The Telling (2000) continues Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish cycle with a pattern familiar to readers of her earlier books: a messenger from the Galaxy-wide confederacy known as the Ekumen comes to a newly-contacted planet on an anthropological expedition. The Left Hand of Darkness has the same premise and takes place in the same imagined future, what changes are the characters and the planet’s society. Le Guin manages to exploit this technique without ever coming across as formulaic. Her writing strengths lie in strong, well-realized characters, and building interesting and believable cultures. The Telling is excellent.
It’s excellent despite an extraordinarily simple plot. Sutty, an Indian-Canadian Terran messenger, comes to the planet of Aka to study the scraps of a human-world system of philosophy/religion that the universal corporation state forcibly attempted to wipe out after first contact with the Ekumen. Sutty did not expect this, as the revolution took place when she was in decades-long hibernation on the spaceflight to Aka. She is cramped in the Soviet-style capital for too long, unable to gather the information she came for, until officials suddenly give her permission to travel into the rural areas up the river. She comes to a small city in the hills and eventually climbs a mountain to one of the few major remaining pilgrimage sites in Aka. That is essentially the story. There are no villains, per se, the closest is a corporatist official–but of course, his storyline ends in reconciliation rather than violence. What make the novel fascinating are the system Sutty slowly discovers, uncovers–the titular Telling that measures the pulse and rhythms of daily life in rural and pre-corporation state Aka–and her own personal relationship with the aftermath of Aka’s cultural revolution with her memories of Earth. For Earth had its own problems with zealotry at the time of contact with the Ekumen: while the Akan government suppresses religious expression, religious fanatics ruled over a large portion of Earth for a mad few years. Sutty’s lover died in a bombing of Vancouver’s university by extremists. Sutty therefore lies in a strange position of finding a world transitioning to the other end; instead of isolationism in the name of religion, the Akan government has enforced a “march to the stars” to join the Ekumen.
Thus, Sutty’s emotions intertwine with her incremental discovery and documentation of the Telling. Despite her sympathies with the old, conservative system, Le Guin does not present the ruling urban strata as entirely unjustified or evil, or even misguided. Sutty’s journey also surfaces the recent history of Aka, history both the conservatives and cultural revolutionaries have kept silent. An absence in collective memory that neither side wants filled, even though examination of that period is necessary to re-balancing Aka’s traditions with the information and technologies gained from the stars.
While The Telling is slow and stately, it’s also short and concise. Le Guin proves you don’t need a swift plot to tell a truly gripping story. This is, quite simply, science fiction at its finest.