Sunday, October 14, 2001

Review: "The Telling" by Ursula K. Le Guin

When it comes to literary science fiction, there are few names more recognizable than Ursula K. Le Guin. The award-winning, critically-acclaimed author of "The Left Hand of Darkness" and the Earthsea novels is one of only a handful of science fiction writers to actually make their way into literature classes.

My introduction to Le Guin came in a college textbook, which featured her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." I quickly moved on to the Earthsea books, which I enjoyed immensely.

Now Le Guin has returned with "The Telling," out this month in trade paperback from Ace. It's the first book in her Hainish cycle in over 25 years.

Historian Sutty Dass is sent to the planet Aka to study its culture. Unfortunately, in the time it has taken her to travel the light years to the planet, its society has changed. Aka is now ruled by the Corporation, a capitalist government based on principles picked up from reports of Earth.

The ancient culture of Aka has been pinned under the bootheel of the Corporation, which encourages - sometimes violently - everyone to be good consumer-producers. The old ways and stories have disappeared in the cities. Anyone caught practicing those customs is imprisoned, and if they survive the punishment, re-educated.

So far Sutty has been sheltered from the real Aka, fed the same propaganda over and over from Officials. But now she's been given a chance to travel outside the city, where she discovers the true nature of the people. But how can she report it without drawing the wrath of the Corporation down on the people who have trusted her with the Telling?

I have to admit that I haven't read much of the Hainish cycle, but that hardly mattered. From the first pages, the book began to draw me into this new world, setting up a web of mystery about the origins of the people of Aka before the rise of the Corporation.

I was a little disappointed in the follow-through, though. Somewhere near the middle, "The Telling" gets bogged down with a dump of information about the Aka. Rather than working it into the story, it seems to be presented more like Sutty's scientific report. Fortunately, Le Guin recovers for a solid ending.

More importantly, though, are the thoughts the book produced in me. Somewhere between classics like Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" and George Orwell's "1984," the novel made me think about some of our technological advances. When you take a look at the lack of privacy under the Corporation, you begin to wonder a little about satellite systems that can pinpoint your vehicle anywhere in the country and other things that many people consider "conveniences."

"The Telling" also has some connections with unfortunate recent events, as Sutty's life has been altered by the terrorist attacks of an extremist religious group back on Earth. Le Guin doesn't dwell on these aspects of the book - which was originally published in hardcover a year ago - but some scenes are unsettlingly similar to the events of Sept. 11.

"The Telling" is a science fiction story, but like "Fahrenheit 451" and "1984" it also contains a cautionary tale. Perhaps we should listen.

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