Where storytelling is a capital offense

THE TELLING By Ursula K. LeGuin Harcourt 272 pp., $24

Imagine our culture if the texts comprising the Bible were never written down. Or if the Koran and the epics of Homer were wiped out of existence.

Thousands of documents comprise the history and cultural expression of humanity from paleolithic cave art to streaming video on the Web. The well-being of a society revolves around its poetry, parables, myths, and works of art - stories that pulse with a culture's spirit and soul. What if a political force were to take it all away and sanction only expressions that reflect the state's ideology? Using China's Cultural Revolution as a stimulus for creating a contemporary parable, Ursula K. LeGuin poses such a question.

Sutty is one of four observers allowed on the less technologically advanced planet of Aka. The government of Aka has deemed that the only way the world can move forward on its "March to the Stars" and become as advanced as other space-faring societies is to squelch all ideas - whether expressed through art, history, or stories - that would make people look toward their past.

Long ago, everyone was forced to become a part of a producer-consumer culture of the Corporation State. Dissidents were placed in corrective facilities, and some were even executed. All books were destroyed and only official texts are allowed now, such as the "Health Manual for Producer-Consumers of the Corporation."

Despite its tight cultural and social control of the people, the government has allowed more technologically advanced observers on their planet. They want to prove to these observers that Aka is a "civilized" world and not a backwater planet holding to outmoded ideas.

Sutty, however, wants to observe people in the country, outside the bureaucratic city, and is granted permission to enter a rustic town. There she learns of secret meetings led by the "maz," the storytellers who have the gift of "Telling." They have been secretly holding to the old ways, while outwardly pretending to follow the Corporation State.

Sutty also encounters a State Monitor, who observes her movements to make sure she doesn't become influenced by these people: "They are enemies of truth, of science," he warns. "Their so-called knowledge is rant, superstition, poetry."

Sutty does her best to avoid the Monitor as she delves into her anthropological observations. She discovers that the people's deep spiritual lives are ordered through a Taoist-like metaphysical philosophy. One of the maz explains to Sutty about the connection among disparate stories: "It's all the leaves of the tree. The future is nothing yet. How could anybody live there? So what we have is the words that tell what happened and what happens. What was and is.... We're not outside the world ... we are the world. We're its language."

Later, Sutty learns of a sacred site that may contain books hidden from destruction. The climax occurs when she arrives at the library hidden in the caves of a distant mountain and discovers that the Monitor has followed her.

This is the finest moment in the book. All the stories Sutty has heard from the tellers - the philosophy, parables, history, and tales of sacrifice - pulsate within her as she expresses compassion for the Monitor after he is seriously injured in an accident. Her resentment of the Monitor, who represents the ideology that would take away a people's history and culture, fades and for the first time, she learns his name.

As they tell each other the stories of their past, they both are changed through the telling, the sharing of truth from the heart, an act that bridges their ideological standpoints.

LeGuin presents a literary masterpiece that is heartwarming, life-affirming, and touching. Her vision is truthful not only to these characters, but like good science fiction, to our contemporary age.

She attacks both state and religious ideologies that would spread self-righteousness by forcing others to think in conformity with only one "right" way. At the same time, she presents a spiritual view of life where one is "not asked to believe, only to listen [for] glimpses of sacredness" where wisdom is found.

*Kurt Lancaster teaches Shakespeare at MIT. He is the co-editor of "Performing the Force: Essays on Immersion into Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Environments" (McFarland).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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