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The Telling
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ace Books, 246 pages

The Telling
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin was born in 1929, the daughter of a writer and an anthropologist. She published her first novel, Rocannon's World, in 1966. Her fourth novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, a feat she repeated with The Dispossessed (1974). The Earthsea trilogy established her as a master of fantasy as well as science fiction. She has also published poetry and short story collections, and she received the Pilgrim Award in 1989 for her critical writings.

Ursula K. Le Guin Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Ursula K. Le Guin
SF Site Review: The Other Wind
SF Site Review: The Telling
SF Site Review: The Dispossessed

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

Although I'm a great admirer of Ursula K. Le Guin, I found her last few books too abstruse and inaccessible for my taste, so I was intrigued to hear that The Telling was a return to her Hainish novels (which include The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, two books often cited as among the best SF ever written).

Sutty, an Earth woman, comes to the planet Aka as an Ekumen envoy, researching Akan history and culture. Before leaving Earth she learned the ancient Akan language, but she arrives to discover that in the sixty light years her journey took, the planet has been transformed. A monolithic new government has outlawed all old customs and beliefs, including the old language, and all old books have been zealously hunted down and destroyed.

So the Hainish envoys are very surprised when the Akan Corporation State grants permission for Sutty to travel to a remote mountain village, Okzat-Ozkat, where remnants of the traditional culture remain. The more Sutty learns of "The Telling" (the Zen-like culture/religion of the Akans) the more fascinated she becomes, but she is all too aware that her research is dangerous. The government may be using her to locate and destroy the last hidden library on the planet.

The Telling is a complex book which is fundamentally a "telling" of the story of the Akan people and their culture. It is beautifully written, and the characters are very well drawn, but considered as a genre novel it has drawbacks.

The biggest is that there's very little plot. Sutty takes a journey, but much of it is internal. For large stretches of the book, she researches the complex culture of the people around her and ponders her own past while nothing much happens. Readers who love religious anthropology and beautifully crafted vignettes will enjoy this; other readers will bog down. Also, although Sutty meets and talks to many people, she doesn't develop a strong central relationship. Without another major character for her to react to, the novel lacks dramatic tension.

Finally, and this is a personal niggle, I find Le Guin's worlds tedious after a while because everyone is so unremittingly earnest and everything is imbued with such deep significance. It's hard to imagine people in Le Guin's universe giggling so hard they snort martinis up their noses or going out and taking pot shots at road signs just for the hell of it.

Ah well, that's just me. The Telling isn't really a genre novel, it's a "telling," and it succeeds in its goal of describing a culture and reflecting on enforced ideologies. And for sheer artistry in prose, there's no writer better than Le Guin.

Copyright © 2002 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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