Ursula K. Le Guin's latest novel, THE TELLING, is a creaking but lovingly wrought meditation on tolerance set against a backdrop that bears a striking resemblance to China's invasion and occupation of Tibet.
To create credible otherworldly allegory without appearing transparent or heavy-handed is the burden of the science fiction writer, and Le Guin, considered a pioneer in the genre, has made a career of shouldering this weight lightly. The daughter of anthropologists, her flavor of sci-fi-as-social-criticism has for the most part gone over smoothly and successfully with readers and the critical community. And with THE TELLING, her return to her popular Hainish series of novels and short stories, Le Guin, avowed feminist, conservationist and freethinker, again makes an art of gleaning terrestrial pertinence from extraterrestrial events.
The novel's chief conflict centers on two cultures on the planet Aka: the oppressive, mechanized Akan Corporation State and the gentle participants in the Telling, a religion premised on naturalism, serenity, and mysticism. Sutty, an Earth woman of the future, is dispatched as an ambassadorial observer to Aka and eventually falls in with the Telling's mountain-dwelling, agriculturalist practitioners.
That Sutty sides with the Telling is not surprising in the least, given her exposure to theocratic oppression while growing up on an Earth of the future --- a fact that is revealed at the onset of the novel. Moreover, Le Guin's latest work is not at all about the protagonist who undergoes few personal changes throughout the work. Rather, like THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, Le Guin's 1969 classic novel on gender and xenophobia, THE TELLING hearkens back to a literary tradition popularized by Swift, in which an interested but relatively inactive explorer probes a foreign culture. But compared to THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, what's so very surprising about THE TELLING is how much Le Guin has lost in subtlety.
The author desperately wants her readers to see Aka as she does --- with the cold, repressive, dogmatic Corporation on one hand and the gentle, pantheistic, fairly Taoist Telling on the other --- that she resorts to tired cliches and hand-holding. From this, we're told, we must learn something about ourselves. At times, the reader might imagine that Le Guin is having fun with us: citizens of the Akan Corporation State eat precooked fast food and drink "Starbrew" coffee.
But all this is meant to be taken seriously. The novel spends a sizable amount of effort demonizing the industrialized, bureaucratic and oppressive Corporation-State of Aka --- fans of Orwell, Huxley, or George Lucas will recognize it immediately --- and certifying its pacifistic, mystical opposition as good.
The characters, too, suffer from acute one-dimensionality and stereotypes that are disappointing --- even for Le Guin, whose protagonists typically take a back seat to the cultures around them. A prime example is the novel's chief villain, who, in the classic comic book scenario, "went bad" as the result of a traumatic childhood event.
Le Guin's portraits of the two factions are so heavy-handed, her characters so thin, and her premises so tired that she comes close to robbing readers of the thrill of participation. Fiction like Le Guin's, which is expected to resonate with present-day readers in present-day society, must engage the reader to win them; what Le Guin offers instead is a spectator sport, with teams we've already seen. Which isn't to say that the language she uses to describe Sutty's adventures isn't laudable or engaging. Far from it: Le Guin's prose is one of the novel's saving graces.
Le Guin excels at the lavishly wrought phrase, and THE TELLING fortunately finds the artist at her peak form. Evocative of 1968's lush A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, for which she won the Horn Book Award, Sutty's travels throughout Aka are rendered both tenderly and meticulously.
When working well, science fiction like THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS functions like a gedanken experiment --- enjoining audiences to consider what might have been, or what might yet be. In the case of left-leaning Le Guin, this often carries an additional, subtle urge for readers to apply the lessons to things as they are; THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS is a perfectly implemented blend of reflection and mild compulsion.
Although covering little new ground, Le Guin's newest work takes place in the lush, magnificently illustrated universe fans have come to expect from works like THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS. Despite its clumsy thematic treatment and a retreading of some well-worn steps, THE TELLING does aspire to similarly important issues that apply to today's readers by compelling us to contemplate Earth's own recent history of religious oppression.
Reviewed by Christopher Saunders on September 11, 2000