Saturday, 25 February 2006

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Telling (2001)

Edition: Gollancz, 2002
Review number: 1311

All through here career, Le Guin has been known for her thoughtful social science fiction, as far removed from the "hard" SF which focuses on engineering and physics as anything in the genre. While her earlier novels like The Left Hand of Darkness are classics which helped establish that science fiction doesn't have to be about technology, the more recent The Telling is a comparitively minor novel in much the same vein.

The setting is a technologically primitive planet - a favourite choice of location for Le Guin. Using a familiar device from earlier Hainish tales, the central character is an anthropologist-like observer named Sutty. She is sent to this planet, only to discover it has radically changed from the information she read before her journey (which took seventy years, local time, because of relativistic effects). The society she studied, made up of peaceful beings who had no real concept of foreigner (or at least, so the narrative states, though there is also a suggestion that one group was regarded as "barbarians"), has been overthrown in what must be a deliberate reflection of the effects of the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The old books, and even the writing and some of the language are banned as reactionary. Sutty thinks at first that she, an alien, might be the only person on the planet able to read the old letters until she goes away from the cities into the mountain foothills where the remnants of the culture are still clandestinely preserved.

Why is this a minor Le Guin? The main reason is that it re-visits themes previously explored with greater subtlety. It is all too obvious that the reader is meant to sympathise with those trying to preserve the remnants of the old culture, and the details put in to explain why the authorities want to stamp it out are perfunctory and unconvincing. (This is partly because the main motive for doing so is kept for a surprise until the end, which is something of a plotting mistake.) The ideas used in The Telling could have been the basis for something more interesting; theere is more to the real world events than is picked up by the author, and there are additional reasons for cultures to die out in the face of new technology which we see all around us in the world today that could have filled out the somewhat perfunctory plot. No one ever suggests that the (to me rather dull) folk tales that make up the oral culture at the centre of The Telling (and provide the name for the novel) are boring or irrelevant - yet that has been the fate of many traditional ideas in the MTV generation. Those on the side of the authorities are portrayed as humourless ideologues, straight out of Orwell; one of them does have a change of heart, but it turns out that he was brought up in the old ways. There are reasons that persuade people to embrace technology, and to be a fully rounded person does not necessarily mean rejecting anything new; but that is Le Guin's implication here.

There are other aspects of The Telling which could be criticised; too much space is given to expounding the traditions at the expense of plot and character: an equivalent to being a hard SF novel which concentrates on the technical gimmicks at great length and a fault that Le Guin has always tended towards. But I did not actually dislike The Telling. It is beautifully written on a sentence-by-sentence level, and captures the attention. What is frustrating is that it could be much better.

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