The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin

07/12/01, The Times Literary Supplement

Why is the future always dystopian? To ask this question is also necessarily to approach obliquely its corollary – in what ways do fictional futures hold up a mirror to present reality? Ursula K. Le Guin’s latest offering, The Telling, itself part of her loosely-bound Hainish cycle, is no exception to this attempt at reflecting and refracting our own times. In this spare, graceful novel, so simple it tends towards the fable or the parable, the enquiry gets a new lease of life.

When the Ekumen send a Terran, Sutty, as an Observer to the planet Aka, it is hoped that she will unearth and record the fragments of the Akan civilisation which was first ruthlessly suppressed and then wiped out by the Corporation State which rules the planet now. In its obsession with technological progress, the Corporation has turned Aka into a totalitarian state whose god is material well-being, whose propulsion is an inflexibly rational and scientific ‘March to the Stars’. The older culture has been branded as anti-rational, superstitious garbage, its language and literature obliterated, its books burned, its proponents killed. In its ideal of making every Akan conform to the monolithic State, it is the Stalinist dream realised almost perfectly.

Almost. For far away, in the tiny outpost of Okzat-Ozkat, Sutty discovers that the centuries-old culture still exists, haltingly, stealthily. It hasn’t been annihilated, it has just gone underground. Along the faultlines of the terrorising, uniform State, Sutty slowly ceases to become just a recording historian, passively gathering data, and grows into being as an initiate, a keeper of the fugitive flame which the Corporation is trying to extinguish. The archaelogy of knowledge gives way to a radical re-education. But will she manage to escape the surveillance of the Corporation who want her to report on all subversive and non-standardised cultural and social practices?

Le Guin’s lucid, luminous prose approaches poetry. In its central theme of banned knowledge – books are ‘pulpables’ under the Corporation – it smacks of Fahrenheit 451, but the nested utopia within the frame of a dystopian future is what gives Le Guin’s fiction its special charge. That this utopia turns around a philosophy of narration, the Telling, is the greatest vindication and valorisation of the art of storytelling. It keeps a hounded and pestered civilisation alive; Sutty learns that here, too, in the beginning was the word. Or words.

The Upanishad- and Hindu sutras-inflected longueurs on the philosophy and culture of the older Akans require some indulgence, but Le Guin has always been partial to the holism inherent in Eastern philosophies. (Note the Taoism of her earlier The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.) But her delicately balanced prose, which never less than sings, saves it. And in its vision of an unbendingly fundamentalist State which, convinced of the rightness of its own dogma, persecutes questioners and dissenters, it is a shockingly prescient book. In these times, doesn’t the sentence, ‘Secular terrorists or holy terrorists, what difference?’ make us sit up?