The Tellingby Ursula K. Le Guin
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… See more details below
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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.
Los Angeles Times
"She can lift fiction to the level of poetry and compress it to the density of allegory-in The Telling, she does both, gorgeously."-Jonathan Lethem
"Everything that has been said about Le Guin-that she is a lush prose stylist, that she is a poet in every line, that her books make readers think and thinkers read-is here on display in her newest Hainish novel."-Jane Yolen two-time Nebula winner and author of The Books of Great Alta
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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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 Valparaíso. 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."
"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.
"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?"
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 Valparaíso. "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
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