Cover image for The telling
The telling
Le Guin, Ursula K., 1929-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Harcourt, [2000]

Physical Description:
264 pages ; 24 cm
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 6.4 10.0 54880.
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Popular Materials-Science Fiction/Fantasy
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The Left Hand of DarknessSutty, an Observer from Earth for the interstellar Ekumen, has been assigned to a new world-a world in the grips of a stern monolithic state, the Corporation. Embracing the sophisticated technology brought by other worlds and desiring to advance even faster into the future, the Akans recently outlawed the past, the old calligraphy, certain words, all ancient beliefs and ways; every citizen must now be a producer-consumer. Their state, not unlike the China of the Cultural Revolution, is one of secular terrorism. Traveling from city to small town, from loudspeakers to bleating cattle, Sutty discovers the remnants of a banned religion, a hidden culture. As she moves deeper into the countryside and the desolate mountains, she learns more about the Telling-the old faith of the Akans-and more about herself. With her intricate creation of an alien world, Ursula K. Le Guin compels us to reflect on our own recent history.

Author Notes

Ursula K. Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber in Berkeley, California on October 21, 1929. She received a bachelor's degree from Radcliffe College in 1951 and a master's degree in romance literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance from Columbia University in 1952. She won a Fulbright fellowship in 1953 to study in Paris, where she met and married Charles Le Guin.

Her first science-fiction novel, Rocannon's World, was published in 1966. Her other books included the Earthsea series, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, The Lathe of Heaven, Four Ways to Forgiveness, and The Telling. A Wizard of Earthsea received an American Library Association Notable Book citation, a Horn Book Honor List citation, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1979. She received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014. She also received the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award. She also wrote books of poetry, short stories collections, collections of essays, children's books, a guide for writers, and volumes of translation including the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu and selected poems by Gabriela Mistral. She died on January 22, 2018 at the age of 88.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Le Guin has long been a master of literary science fiction that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. This novel in her Hainish cycle, which includes The Word for World Is Forest (1976), The Left Hand of Darkness (1997), and The Dispossessed (1999), is no exception. The protagonist is the introspective Sutty, who grew up on Earth during the time of social unrest under the Unists, who insisted on one God, one Truth, one Earth--until the Ekumen, the League of All Worlds, ended their rule. Now trained as a linguist and in literature, Sutty is on the planet Aka, in the "information-restricted, controlled environment" of Dovza City, whose society strongly resembles that during the Cultural Revolution in China. There as an official Observer of Aka's cultural past, before it received technological knowledge from the Ekumen, she is totally frustrated, until she is allowed to go upriver to the small town of Okzat-Ozkat, where she finds the old way is still practiced in secret. However, was it a religion, a system, a philosophy, or what? She ends up calling it the Telling because of the storytelling, the handing down of descriptions of a place, an act or event, or a person, all interconnected, all affecting daily life, with a spiritual dimension that precluded religion as an institution. Aka and its society, past and present, are impressively visualized, as are Sutty's internalization and slow grasp of what she is seeking. The narrative is easy to read but not quickly read, because it invites constant re-reading in order to ponder the philosophical, political, and personal points Le Guin, despite her faraway setting, is making about life in the twentieth century on Earth. --Sally Estes

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this virtually flawless new tale set in her Hainish universe, Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness; Four Ways to Forgiveness) sends a young woman from Earth on her first mission, to the planet Aka as an Observer for the Ekumen. Although well prepared for her role, Sutty has been horribly scarred by her past. She grew up gay in a North America badly damaged by ecological stupidity and the excesses of a fundamentalist state religion called Unism. Traveling to Aka, she expected (and had been trained) to deal with a peaceful, essentially static culture based on an ancient, all-encompassing belief system akin to Taoism and known as the Telling. When she arrived, however, she discovered that during the decades it took her to reach the planet, Aka's culture has been radically transformed. The Telling has been all but banned, replaced by a soulless form of corporate communism. It becomes Sutty's task to take a harrowing journey into the high mountains, searching for the last, priceless depository of Akan traditional culture before it can be destroyed. As Le Guin notes in her preface, similarities to China during the Great Leap Forward are not entirely coincidental. Although this is a political and philosophical novel of the purest sort, it is anything but dry. With an anthropologist's eye, Le Guin develops her Akan culture in great detail, as she does her characters. Sutty is an entirely successful viewpoint character, a quirky mixture of competence and intense emotion. The Monitor, her primary nemesis on Aka, is nearly as compelling. This is a novel that aficionados of morally serious SF won't want to miss. (Sept.) FYI: Le Guin is the winner of several Nebula and Hugo awards for outstanding SF, as well as of a National Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Newbery Honor and the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

As a member of the Ekumen!s embassy on the planet Aka, Sutty undertakes a delicate mission that leads her to a mountain village reported to contain the last remnants of a dying culture. Following a trail of subtle clues concealed in stories and folk sayings, Sutty discovers the suppressed history of a planet willing to abandon its old ways in the name of progress. Le Guin!s latest addition to her Hainish cycle (e.g., Rocannon!s World) continues her exploration of human culture and society through the filter of the far future. (Le Guin was inspired by Chairman Mao!s brutal suppression of Taoism in China.) This parable of the modern world!s headlong rush toward monocultural sterility exemplifies the author!s elegant simplicity and keen insight. A priority purchase for libraries. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Early in her stay, when she first met Tong Ov and the other two Observers presently in Dovza City, they had all discussed the massive monoculturalism of modern Aka in its large cities, the only places the very few offworlders permitted on the planet were allowed to live. They were all convinced that Akan society must have diversities and regional variations and frustrated that they had no way to find out. "Sectarians, I suspect, rather than ethnic. A cult. Possibly remnants in hiding of a banned religion." "Ah," she said, trying to preserve her expression of interest. Tong was still searching his files. "I'm looking for the little I've gathered on the subject. Sociocultural Bureau reports on surviving criminal antiscientific cult activities. And also a few rumors and tales. Secret rites, walking on the wind, miraculous cures, predictions of the future. The usual." To fall heir to a history of three million years was to find little in human behavior or invention that could be called unusual. Though the Hainish bore it lightly, it was a burden on their various descendants to know that they would have a hard time finding a new thing, even an imaginary new thing, under any sun. Sutty said nothing. "In the material the First Observers here sent to Terra," Tong pursued, "did anything concerning religions get through?" "Well, since nothing but the language report came through undamaged, information about anything was pretty much only what we could infer from vocabulary." "All that information from the only people ever allowed to study Aka freely-lost in a glitch," said Tong, sitting back and letting a search complete itself in his files. "What terrible luck! Or was it a glitch?" Like all Chiffewarians, Tong was quite hairless-a chihuahua, in the slang of Valparafso. To minimize his outlandishness here, where baldness was very uncommon, he wore a hat; but since the Akans seldom wore hats, he looked perhaps more alien with it than without it. He was a gentle-mannered man, informal, straightforward, putting Sutty as much at her ease as she was capable of being; yet he was so uninvasive as to be, finally, aloof. Himself uninvadable, he offered no intimacy. She was grateful that he accepted her distance. Up to now, he had kept his. But she felt his question as disingenuous. He knew, surely, that the loss of the transmission had been no accident. Why should she have to explain it? She had made it clear that she was traveling without luggage, just as Observers and Mobiles who'd been in space for centuries did. She was not answerable for the place she had left sixty light-years behind her. She was not responsible for Terra and its holy terrorism. But the silence went on, and she said at last, "The Beijing ansible was sabotaged." "Sabotaged?" She nodded. "By the Unists?" "Toward the end of the regime there were attacks on most of the Ekumenical installations and the treaty areas. The Pales." "Were many of them destroyed?" He was trying to draw her out. To get her to talk about it. Anger flooded into her, rage. Her throat felt tight. She said nothing, because she was unable to say anything. A considerable pause. "Nothing but the language got through, then," Tong said. "Almost nothing." "Terrible luck!" he repeated energetically. "That the First Observers were Terran, so they sent their report to Terra instead of Hain-not unnaturally, but still, bad luck. And even worse, maybe, that ansible transmissions sent from Terra all got through. All the technical information the Akans asked for and Terra sent, without any question or restriction. . . . Why, why would the First Observers have agreed to such a massive cultural intervention?" "Maybe they didn't. Maybe the Unists sent it." "Why would the Unists start Aka marching to the stars?" She shrugged. "Proselytising." "You mean, persuading others to believe what they believed? Was industrial technological progress incorporated as an element of the Unist religion?" She kept herself from shrugging. "So during that period when the Unists refused ansible contact with the Stabiles on Hain, they were . . . converting the Akans? Sutty, do you think they may have sent, what do you call them, missionaries, here?" "I don't know." He was not probing her, not trapping her. Eagerly pursuing his own thoughts, he was only trying to get her, a Terran, to explain to him what the Terrans had done and why. But she would not and could not explain or speak for the Unists. Picking up her refusal to speculate, he said, "Yes, yes, I'm sorry. Of course you were scarcely in the confidence of the Unist leaders! But I've just had an idea, you see- If they did send missionaries, and if they transgressed Akan codes in some way, you see?-that might explain the Limit Law." He meant the abrupt announcement, made fifty years ago and enforced ever since, that only four offworlders would be allowed on Aka at a time, and only in the cities. "And it could explain the banning of religion a few years later!" He was carried away by his theory. He beamed, and then asked her almost pleadingly, "You never heard of a second group sent here from Terra?" "No." He sighed, sat back. After a minute he dismissed his speculations with a little flip of his hand. "We've been here seventy years," he said, "and all we know is the vocabulary." She relaxed. They were off Terra, back on Aka. She was safe. She spoke carefully, but with the fluency of relief. "In my last year in training, some facsimile artifacts were reconstituted from the damaged records. Pictures, a few fragments of books. But not enough to extrapolate any major cultural elements from. And since the Corporation State was in place when I arrived, I don't know anything about what it replaced. I don't even know when religion was outlawed here. About forty years ago?" She heard her voice: placating, false, forced. Wrong. Tong nodded. "Thirty years after the first contact with the Ekumen. The Corporation put out the first decree declaring 'religious practice and teaching' unlawful. Within a few years they were announcing appalling penalties. . . . But what's odd about it, what made me think the impetus might have come from offworld, is the word they use for religion." "Derived from Hainish," Sutty said, nodding. "Was there no native word? Do you know one?" "No," she said, after conscientiously going through not only her Dovzan vocabulary but several other Akan languages she had studied at Valparafso. "I don't." A great deal of the recent vocabulary of Dovzan of course came from offworld, along with the industrial technologies; but that they should borrow a word for a native institution in order to outlaw it? Odd indeed. And she should have noticed it. She would have noticed it, if she had not tuned out the word, the thing, the subject, whenever it came up. Wrong. Wrong. Tong had become a bit distracted; the item he had been searching for had turned up at last, and he set his noter to retrieve and decode. This took some time. "Akan microfiling leaves something to be desired," he said, poking a final key. "'Everything breaks down on schedule,'" Sutty said. "That's the only Akan joke I know. The trouble with it is, it's true." "But consider what they've accomplished in seventy years!" The Envoy sat back, warmly discursive, his hat slightly askew. "Rightly or wrongly, they were given the blueprint for a G86." G86 was Hainish historians' shorthand jargon for a society in fast-forward industrial technological mode. "And they devoured that information in one gulp. Remade their culture, established the Corporate worldstate, got a spaceship off to Hain-all in a single human lifetime! Amazing people, really. Amazing unity of discipline!" Sutty nodded dutifully. "But there must have been resistance along the way. This antireligious obsession. . . . Even if we triggered it along with the technological expansion. . . ." It was decent of him, Sutty thought, to keep saying "we," as if the Ekumen had been responsible for Terra's intervention in Aka. That was the underlying Hainish element in Ekumenical thinking: Take responsibility. The Envoy was pursuing his thought. "The mechanisms of control are so pervasive and effective, they must have been set up in response to something powerful, don't you think? If resistance to the Corporate State centered in a religion-a well-established, widespread religion-that would explain the Corporation's suppression of religious practices. And the attempt to set up national theism as a replacement. God as Reason, the Hammer of Pure Science, all that. In the name of which to destroy the temples, ban the preachings. What do you think?" "I think it understandable," Sutty said. It was perhaps not the response he had expected. They were silent for a minute. "The old writing, the ideograms," Tong said, "you can read them fluently?" "It was all there was to learn when I was in training. It was the only writing on Aka, seventy years ago." "Of course," he said, with the disarming Chiffewarian gesture that signified Please forgive the idiot. "Coming from only twelve years' distance, you see, I learned only the modern script." "Sometimes I've wondered if I'm the only person on Aka who can read the ideograms. A foreigner, an offworlder. Surely not." "Surely not. Although the Dovzans are a systematic people. So systematic that when they banned the old script, they also systematically destroyed whatever was written in it-poems, plays, history, philosophy. Everything, you think?" She remembered the increasing bewilderment of her early weeks in Dovza City: her incredulity at the scant and vapid contents of what they called libraries, the blank wall that met all her attempts at research, when she had still believed there had to be some remnants, somewhere, of the literature of an entire world. "If they find any books or texts, even now, they destroy them," she said. "One of the principal bureaus of the Ministry of Poetry is the Office of Book Location. They find books, confiscate them, and send them to be pulped for building material. Insulating material. The old books are referred to as pulpables. A woman there told me that she was going to be sent to another bureau because there were no more pulpables in Dovza. It was clean, she said. Cleansed." She heard her voice getting edgy. She looked away, tried to ease the tension in her shoulders. Tong Ov remained calm. "An entire history lost, wiped out, as if by a terrible disaster," he said. "Extraordinary!" "Not that unusual," she said, very edgily- Wrong. She rearranged her shoulders again, breathed in once and out once, and spoke with conscious quietness. "The few Akan poems and drawings that were reconstructed at the Terran Ansible Center would be illegal here. I had copies with me in my noter. I erased them." "Yes. Yes, quite right. We can't introduce anything that they don't want to have lying about." "I hated to do it. I felt I was colluding." "The margin between collusion and respect can be narrow," Tong said. "Unfortunately, we exist in that margin, here." For a moment she felt a dark gravity in him. He was looking away, looking far away. Then he was back with her, genial and serene. "But then," he said, "there are a good many scraps of the old calligraphy painted up here and there around the city, aren't there? No doubt it's considered harmless since no one now can read it. . . . And things tend to survive in out-of-the-way places. I was down in the river district one evening-it's quite disreputable, I shouldn't have been there, but now and then one can wander about in a city this size without one's hosts knowing it. At least I pretend they don't. At any rate, I heard some unusual music. Wooden instruments. Illegal intervals." She looked her question. "Composers are required by the Corporation State to use what I know as the Terran octave." Sutty looked stupid. Tong sang an octave. Sutty tried to look intelligent. "They call it the Scientific Scale of Intervals, here," Tong said. And still seeing no great sign of understanding, he asked, smiling, "Does Akan music sound rather more familiar to you than you had expected?" "I hadn't thought about it-I don't know. I can't carry a tune. I don't know what keys are." Tong's smile grew broad. "To my ear Akan music sounds as if none of them knew what a key is. Well, what I heard down in the river district wasn't like the music on the loudspeakers at all. Different intervals. Very subtle harmonies. 'Drug music,' the people there called it. I gathered that drug music is played by faith healers, witch doctors. So one way and another I managed eventually to arrange a chat with one of these doctors. He said, 'We know some of the old songs and medicines. We don't know the stories. We can't tell them. The people who told the stories are gone.' I pressed him a little, and he said, 'Maybe some of them are still up the river there. In the mountains.'" Tong Ov smiled again, but wistfully. "I longed for more, but of course my presence there put him at risk." He made rather a long pause. "One has this sense, sometimes, that . . ." "That it's all our fault." After a moment he said, "Yes. It is. But since we're here, we have to try to keep our presence light." Chiffewarians took responsibility, but did not cultivate guilt the way Terrans did. She knew she had misinterpreted him. She knew he was surprised by what she had said. But she could not keep anything light. She said nothing. "What do you think the witch doctor meant, about stories and the people who told them?" She tried to get her mind around the question but couldn't. She could not follow him any further. She knew what the saying meant: to come to the end of your tether. Her tether choked her, tight around her throat. --From The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin, Copyright (c) October 2001, Ace Books, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., used by permission" Excerpted from The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.