Way back in September 2020, I began reading and writing about the Hainish “cycle” of SF novels by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 - 2018). It has taken a year and a half, but the time has now come for my reflections on the eighth and final Hainish book, The Telling, which was published in 2000.
The Hainish books began with Le Guin’s very first novel Rocannon's World in 1966. The various books and short stories share a loose continuity and are set over a large span of time. They are predicated on the idea that humans evolved not on Earth, but rather on the fictional planet Hain. In the stories, an interstellar association called the “League of Worlds” or later the “Ekumen”, gradually reunites various human-like peoples who live on a number of planets including Earth. This concept is central to some of the stories, and barely mentioned in others.
The Telling is a fairly short novel which revisits several of the themes which Le Guin had previously explored in the earlier Hainish books. In this sense, it makes for a fitting conclusion to the loose series. Opinions are divided on where to start with the Hainish stories, but I would certainly caution against starting with The Telling; while its setting and characters are entirely new, it leans heavily on previous depictions of the Hainish people and of the Ekumen. While this is generally felt to be one of the more minor entries in the series, The Telling has all the deep engagement with ideas that Le Guin fans will expect by this point.
The central character is Sutty, a human of Anglo-Indian background. She is an “Observer”, a representative of the Ekumen tasked with studying and understanding the peoples of another world. This makes her similar to Rocannon from Rocannon's World, to Genly Ai from The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and Solly from Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995). Sutty is dispatched to the planet Aka, but when she arrives it is not as she expected. This is because Akan society has changed radically during the time it took Sutty to travel there, in large part due to earlier visits by offworlders.
This sets up the theme which drives much of the plot. In preparation for her mission, Sutty studied a culture which now seems to be all but extinct. Instead, Aka is dominated by the “Corporation State”, a repressive capitalist regime which controls almost all of the planet’s only continent. This power structure is reminiscent of the one on the planet Urras in The Dispossessed (1974), especially in its ambivalence towards the Ekumen. The Corporation State is focused on three main goals: pushing the rationalist and scientific state religion, achieving spaceflight (which it calls “the March to the Stars”), and violently suppressing the “superstitious” old ways.
Of course, the “superstitious” old ways are exactly what Sutty is interested in. With the tacit approval of her supervisor Tong Ov (who is a native of Chiffewar, a planet mentioned a few times in the series), Sutty sets out to learn all that she can. Through a few chance encounters, she discovers that the traditionalist beliefs form a vast oral and written culture known as “the Telling”. These ideas are shared in secret by people known as “maz”. The Corporation State used book burnings, surveillance, re-education camps and violence to suppress the Telling, and so Sutty becomes drawn into a world of covert meetings and subterfuge that keeps a way of life intact at great risk.
It has been suggested that Le Guin’s primary inspiration for this novel was the effort to protect the traditional way of life in Tibet. This is quite convincing, for a number of reasons. Towards the close of the novel, Sutty goes on a perilous journey into mountains which bring to mind the Himalayas. It also recalls the famous ice journey section of The Left Hand of Darkness, and performs a similar function in the story.
As with almost all of Le Guin’s fiction, The Telling is a very thoughtful book. Much science fiction and fantasy deals with what we might call “external” matters - physical threat, violence, travel, and heroism. Even more than usual, Le Guin is focused here on the “internal” - ideas, feelings, and philosophies. In her worldview, progress is achieved not by physical courage but through a willingness to learn, to empathise, and to understand. This emphasis is so strong in The Telling that it can become a little didactic at times. Sutty’s musings on culture, language, history and belief are intriguing but it is easy to wish for a more physically active protagonist at times.
The book also reflects the changes in Le Guin’s approach as she was entering a late phase in her long career. As with a lot of her fiction published after the 1990s, The Telling has a strong feminist emphasis and same-sex relationships feature prominently on Aka. One of the most effective passages in the novel is about Sutty’s recollections of her relationship with another woman, Pao, back on Earth. Interestingly, the book also has some discussions about language and particularly about personal pronouns which seem quite ahead of their time. In one example, Akans have a special plural pronoun for pregnant women.
While The Telling makes almost no references to specific events in earlier Hainish books and stories, it does feel like an extension of and conclusion to them. This is because so many of Le Guin’s favourite themes recur here. The power of understanding, the ruinous effects of violence, and the implications of time dilation had all been used prominently in other Hainish books and are all part of the mix in The Telling. For that reason, this book seems like a kind of summation of everything that had gone before. It then begins to make sense that Le Guin never again returned the loose continuity of the Hainish series - she had, it seemed, said all that she needed to.
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