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The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin

Review by Mike

The Telling, published in 2001, is a science fiction novel, but with little resemblance to Star Trek or Star Wars. It is a standalone book, and can easily be read without any prior knowledge about the world it takes place in. Still, technically it belongs in the Hainish or Ekumen universe, which Le Guin has returned to a number of times during her long writing career.

Here is a list of other works solely set in that environment:
Rocannon's World (1966)
Planet of Exile (1966)
City of Illusion (1967)
The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)
The Word for World Is Forest (1976)
Four Ways to Forgiveness (four interconnected short stories, 1995)

As you see, the list spans three decades. During that time the history and characteristics of this universe seem to have changed a bit in Le Guin's mind, which may cause some confusion if you have one of the first three books in mind while reading the later works. Specifically, telepathy plays an important role in the early novels, but as far as I can tell it has been completely dropped at some later point.

"Where my guides lead me in kindness
I follow, follow lightly,
and there are no footprints
in the dust behind us."

Millions of years ago humankind created its first advanced technological society on the planet Hain. From there humans spread over the galaxy during an era of space travel and colonisation. Our own planet was one of many that was populated that way. Then something happened to the Hainish civilisation. Maybe there was an internal conflict, or maybe they just lost interest in their great experiment. In any case, the result was that all the worlds they had visited were left to their own devices, and as the aeons went by its peoples eventually forgot their origin.

Now we swiftly move into our future. The people of Hain have once again turned their eyes towards the stars, and started to seek their lost daughter worlds. As they find more and more of them, an interplanetary organisation, the Ekumen of All Worlds, is set up. Its purpose is not to conquer and control other civilisations, but to teach and learn. To teach all of their own knowledge the authorities of a planet wish to know, and to learn the history and specific nature of that culture.

The events in The Telling take place on Aka, a world with only one great continent. At first contact some seventy years ago it was in a pre-industrial state, but amazing technological progress has been made in that short time. The first Akan spacecraft has been built when the Ekumen finally are able to set up a permanent office. They soon discover that the Akans have set out on their march towards the stars with a disturbing single-mindedness. Everything in society is aiming at technological progress, leaving no room for other aspects of life. All is managed by the "Corporation State", a totalitarian government that has erased virtually all history dating back to the days before the technological revolution. Everywhere you go messages like "FORWARD TO THE FUTURE. PRODUCER-CONSUMERS OF AKA MARCH TO THE STARS" follow you.

The Observers from the Ekumen are of course interested in discovering what is behind the facade. What ideologies and beliefs did the Akans have before the Corporation took over? Is there anything of that culture left? Finding that information is complicated. Since the Ekumen has a "no interference" policy, they can't just use force to achieve their goal. After many denied requests they finally get permission to send an Observer away from the capital to explore the less developed parts of the world. An Earthwoman named Sutty is selected.

She comes from a similar, but at the same time totally different background. On Earth a religious sect called the Unists came very close to gaining absolute power of the whole planet when Sutty was young, forcing their old-fashioned, fundamentalist beliefs on everybody. In the end the tide turned and they were replaced by democratic governments, but she is still tormented by the personal losses she suffered as one of the enemies to the Unists.

The Telling is the story about her struggle to discover and understand the ancient culture that still exists on Aka behind the Corporation facade, and doing so, how she has to face and overcome her old personal demons. However, it also shows us how terribly wrong things can go if you try to replace knowledge with belief, no matter if it's sanctioned by religion or science. Le Guin has admitted that the cultural revolution in communist China was the model for the situation on Aka.

I absolutely adore this book. There is very little in the way of "action", but even so it is never boring. The characters are exceptionally well drawn, making you feel like you really know them in a way that is not very common in any book. It is written in typical Le Guin style - an expressive, even poetic prose that it is a joy to read. We are shown the horrors mankind can create when everything goes wrong, but also that it is never too late for reconciliation. It makes you think like few other books do. It took me little more than a day to re-read it, but I have been sorting it through in my mind for several days before I felt like I could write a review.

"My brother, my husband, my love, my self, you and I believed that we would defeat our enemy and bring peace to our land.
But belief is the wound that knowledge heals, and death begins the Telling of our life."

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