Filler content telling it like it is

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #30:-

Ursula K Le Guin
Gollancz pb, 264pp, £9.99

Earthling Sutty works as an Observer for the Ekumen on the planet Aka, whose ruling body, an entity referred to simply as The Corporation, is ruthlessly pursuing a policy aimed at casting off the shackles of religion, believing that such superstitions prevent their world from taking its rightful place in the galaxy. For Sutty it is a difficult assignment, conditions on Aka mirroring those she lived through on Earth, where a theocracy tried with equal zeal to stifle all views at odds with its own. A chance arises to travel out into the countryside of Aka, where the old ways survive, and Sutty is sent to the provincial city of Okzat-Ozkat, regarded as a backwater by the planet’s elite. Here she first encounters and is beguiled by the myth in the making that is The Telling, a quasi-religious account of Aka’s past that followers of the old religion regard as somehow vital to the planet’s spiritual health. But her presence may just provide the impetus the authorities need to finally stamp out religion in this province. It’s up to Sutty to find a way of compromise, by which the best of the past can be preserved without acting as a dead hand to the future.

As with so much of Le Guin’s work the clash of ideas is central, here personified in the relationship between Sutty and the Monitor, a local official who takes it upon himself to make sure she doesn’t deflect his society from its declared goals. These two represent diametrically opposed but complementary viewpoints, with more in common than they are at first willing to concede. Each was shaped by tragic events of the recent past. Sutty is haunted by what she endured on Earth, persecution as a Hindu and homosexual, the death of the woman she loved just when things seemed to be getting better. As a child the Monitor witnessed the execution of his grandparents, who adhered to their religious beliefs to the end, and feels that he must commit himself to the path of progress, else what took place will be pointless and his own acquiescence revealed as simple cowardice. For each of them the book represents a rite of passage, and maturity involves accepting the existence of doubt.

While Le Guin is excellent in portraying this ideological conflict in such deeply personal terms, her touch is not so sure in dealing with the spiritual McGuffin at its heart. Akan religion and the material of The Telling itself remain frustratingly vague, perhaps a deliberate ploy on the part of the writer. The Telling’s defining quality is inclusiveness; Le Guin seems to be saying that a people are the sum total of all their beliefs about themselves and not just a reflection of the dominant cultural zeitgeist.

The real critical thrust of the book is in its appraisal of totalitarian mind sets, be they religious or political. It’s tempting, in the wake of September 11, to ignore timescale and see The Telling as in part criticism of Islamic Fundamentalism, and points of common reference are readily found (e.g. a book burning scene that brings to mind the destruction of the library of Alexandria), but ultimately this is the easy option. The Fathers who preside over repression on Earth are a collation of the great monotheistic religions, Jews and Christians as well as Muslims, while on Aka it is atheist rigidity cast in the role of bad guy. For Le Guin the real enemy is extremism, viewpoints that leave no room for disagreement. September 11 has given that message extra urgency.

The Telling revisits Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle of novels, but nobody should come to it expecting work on a par with The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed. Ultimately it is a book that is too self-consciously ‘about something’ and does not wear its real concerns as lightly as its famous predecessors, while Sutty’s final solution has too much of plot convenience about it. But it is a book well worth reading, by an important writer who still has things she needs to tell us and to which we should listen. Sadly it is also a timely book.

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