The Telling is one of noted science fiction writer Ursula K LeGuin’s more recent and lesser known works.
Like much of her science fiction, it could be described as falling into the category of “anthropological sf”: an outsider’s intimate ethnographic account of the peculiarities of a particular society.
This is a core attribute of LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle universe, of which The Telling is a part. In this reality, Earth is not the origin of the human species – instead, the planet Hain seeded many worlds – including Earth – with humanity millions of years ago, but lost contact with its colonies, giving rise to scores of unique human civilisations with radically different social structures.
In the time of The Telling, the worlds of humanity have re-established contact with each other through the use of NAFAL (nearly as fast as light) ships and an instantaneous communication device called the ansible. This has given rise to a collective of worlds called the Ekumen, dedicated to the preservation of knowledge of the ways of the human worlds it encounters.
The Telling tells of a civilisation on the planet Aka that is visited by a Ekumenical representative from Earth. Aka is in the throes of a technological revolution that has elevated it to spacefaring status in only a short span of time. However, this revolution has been accompanied by the establishment of a global totalitarian corptocracy – one that practices extensive thought policing in an attempt to shape its citizens into perfect producer-consumer units to power its “march to the stars”.
Sutty, the Ekumenical representative, is on Aka to try to find the remnants of Akan culture and thought preceding the establishment of the global totalitarian corporate state. To give an added resonance, Sutty hails from an Earth plunged into a decades-long rule by monotheistic religious fundamentalists called Unists, whose rule is a nightmare of parochial restrictions on sexual mores and who take a delight in book-burning. She seeks out the fragments of Akan folk culture with a motivation that extends beyond her professional obligations.
Her pursuit takes her deep into the recesses of the Akan landmass, where the reach of the corporation state is limited. There, she finds the remnants of a folkloric tradition called the Telling, curated and passed down by maz, a term used to refer to anyone versed in some aspect of the Telling. The Telling is a living, corpus of stories and knowledge, multifaceted, contradictory, without a one true gospel – the very antithesis of mono-thought espoused by the corporation.
Sutty’s sympathies are for these remnants, practitioners of the Telling, who are being persecuted by the corporatist state. And yet, there are undercurrents beneath the surface that suggest that this folkloric tradition is something more than it seems. The corporation fears the Telling more than should be warranted, given its superiority in technology and numbers. There are hints that some Akans possess telekinetic powers that are associated in some way with the old traditions – perhaps some lost art accessible through their cultural lifeways.
It is that chink in the binary morality that at first appears to characterise these opposing lifeways that enables a rudimentary form of rapprochement between the totalitarian progress-fetishizing corptocracy and the past-focused folkloric traditions of the maz. Sutty is followed by a Monitor for the Corporation, whom she at first despises for his narrow-mindedness. But the Monitor becomes more human as he tracks her to the last sanctuary of the Maz, the repository of all their written folklore high in a vast mountain range, and they Tell each other their own stories, both having lived under the shadow of totalitarian states, both choosing different ways of coping with that totalitarianism. That rapprochement provides Sutty with the ability to negotiate with the Corporation State for the Ekumen to rescue the knowledge of the Maz.
Many might characterise the Telling as merely a cautionary parable of totalitarian repression, but it’s really more a meditation on the importance of understanding opposing cultural traditions, and not to be too beholden to how people of a culture represent themselves to you. The folkloric tradition of the Maz is a social system that presents a utopian alternative to the corporate state – but it is really just that – utopian, with all the cultural baggage that word confers. LeGuin refers to the emergence of the Boss Maz who used their knowledge and craft to establish feudalistic and stifling social structures on the populace, which was one impetus for the discontent that led to the Akan industrial revolution.
The Telling, if anything, doesn’t spell everything out and doesn’t try to pursue all its variegated story strands, and to some extent, that’s fine. As Sutty mournfully reflects, it is not possible for one person to apprehend an entire folkloric tradition. It may not be the best known of LeGuin’s work, but it does contain that spark of tantalising ambiguity and multilayeredness that characterises great literature.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 kittypups