LeGuin wrote many of the finest novels of the New Wave in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s – really, some of the finest sf novels, period. She returned to her beloved fantasy series, Earthsea, in the early ‘90s with a novel that I found aimless and a clash with the original trilogy. Now, in the ‘00s, she returns to her Hainish social sf, which included classics like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and…well, it works.
Like The Left Hand of Darkness, The Telling takes a delegate of the interstellar Ekumen from Earth and puts them into a society of aliens (though humanoid and distantly related). Sutty was born in India and lived for a time in Vancouver, hiding from religious extremists who have taken the planet’s government. As an agent of the Ekumen she takes the very long trip to Aka, a planet where a new pro-technology Corporation government is attempting to wipe out all vestiges of an ancient folk religion. It’s quite a clash for Sutty, but she comes to see more parallels between theocratic Earth and the anti-religious extremists of Aka’s Corporation. Sutty settles in a secluded valley where many of the old religious traditions survive, including a powerful storytelling tradition, the titular Telling, led by paired priests called maz.
The book debates issues of rationalism and modernism versus religion with plenty of nuance – just when I thought LeGuin’s portrayal of the folk religion was two idealistic, she does pull in a few twists about how it played out in other regions on Aka. It is, perhaps, a tad too preachy, but I’ve seen worse. LeGuin also throws in a little mysticism, but she keeps it ambiguous. The real star, though, is the prose. It’s always been LeGuin’s strongest suit, and here she uses a loose, succinct style that feels almost like a prose poem at times. It’s grounded, but it also fits the folkoric world that most of the novel takes place in. It’s a similar airy and laid-back style as Tehanu, but it played much better here.
While The Telling certainly doesn’t top her earlier books, it is a worthy entry in the Hainish saga and LeGuin’s catalog. She has a few more wins coming towards the end of the decade, and I’m looking forward to them now.