values of science fiction; Le Guin realizes that potential beautifully and fully in this book.

 

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Christopher Cobb is Senior Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our archives.



Christopher Cobb is a former reviews editor for Strange Horizons.
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