There have been eighty requests to send an Observer into the hinterlands of the planet Aka to study the natives. Much to everyone¿s surprise, the eighty-first request is granted, and Observer Sutty is sent upriver to Okzat-Ozkat, a small city in the foothills of Rangma, to talk to the remnants in hiding of a cult practising a banned religion. On Aka, everything that was written in the old scripts has been destroyed; modern aural literature is all written to Corporation specifications. The Corporation expects Sutty to report back so the non-standardised folk stories and songs can be wiped out and the people ¿re-educated¿. But Sutty herself is in for an education she never imagined.
I can't exactly say that Le Guin's handling of these societies is heavy-handed or clunky. She's too good a writer for that, and she does make a point of adding in a bit of complexity. But, still, I could never quite manage to fully believe in either of these cultures, or to accept them on their own terms. It was never, ever far from my mind that the author had invented these societies to contrast with each other, to compare with our own societies on Earth, and to make some sort of point about what she believes to be good and bad in human civilizations, and that awareness made me feel a bit too detached from it all. I did find a few aspects of the traditional culture she describes to be interesting, appealing, even mildly insightful. But, for me, it just never quite came together into something satisfying or particularly profound.
It wasn't an unpleasant read or anything, and I'm not sorry I picked it up. But it's definitely not the first Le Guin novel I would recommend to anyone.
I enjoyed the book, but must confess that I am a long-time Le Guin fan, and this is a work in a larger spectrum of life-long brilliant writing.
I was so looking forward to reading this book, as it is the only one of the novels set in the Hainish universe that I had left to read, and I had highly enjoyed reading all of the previous novels. However, this one left me wanting. I will say that my expectations were high, and that Le Guin's writing, as always, is excellent. At no point did I want to abandon the story. However, there is very little happening in the book (but there is a lot of telling). The story is just so subtle that it almost seems slight.
The novel is set on the planet of Aka, where a dystopian, corporatist society has been established in which all religion has been outlawed. The protagonist, Sutty, is an observer from Earth who feels somewhat untethered; the change in government occurred while she was traveling to Aka, so the planet she arrived at in no way matched the planet she had prepared to observe. After a while, she is able to escape government minders and travel to the country to get some insight into the religious culture of the Akans before it was forced underground. The primary expression of religion is through storytelling, in which stories are related over and over by knowledgeable "priests/priestesses" to all willing listeners in a process called the "telling." Eventually, Sutty journeys with some of these "priests" to see the last existing library, which is hidden in a remote mountain peak.
Of course, I appreciated this appreciation of storytelling and oral history. But the contrast between the two forms of Akan culture seemed too stark; it was clear that the old way was Good and the new way was Bad. I expect more shades of gray, more ambiguity from Le Guin. Also, I was far more interested in the little snippets of Earth's future history that Sutty related than in what was happening on Aka. I was left wanting.
Well, so-so Le Guin is better than the best of many other writers. This is not a bad book, by any means. It is no Left Hand of Darkness or Dispossessed either. I worry that there is so much in Le Guin's head that she is not letting out. I am so fascinated by this universe she has created. I want more!
Read because I like the author, particularly her books set in the Hainish universe (2013).
Dogged by an Akan Monitor who is fanatically devoted to the new way of life, Sutty nevertheless gains the trust of the traditional Akans in the mountains, and begins to immerse herself in their deeply beautiful, poetic, and all-pervasive ethos, which Sutty dubs the Telling. Deeply touched by this way of life, Sutty finds herself on a pilgrimage to the Akans’ most sacred site and simultaneously embroiled in the fight to preserve the Telling from the Monitor and those he serves.
A parable for our own culture’s willingness to abandon its cultural heritage, “The Telling” is a lyrical and affecting examination of the conflict between traditional values and technological progress, with no clear winner on either side.
I feel like LeGuin conceived of The Telling and wrote the plot around it in order to convey The Telling to us. Which, great. Frankly, I’d like to have heard more of it, but again, much more philosophical and thought-experiment-y than science fiction, per se. Fans of LeGuin will like it. Fans of more science-y, tech-y sci fi will probably not.
I was way more connected to Sutty than I have been to Le Guin's other protagonists that I have read. I to understand the Akans with her almost immediately. I enjoyed her growth and the Akan cultural system immensely.
On this second reading, I am more critical of the naivete of Sutty. Surely a highly developed confederacy would use people who were more self-aware, or had come to terms better with their childhood. But perhaps that was part of why she was brought to Aka where more experienced observers had been shut out by the local government, and her experiences as a member of a persecuted religion gave her insights into what was going on.
Favorite quote is really 2 pages (134-5) where Maz Uming explains why people need to keep reminding themselves of the right way to live, i.e. why the Telling is so important in their culture.
"Unexpectedly she received permission to leave the modern city where her movements were closely monitored. She travels up the river into the countryside, going from howling loudspeakers to bleating cattle, to seek the remnants of the banned culture of Aka. As she comes to know and love the people she lives with, she begins to learn their unique religion -- the Telling. Finally joining them on a trek into the high mountains to one of the last sacred places, she glimpses hope for the reconciliation of the warring ideologies that have filled their lives, and her own, with grief.
"The Telling is a reflection on the conflict of politics and religion in our modern world, and the story of a spiritual journey through a landscape that is at once very strange and very familiar."
Ursula Le Guin is probably my favorite author, and I have and cherish almost all the books she wrote (and am working on having them all.) I've noticed that as she grew older, her books became simpler, and yet more profound. The book is a thinly disguised warning about the consequences we would all suffer if any fundamental religion became the state.
It's written with her usual spare, poetic language, and the trip into the mountains had echoes of Tibet: the country that has been taken over by China and has had its culture and religion banned. Our hearts bleed for Tibet, just as Sutty's heart grieved for Earth taken over by a fundamentalist religion, and for Aka, taken over by a materialistic state.
The ending promises hope, but it's a slim one. Governments aren't generally willing to give up their power. Since the book was published in 2000, and is the last in the Hainish cycle, we'll never know if the promise came to fruition, or not.
I miss her. Terribly.