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The Telling (2003)

The Telling (2003)

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3.83 of 5 Votes: 2
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0441011233 (ISBN13: 9780441011230)

About book The Telling (2003)

(I chose to compare this book to a nonfiction work for my review.)The alien civilization in Ursula K Le Guin’s The Telling is deeply evocative of post-Cultural Revolution China. A few months ago I read the non-fiction book Song & Silence: Ethnic Revival On China’s Southwest Borders by Sara L. M. Davis. The parallels in description between parts of the two works were at times so strong that I felt Le Guin also must have read Song & Silence. (The Telling was published in 2000. Song & Silence was published in 2005, but the author began gathering data in 1997.) Davis is describing at microcosmic level events that are known to have happened throughout China. Le Guin has not conjured out of thin air the policies and methods used by the governments in her work; the practices of both the Unist Fathers on Terra and the government of Ava are based in concrete events that have happened in living memory.The narrator/author of Song & Silence and the narrator/protagonist of The Telling share many similarities. Both women are in a foreign land, trying to track down any existant remnants of older folk culture. This once vibrant tradition has been systematically destroyed by the intervention of a modern, secular, dominant state. This dominant state is progressive and concerned with embracing technology and erasing culture that does not arise from the central authority. Ms. Davis and The Telling’s Sutty have initial difficulty finding the old storytellers, and must take care once found that they do not endanger these people who preserve their past against the wishes of the government.In Song & Silence, Sara Davis hears of old temples with fine murals depicting local tales, but when she asks about them they have been destroyed so utterly that local villagers have never heard of them. She finally discovers a remaining old temple whose walls are white“places where old murals had been carefully but incompletely scraped off. Old and delicate lines appeared on some areas of the white walls-the contour of a woman’s face, the silhouette of a palace roof, a swirl of black ink. In a few places these were obscured by something painted in broad strokes of red, but this red paint had also been scraped off.“Why did people scrape off the murals?” I asked the boys.They pointed to the back of the temple. Here were a few places where the red paint had been left intact, forming old slogans. These read “Long Live Chairman Mao” and“Any counterrevolutionary thing, if you do not knock it down, will not collapse of its own accord. This is like sweeping the ground: if the broom does not reach the dust, the dust will not usually go away of its own accord.” ” (S&S page 4)That is the passage that immediately sprang to my mind when I was reading The Telling and Sutty first encounters the Fertiliser’s shop where she describes,“the inscriptions that covered every wall from floor to ceiling, all in the old, the illegal writing. On the facade of the shop the inscriptions had been whitewashed out and painted over with signs in the modern alphabet, but these had faded enough that she could make out some of the underlying words.” (page 57)Both books talk of the old writing which preserves the past being destroyed, of temples pulled down or blown up. They talk of elements of culture being preserved only dangerously.“To challenge those limits by insisting on other kinds of language or religion, as ethnic Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Inner Mongolians sometimes do, is to risk violent conflict with the state. But in Sipsongpanna, some elements of the unapproved, unofficial ethnic culture were also preserved underground. An ancient text, an old temple, an epic poem in praise of the dead prince: all were saved because someone took a risk; hid them in the rafters of a stilt house; persuaded the Red Guards to pass them over; sang them to a listening student at night.” (S&S page 7)These governments are engaged in the conscious invention of a new national culture, which both Davis and Le Guin make clear. This is a way of enforcing power at the expense of the outlawed past. What is interesting is the way that history informs Le Guin’s writing on this. It assists in the creation of a much richer and deeper fictional world, one that draws deeply on our past to speculate on our future.

The Telling is situated in Ursula Le Guin's ingeniously imagined Hainish universe. Six novels and several short stories have previously chronicled the Hainish experience through the worlds they have touched The stories take place several hundred years into Earth's future, where we learn that humanity is the result of Hanish colonization of the habitable worlds in the universe. Le Guin gives each of the numerous Hain worlds, includingbEarth, a distinct society, ensuring herself of a plethora of cultural variety to play in. Her titles have been categorized as feminist literature, utopian soence fiction, reinterpretedmyth and, of course, anthropological fiction but they are so myriad in nature that | hesitate to relegatebthem to any one of these headings. Even the catchall subject of sciencefiction/fantasy does not adequatelydescribe Le Gukn's unique work. Her penchant for strong, anomalous characters and story lines are too parallelbto reality, too based on a true mythological realm to attract readers ofbonly one genre.Sutty is an Earthling and a Hain-trained ethnologist, known as an Observer. Because she knows something of their now-proscribed written language, she is assigned to the planet Aka to discover and document what Akan culture was like before the presence of previous Hain Observers unintentionally but significantly changed the culture forever. Her task borders on illegal and brings great personal risk to those who help her since the local government outlawed the planet's entire pre-space history. Planet-wide, all written records and prior cultural tendencies have been destroyed or are very deeply repressedbin the name of progress. The Akans have no desire to look like a backward society to their new, more technologically advanced allies. "What sacrifices these people have made! They agreed to deny their cultureand impoverish their lives for the 'March to the Stars, an artificial, theoretical goal, an imitation of societies?they assumed to be superior merely because they were capable of space flight," records Sutty. Sutty travels to the most rural areas of Aka, where she expects to find the most remnants of the original Akan culture.During her participant observation, she discovers a prohibited tradition of significant importance, a rich oral tradition, known as the telling. To these rural people, it is nearly holy (for lack of a more culturally significant term) to partake in storytelling, as ether yoz (listener) or maz (teller) Sutty's challenge is in finding a common thread:connecting the stones, a semblance of purpose for their Importance. As anboutsider, this goal is a struggle, for itbis difficult for the Akans to describe something so innate in their tradttions. Aka is a realistic, fully fieshed-out fictional world with its own folklore, language and history. Readers are immersed in a well developed alien environment viewed within its own cultural context. Sutty could be an actual person, complete in her imperfect humanity. She harbors ethnocentricbideas despite her very attempts to thwart them. Learning throughout her experience, she eventually develops an unreserved and invoked role in the society she is studying. Shebgrows into this new role of potentialcaretaker with the idea that she mght be able to use her knowledge when she returns home to plead the Akan case to their government and helpbthem return to the ways of old. Like many of her previous novels, The Telling demands careful attenion and an appreciation of Le Guin's s peripherally allegorical subtexts. I mourned with Sutty as she realized that the original Akan culture, a rich. thriving traditionnwas traded away like chattel and replaced by a failed carbon copy of a space-faring society.This is a reprint of my original review in the Aug/Sep 2000 issue of Explorations.If I recall correctly, I met Ms. LeGuin at a B&N event that we hosted via James Killen.

Do You like book The Telling (2003)?

I'm going to use an arguably banal and trite metaphor here: that of a love affair. Okay, maybe not so arguable. It is a banal and trite metaphor. But that’s okay, I think, because the “relationship” many of us experience with our books and our authors is like a love affair, is it not? So forget that the metaphor is worn or hackneyed, because it’s apt, and it’s something to which many of you will relate, and it’s the best way I can think of to communicate how this book affected me.To be more precise, I am comparing my reading of The Telling to the beginning of a love affair ... to the first date. That’s how I see it, anyway ... my first date with UKL ... the first of many, I hope.UKL is the woman at the edge of my circle of friends. Not that she’s unpopular or lonely, mind you. She has a circle of her own. A rather large circle, from what I gather. It’s just that my circle only slightly overlaps her own. She is beautiful from a distance, and she certainly looks pretty enough up close, too. She always seems to be involved in conversation and everybody always has nice things to say about her. I have checked her out across the room at parties but never really had the motivation to introduce myself. On the one hand I’m always game for flirting with a pretty girl, but on the other hand I have plenty of friends and I’m not eager to spend the energy cultivating another relationship.Eventually, a friend of mine leads UKL over and introduces us, thinking we might hit it off, which in fact we do. At the end of the party we both play it cool, exchange phone numbers, and part on a hug. I let a few days pass before I make the call. For one thing, I want to keep playing it cool; that’s my style. But really, I’m afraid of getting involved in something right now. Life is plenty busy. A new relationship can be work, you know? And it’s always a risk. I like the known quantity. Still, I can’t stop thinking about the pretty girl that captured my attention so completely the other night, so I pull out the digits and dial. We agree to meet for drinks after work. Nothing too big. Nothing too committal. Something from which either of us could exit if we don’t have a good feeling about things.For me, The Telling began as drinks after work, and ended late that night with a reluctant parting and a lasting impression. There will, without a doubt, be a second date.As I read The Telling I discovered a rich imagination, a vibrant story teller, and a fair and thoughtful judge of character. UKL impressed me greatly. I thought at first that her writing reminded me of Herbert, but with a softness around the edges and woven through the words. But that was just a first impression; I quickly fell in love with UKL on her own merits and not because she was reminiscent of anyone else.The Telling is about “The Telling” – an ancient way of life among a remarkable people on a planet called Aka. The Telling is a religion, a philosophy, a cosmology, a sociology, and an economy tied and woven inseparably together. It is a bit utopian, really. But it has become fragmented, hidden, and perhaps a bit distorted. Our protagonist is a historian-anthropologist-sociologist from Earth named Sutty. She has come to Aka to learn from its people, and she must patiently peel back the concrete-and-steel surface imposed by the modern Corporation-State. The State has criminalized The Telling, seeing it as a threat to progress and, as you might guess, as a threat to its own authority. Sutty’s patience is rewarded in the end, but along the way her stamina is tested, her objectivity is challenged, and her beliefs are questioned. The Telling gives you ideas to contemplate in a story you can savor. Like I said, it left a lasting impression on me and there will be a second date with UKL.Pretty cheesy review, huh?

This was not quite a 4 star read. If I had more options, it would be a 3.5 star read.The story is told through the eyes of Sutty, who is a linguist/historian for the Ekuman, who study and record the histories of the planets that contain societies. Sutty has been assigned to Aka, a planet that is trying to replicate the technology of Terra (Earth) and become engaged in commerce among the worlds. In training, Sutty learned the language but little else about the planet, because the files of the first team to visit the planet had been corrupted. When she arrives, however, she finds the language she learned is no longer spoken on the planet and has been banned. The capital city - Dovza - is not a pleasant place for her. There is no fresh food. The technology is shoddy. Books have been burned and banned. But then her supervisor offers her the opportunity to visit a city upriver, much closer to the mountains, where remnants of the planet's old ways are believed to still exist.Sutty reluctantly goes and finds more than she ever hoped for. She makes friends and becomes involved with the old traditions. She is worried that she is putting her new friends at risk while they see her presence as offering hope. As she learns more about the traditional ways, we learn more about her and her past on Terra. The culture wars of Aka bear a resemblance to the culture wars of the Terra when Sutty was there. While they do not have fundamentalist religion on Aka, they do have a rather fundamentalist society governed by the Corporation. The book ends on a hopeful note. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading more Le Guinn books.

I have to confess first that I didn't finish The Telling. I quit about halfway through after struggling with what, to me, was an excruciatingly boring story that's barely a story at all, but really seems to be simply a vehicle for conveying ideas, and perhaps a moral message, about the preservation of culture and history. It's interesting to me that I read this book shortly after reading (and hating) A Canticle For Leibowitz because they seem so similar and yet opposite. Let's compare: In A Canticle for Leibowitz, a world-wide holocaust results in a violent mass rejection of technology and learning of all sorts, and human culture on Earth basically starts over from extremely simple pastoral roots. A monastery of Catholic monks struggles over a period of several centuries to preserve the knowledge of the past and wonders if humanity is doomed to a never-ending cycle of violence. Message: If we don't learn from the past and cherish that learning, we are doomed to repeat it. In The Telling, the scene seems to be very much the opposite. Earth has offered its neighboring planet, Aka, a technological development package, and the Akans, having gladly accepted the opportunity to leap-frog centuries of slow technological development, go about cheerfully and ruthlessly obliterating and even criminalizing their entire past history, language and culture in an effort to become "advanced." Sutty, an Earth observer, investigates the native culture of Aka and finds it still alive and being surreptitiously practiced in the outlying towns and villages. Message: I'm not quite sure, since I didn't finish it, but it seems to be a parable about the atrophy (and in some cases, suppression) of our own many rich cultural traditions here on Earth.In my mind, both books suffer from a problem that crops up a lot in science fiction, which I call Big Idea Syndrome. In SF, stories about fictional cultures are often used as ways to explore existential ideas and questions about ourselves and our culture and technology. Both these books focus on the tension between the pastoral and the technological, the spiritual and intellectual cost of what we call “progress,” and the danger of becoming unrooted from our past. They address these issues in very different ways, but they both suffer equally from the syndrome. The problem with Big Idea Syndrome is that no matter how important and worthwhile the ideas are, an idea by itself rarely makes a compelling story. You've got to add relatable characters and make interesting things happen to them, or the pages just don't turn.After quitting halfway through The Telling, I figured I ought to read a plot summary before I say anything about it. Usually, you can get a reasonably detailed plot summary of a novel just by reading its Wikipedia entry. However, Wikipedia's plot summary for The Telling is three sentences long and basically says, “Sutty experiences and tells of the conflicts there between the Corporation, a repressive State capitalist government, and the native people who resist.” As dull as that sounds, it makes the book seem more interesting than it actually is. Words like "conflicts" and "resistance" invoke images of open defiance, perhaps even fighting. No, Sutty's adventures are probably much more like what real anthropologists experience-- quietly observing the cultural rituals of the people around her and chronicling them. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but wow it makes for a dull novel.I think one's enjoyment of this book depends heavily on whether you have an inner historian-anthropologist, a sort of Indiana Jones whose secret treasures are forgotten texts, ancient languages, and little-known customs. But in this case, the true cultural treasures aren't hidden in tombs or temples-- they live in plain sight on the hearths of those who still practice them. Does it pass the Bechdel test? Yes, thank goodness, and it's the first book I've read in quite some time that does.
—Amber Dunten

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