Book Review: The Telling – Ursula K. Le Guin (2001)


On Aka, god is a word without referent. No capital letters. No creator, only creation. No eternal father to reward and punish, justify injustice, ordain cruelty, offer salvation. Eternity is not an endpoint but a continuity. Primal division of being into material and spiritual only as two-as-one, or one in two aspects. No hierarchy of Nature and Supernatural. No binary Dark/Light, Evil/Good, or Body/Soul. No afterlife, no rebirth, no immortal disembodied or reincarnated soul. No heavens, no hells.

Cover of "The Telling"

Cover of The Telling


Set in Le Guin’s Hainish universe, a young woman from a future Earth, where she has lived underneath a repressive, fundamentalist religious government, travels to the planet of Aka, where religion has been outlawed by a different type of repressive government.

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!

If you like this book, you might also like: Grass by Sheri S. Tepper; The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper

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