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The Telling.

The Telling. By Ursula K. Le Guin. (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2000. Pp. 264)

In the preface to her most recent book, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (Harper Collins, 2002), Ursula Le Guin discusses the imagined universe of her Hainish novels, in which The Telling is set. The Hainish novels constitute a family, albeit a loosely connected rather than a closely knit one. In them, Le Guin posits the existence of a parent culture, the Hain, which has seeded the universe with interrelated (but not identical) humanoid species, including the people of Earth. In The Birthday of the World, the author asserts the hopelessness of trying to discover an underlying implied history that ties together the novels in a coherent and consistent design, pointing out that such a history (even if it were consistent) would consist mainly of gaps. While admitting the factors of "authorial carelessness, forgetfulness, and impatience," (vii) she also affirms the logic of such incoherence, given the vastness of space and the elasticity of time under the conditions of near light-speed time travel.

To place The Telling in this gap-ridden spatial/temporal/textual context, it may be useful to consider further in a broad way the gap-ridden seriality of much science fiction (and fantasy) and ask how this characteristic might illuminate how we make and preserve our stories. Le Guin is the author of two grand series--the Hainish science fiction novels and the Earthsea fantasy novels--each series with its cosmology and/or geography, and each with its own rules of technology or magic.

This extended world- or universe-building puts Le Guin in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels, and Frank Herbert's Dune novels, for several instances. Nor is her authorship of two distinct series particularly unusual. Marion Zimmer Bradley, for instance, wrote science fiction set on her invented planet of Darkover (like Le Guin, moving around in time rather than writing her novels in chronological sequence) as well as a fantasy series based in terrestrial legends (The Mists of Avalon being the most familiar example). Octavia Butler is another author of several series, using science fiction to explore issues of gender and race, and the human proclivity toward violent competition and consequent self-destruction. Before Butler's novels came Doris Lessing's series of five "space fiction" novels, Canopus in Argus: Archives, which examine the devastating consequences of human activity from a "deep" interstellar perspective. But whether it's the social criticism of Lessing and Butler or the reproduction of "traditional" (Euro-American) values in space operas such as Star Wars, science fiction and fantasy invite seriality.

One reason for this is obvious: science fiction and fantasy invite world/universe- building, and this activity takes time and space. One might argue that the activity also requires (or creates) a special commitment or responsibility. It certainly invites collaboration. Bradley's Darkover is a territory that has been visited by other writers, much as the Land of Oz, after L. Frank Baum's discovery and initial explorations, was visited first by Baum's followers and then recently by Oz's revisionist historian Gregory Maguire in his novel Wicked.

Unlike Oz, or the single extraterrestrial human-settled cultures of Darkover or Dune, Le Guin's territory is hugely vast. The Hain-originated humanoid species, despite their distance from one another and their physiological differentiation over time, are joined together in an interstellar cultural confederacy called the Ekumen. To locate and to connect these scattered people, the Ekumen uses a device called the ansible that permits instantaneous communication, but interstellar travel is still conducted at sub-light-speed. This means that the Ekumen's traveling representatives are permanent exiles from their home space-time, doing their best to reestablish extended family relationships with alien people and places, and occasionally achieving intimacy.

Le Guin's social and technical assumptions provide a common set of assumptions for most of her science fiction, occasional inconsistencies and gaps notwithstanding. This larger fictional environment also gives The Telling, a rather slight effort when considered on its own, value as a piece that fills in one of the holes in the vast interstellar Hainish map. Arguably, universe building transcends the particular merits of any individual text.

In general terms, The Telling depicts how the unified national voice of the state, using its human and technological agents of control, promulgates deception, drowning out the voices of individual people and seeking to rob them of their past. But the narrative reveals as well the hidden culture that persists underground, in secret places, and reminds us how culture is not an abstraction, but is alive, vivid in its material forms, powerful in its retellings, precious in the mind.

In her comments on the origins of the novel, Le Guin points out a connection with Maoist China and its suppression of Taoism, but certainly The Telling has wider resonance than that. The powers of sight, sound, and smell operate more powerfully than sociopolitical critique or character development. The novel opens with these sensory evocations of a past that is like our own terrestrial past, so that the narrative is immediately knitted to the readers' universe as well as to the Hainish. But because the terrestrial past thus evoked is Indian, it is India, rather than a "progressive" Euro-Americanoid "First World," that is constructed as home/"Cradle of Civilization":
 Yellow of brass, yellow of turmeric paste and of rice cooked with
 saffron, orange of marigolds, dull orange haze of sunset dust above
 the fields.... A whiff of asafetida. The brook-babble of Aunty
 gossiping.... Ganesh's little piggy kindly eye. A match struck and
 the rich grey curl of incense smoke: pungent, vivid, gone. (1)


As the paragraph closes we are conducted from that place of warmth into a colder, darker present in which Sutty, the novel's main character, recalls these fragments of her childhood as she walks, or eats, or takes "a break from the sensory assault of the nearreals she had to partiss in" (2). Thus the narrative moves with great economy from the rich sensory data of the "old world" of childhood and of an ancient terrestrial culture to a "new world" characterized by technology, its jargon, its simulacra, and an ambiance of sensory assault and compulsion. One version of that new world exists on Earth, which (paradoxically) has fallen to the control of religious fundamentalists; another version exists on the planet Aka, a corporate state dedicated to the pursuit of progress and the erasure of history. It is here that Sutty has been sent.

The novel's opening passages also prefigure the essential dilemma of Sutty as an individual, with a personal past, and as an Observer, an official representative of the Ekumen. Sutty searches for lost language, its pictographic written forms, and its literature, which have disappeared to be replaced by an official Newspeak, disseminated via propaganda recordings. As Ekumenical representative, Sutty is required not to interfere in the local culture, to retain her objectivity and to avoid opinion: "The old farfetchers' motto: Opinion ends reception" (55). But as her observations take her from Aka's putatively progressive capital to the "backward" provincial city of Okzat-Ozkat and into the mountains beyond, she learns that objectivity is not possible. Her journey also shows that through knowledge and compassion come insight--not only into familiar principles of what we often term "common humanity," but also, even if partially and occasionally, into areas of blindness caused by cultural difference.

Sutty's journey is rendered more painful by her solitude; her lover, with whom she was hoping to share her life's work, was killed in the bombing of a library in their home city of Seattle. Initially characterized as isolated and plagued with a sense of inadequacy, Sutty practices the receptiveness of the "farfetchers" and thereby enters into a sustaining network of connections with the underground practitioners of the Telling, preservers of the old texts. That network enables her to slip through the boundaries of official control and travel to the sacred caves at the heart of the Mother-mountain Silong, which she first sees looming like an immense white wall, "a wrinkled curtain of light halfway up the sky" (52) above Okzat-Ozkat.

The imagery of city, journey, and mountain is striking in its details and intricately patterned. From the capital, Dovza City, the voyage by boat to Okzat-Ozkat is, Sutty reflects, "longer ... than [her] journey from Earth to Aka" (39). Her journey onward from there to Silong is, predictably, longer and more arduous than the mountain's dramatic visibility from the town would suggest. We have here a contrast between the technologically-manipulated "future" temporality of interstellar travel, in which huge distances are covered within humanly-achievable durations, and the "past" temporality of mythic journeys, in which time and effort are magnified by the operations of the spirit.

Sutty's pilgrimage takes place in company, but she remains singular and to that extent isolated as she approaches Silong. Silong also initially appears to be a strikingly singular entity, but close up is revealed to be one of a twosome, paired with Zubuam, the thunderer: "Old maz mountains. Old lovers" (186). The same pattern is articulated in the pairing of the maz, who are Aka's underground professional Tellers. The maz, whose union is permanent beyond death, and who do not always follow the heterosexual official norm, are in those regards similar to Sutty and her dead female lover Pao, so that we readers begin to see Sutty differently than she (as yet) sees herself. The maz's essential two-in-oneness is inscribed in the old prohibited grammar common to all the major Akan languages, "a peculiar singular/ dual pronoun" (112) that is ironically reflected even in the "producer-consumer heroes of Corporation propaganda" (112). It is also reflected in the mirror-image names of maz partners and for that matter would account for the name of the city Okzat-Ozkat. Thus the deep structure of a culture will surface in the face of all efforts to suppress it.

The power of the old culture to rise to the surface is also illustrated by the fate of Yara, an Akan Monitor (as such, the opposite number to Sutty in her official role of Observer). Initially appearing to be an emotionless extension of the Corporate State, the Monitor follows Sutty to Silong for reasons that turn out to be personal. Their initial opposition turns into another form of two-in-oneness, when at the caves they engage in their own private Tellings, exchanging their own unofficial, well-hidden stories. Yara thus for a brief time becomes a kind of shadow-partner for Sutty.

Silong's caves are strikingly envisaged as "endless bubble chambers interconnecting, interfacing, dark walls, floors, ceilings all curved into one another seamlessly, so disorienting that sometimes she felt she was floating weightless" (194). The womb imagery is elaborated by the function of these chambers as a kind of Borgesian library; within them are housed innumerable books, manuscripts, and fragments of text containing the accumulated culture of Aka: "the texts of blessings, the protocols of ceremonies, recipes, prescriptions for curing cold sores and for living to a great age, stories, legends, annals.... herbals, bestiaries, anatomies, geometries both real and metaphysical, maps of Aka, maps of imaginary worlds, histories of ancient lands, poems. All the poems in the world were here" (197).

This library-as-microcosm is the treasure at the end of the quest, but it is clearly not a treasure for the individual taking. There is simply too much material, too randomly preserved. Its housing in bubble-caves is conceptually appropriate, analogous to the gap-ridden Hainish universe itself, which Le Guin compares to a partially unraveled piece of knitting.

Confronted with a treasure of such magnitude, Sutty is confronted with a dilemma: how to ensure its preservation without violating the Ekumen's non-interference policy. In the end she is able to do so because of her understanding of Akan culture; the novel concludes with a "tit for tat" (263) arrangement, technology for texts, a solution that holds out a promise of continued openness.

One finds a similar combination of social problem-solving and personal transformation in The Left Hand of Darkness as well as other, less widely-known Hainish fiction. The Left Hand of Darkness's main characters are far more complex, plausible, and engaging than The Telling's Sutty, and that novel is much richer on the level of narrative, interweaving multiple strands of invented myth, legend, and folktale into a narrative of cultural thickness. Disappointingly, The Telling tells us that important narrative material is being preserved, but we do not get to read it for ourselves, as we do in The Left Hand of Darkness. Nonetheless, The Telling, for all its slightness, exhibits Le Guin's characteristic interest in the fragments out of which we reconstruct our visions of the past.

The fragments in The Telling consist most obviously of Aka's languages and literature, found in Silong's caves and in other hidden places, in physical documents and in the oral tales Sutty hears from the Tellers and the many other informal participants of the Telling, for the activity is not limited to the professionals. Early in her stay at Okzat-Ozkat, while visiting an old shop, Sutty sees inscriptions on the wall that she recognizes from her off-planet study as the old pictographs, and she receives in exchange for her insider's knowledge a gift from the shopkeeper. That early encounter proves to be one of her several points of entry into the underground culture. An even earlier encounter with the hidden culture comes by way of a few scraps salvaged from a lost interplanetary transmission: the picture of a fisherman on a humpbacked bridge, some bits of prose, a few lines of poetry. After arriving on Aka, Sutty must delete her copies of these prohibited materials, but she does not forget them. Thus they change their substance (original to physical copy to mental copy) but they do not lose their form, and their contextual significance turns out to be retrievable in the caves of Silong.

Sutty's memories and dreams of Earth constitute another set of fragments, as we see at the very beginning of the novel and repeatedly thereafter. She is in effect accompanied on her journey by her dead partner, Pao. Le Guin completes the linkage by having Sutty narrate the circumstances of Pao's death in her conversation with the Observer Yara. Two-in-one thereby become three, and the grammatical-interpersonal formula expands to include all who are linked in the Telling, a cosmic tree of myriad branches, "the being that can be told" of which "the mountain is the root" (96), as a maz tells her.

Turning again to the idea of the serial (or multiple-textual) nature of science fiction--the vehicle for Le Guin's ideas about the many-in-one/one-in-many, it may be worth reexamining the ground in which the novel itself is rooted.

Outside the Hainish textual universe and inside our own space/time, where, or how, is The Telling rooted? There is, of course, Le Guin's critique of Chinese Communism, which to my mind is not particularly effective, but neither is it intrusive. More problematic, for all that it is localized rather than widespread in the narrative, is the heavy-handed allusion to Starbuck's Coffee. Sharing Starbrew, the Corporation brand of akakafi, "was one of the few rituals of social bonding the people of Dovza City allowed themselves" (66). This allusion, doubtless designed to create a connection between the narrative space/time and our own, has instead the unfortunate effect of disturbing the imaginative integrity of the Hainish universe--a more serious problem than the "incoherence" that Le Guin admits in The Birthday of the World. Starbrew violates our sense of appropriate connection between there/then and here/now.

Inside the Hainish textual universe--that is, viewed as one of a series--The Telling is rooted in Hainish history, but that history overlaps with our own via the conventions of historical-literary realism. That is, Sutty's Earth is consistent with our Earth as it might be in the future. (This is quite different from the illogical- to-make-a-point positioning of Starbuck's/Starbrew in Dovza City.) On Sutty's Earth (as on ours), on Aka, and on the other Hainish planets reintroduced in The Birthday of the World, this is a history that is repeatedly forgotten, so that the gaps in Le Guin's fiction exist both narratively and metanarratively:
 .... [Y]ou can ask the Hainish, who have been around for
 a long time, and whose historians not only know a lot of what
 happened, but also know that it keeps happening and will happen
 again....

 The people on all the other worlds, who all descended from the
 Hainish, naturally don't want to believe what the old folks say, so
 they start making history; and so it all happens again.

 I did not plan these worlds and people. I found them, gradually
 piecemeal, while writing stories. I'm still finding them. (viii)


The very notions of forgetting--on the part of characters--and of finding--on the part of the author--contribute to our sense of actuality: something has gone on before the beginning of the first page of the first book and continues after the last page of the last book, and things happen between one text and the next, far too many for us ever to learn about all of them. And we are also reminded that people don't always want to remember, so that even in this far future, the same terrible mistakes continue to be made.

And here we might turn from the relationship between Hainish past and Hainish present to that between our own almost-lost past and dimly haunted present. In her essay "World-Making" (1981, reprinted in Dancing at the Edge of the World, Grove Press, 1989), Le Guin calls us "the inhabitants of a Lost World" (47) annihilated by the European conquerors, the ancestors of many of us, including Le Guin herself:
 The people who lived here, in this place, on these hills, for tens
 of thousands of years, are remembered (when they are remembered at
 all) in the language of the conquistadores: the "Costanos," the
 "Santa Claras," the "San Franciscos," names taken from foreign
 demigods.... Here is one. . . fragment, a song.... The people sang:

 I dream of you,
 I dream of you jumping,
 Rabbit, jackrabbit, and quail.
 (47-48)


In the essay Le Guin talks about the relationship between fragments from the past and the invented worlds she has constructed from sometimes culturally disparate pieces--bricolage: a bit here, a bit there, "and so patch together a world as best I can. But still there is a mystery" (48). So here we might stop and simply consider the fragmentary poem from our own Lost World, so like the fragments Sutty retrieves from the ruined transmission. The poem represents the "I" who dreams and the life going on within the dream, a story within a dream within a song, all framed by Le Guin's own Telling--and then reframed, however modestly, by this essay you are reading now. Like the books stored within the bubble-caves of Silong, stories lie side by side and also within one another. Meditating on the writings of Ursula Le Guin and on their wider implications, we are likely to come away with a reinvigorated sense of our own participation in the great Telling, an activity of more than personal and surely of more than academic interest.

Jessie Lawson

University of Missouri, Columbia
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Author:Lawson, Jessie
Publication:Cultural Analysis
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
Words:3204
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