Ursula Le Guin, having incorporated Daoism into numerous works of her fiction (see The Lathe of Heaven and all of the Earthsea Cycle), sought to take matters a little closer to home. Utilizing a more hard-line ideology of contemporary China, her 2000 The Telling presents a Cultural Revolution scenario in a sci-fi setting. The novel examines life on a planet where all traditional customs, beliefs, and practices have been outlawed, and its violators processed with impunity. Playing off this well worn theme, Le Guin produces a book that confirms the tradition of dystopian novels featuring authoritarian excesses, while simultaneously injecting the value of storytelling.
The Telling is the story of the anthropologist Sutty, a young woman who has been sent by the Ekumen to the planet Aka as an Observer of the people’s traditional beliefs and customs before they become entirely extinct. The government, a purely capitalist institution called The Corporation, has passed laws that forbid anything related to the past. Lawbreakers punished and reeducated, the old ways are slowly dying out. Sutty, in an effort to find what few remnants of the past are still alive, takes a trip to the countryside and there encounters quantities of culture beyond her dreams. Keeping it alive, however, may take her life.
Written in lightly introspective style, The Telling is an emotional tale of not only cultural exploration, but of discovering one’s self. Sutty missing out on a picture-perfect youth, her travels take her places both beneath her feet and in her soul, unveiling aspects of life she never knew existed. Her time in the countryside opens her eyes to new perspectives that people living in the “producer-consumer” society the Corporation enforces know nothing of. Adventurous and personal, Sutty’s is a tale of ethics and ideology told in true Le Guin style.
That being said, if oversized moral buttons are not to your liking, The Telling would be best avoided. Sutty the only “gray” aspect of the story (and then not by much), the remainder of the characters and societies presented live on opposing hemispheres of good and bad. Like Lowry’s The Giver or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the premise of banning something so innate to Western culture, in this case books, hobbies, and fashion, seems ludicrous, and when a conflict is created based on the idea, the reader has no choice but to take the side of free choice. Suffice to say, it’s not a premise that challenges readers.
Though an authoritarian dystopia, readers seeking the next Nineteen Eighty-four or Brave New World will also be disappointed. Lacking similar detail, world building, and complexity, The Telling falls short of those novels’ standards of quality. Le Guin’s novel does have value, particularly with its regard for storytelling, preserving traditional values, and personal transcendence, but given the rudimentary fashion in which the societies she imagines are presented, deeper, more realistic content is desired. The book is an affective one that culturally sensitive readers cannot help but empathize with, it just does not achieve the scope of other novels featuring authoritarian governments to the extreme.
In the end, The Telling is a slightly above average entry into the sub-genre of science fiction dealing with dystopian regimes. Not as original or detailed as the books which founded the sub-genre, Le Guin nevertheless makes it her own by mixing elements of Daoism, Chinese history, and the value of storytelling to good effect. Her prose of the lean and sparsely poetic variety, readers will find the story generally well told, but dependent on well-used plot devices, particularly the climax, and thus not as unique as some of her other sci-fi work in the Hainish series. Still better than a lot of sci-fi published these days, The Telling is as informing as it is confirming, just not as special as The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed.