Book Club Questions: The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin

Once a culturally rich world, the planet Aka has been utterly transformed by technology. Records of the past have been destroyed, and citizens are strictly monitored. But an official observer from Earth named Sutty has learned of a group of outcasts who live in the wilderness. They still believe in the ancient ways and still practice its lost religion – the Telling.

Intrigued by their beliefs, Sutty joins them on a sacred pilgrimage into the mountains…and into the dangerous terrain of her own heart, mind, and soul. 

I’d read The Left Hand of Darkness a few years ago, and was interested in reading more of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work – so fortunately my friend joined me on this journey! (And then read The Left Hand of Darkness prior to our book discussion because she is an over-achiever.) If you are nervous about diving into sci-fi, I think Le Guin is an excellent place to start, as she tends to focus more on social concerns or philosophical concepts that can be illuminated by sci-fi settings. The Telling was a lovely book, although I personally think The Left Hand of Darkness was more hard-hitting with its topics and questions. I would particularly recommend The Telling if you are interested in thinking about the role of a historian or what creates a culture.

Discussion questions under the cut!

What does a historian do? What does a non-fiction author do?

Does a non-fiction author or historian have “more value” than a fiction author in terms of cultural preservation?

How do we choose what’s important to keep? How do we choose what to throw away?

In the digital age, so much more is being documented and so much more is being shared. However, not all of it can really be called “right” as Maz Odiedin describes it. What is the difference between censorship and elimination of harmful ideas? Is the maz’s determination of “right” somehow different from a governmental decision to promote certain propaganda or ban certain texts? Consider that the maz are ignoring a huge chunk of their history at the moment because it isn’t “right.”

The Hainish are described as being unsurprised by all history because they have seen so much of it. We often say history goes in cycles, and yet we seem to rarely learn from it. Why?

The monogamous maz relationship might be considered in the same terms as yin and yang:

Yin and yang can be thought of as complementary (rather than opposing) forces that interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts. Everything has both yin and yang aspects, (for instance shadow cannot exist without light). Either of the two major aspects may manifest more strongly in a particular object, depending on the criterion of the observation. The yin yang (i.e. taijitu symbol) shows a balance between two opposites with a portion of the opposite element in each section.

In Daoist metaphysics, distinctions between good and bad, along with other dichotomous moral judgments, are perceptual, not real; so, the duality of yin and yang is an indivisible whole. In the ethics of Confucianism on the other hand, most notably in the philosophy of Dong Zhongshu (c. 2nd century BC), a moral dimension is attached to the idea of yin and yang. (Wikipedia)

This same concept can be seen echoed in other parts of the telling, such as, “The grave, yoz. Where it begins,” and, “If telling was the skill of the maz, listening was the skill of the yoz. As they all liked to remark, neither one was any use without the other.” The maz relationship is therefore useful in the narrative as an illustration of the larger ideas of the Telling. However, is this feature also exclusive towards aro/ace/poly people in its description of the “ultimate relationship” as two people in a romantic sexual relationship? Is there a way Le Guin could have done this differently that still would have served her narrative purposes?

Consider the premise of the Hainish Cycle summarized by Strange Horizons:

Many thousands of years ago, humans spread across the galaxy from the world of Hain. After an initial phase of colonization, the colonial worlds were left on their own for uncounted millennia. During this time, most colonies lost their advanced civilizations but developed a myriad of local cultures, religions, philosophies, and sciences. In the time of which Le Guin writes, communication and travel between the worlds have begun again. Representatives of the Ekumen travel to worlds with peoples of Hainish descent to learn about them and to invite them to participate in the culture of the Ekumen, if they wish. Worlds have much to gain from joining the Ekumen, but they also risk the loss of their distinctive identity.  

What makes up a culture? What unites us and yet at the same time separates us from other groups? Think both small and large scale.

The point of the Ekumen is to try to observe other civilizations without influencing them. Is that even possible? If you have read it, consider The Left Hand of Darkness in your answer, and compare Sutty and Genly Ai as envoys/observers.

In comparison to The Left Hand of Darkness, Aka’s people are extremely similar to Terrans in their biological makeup. In fact, Sutty easily passes for non-alien unless she advises people of the fact, and even when she does advise people, they quickly accept her into the Telling. Genly Ai, on the other hand, faces walls at every turn as a result of his easily identified otherness. Is one book stronger than the other in its central message as a result? Or do their different central messages make this question pointless?

Are the “march to the stars” and the individuality of our daily life necessarily in conflict? Think about this in terms of globalization since WWII, which has only increased since the spread of the internet. What have we lost? What have we gained? What do “developing” nations have yet to lose?

We have already briefly discussed the following quote as a metaphor for learning:

Where my guides lead me in kindness
I follow, follow lightly,
and there are no footprints
in the dust behind us. 

It seems like that quote may also apply to the process of learning another culture put forward in The Left Hand of Darkness. Consider your own experiences while traveling or doing study abroad. When was it easiest for you to follow this approach to learning? When was it hardest?

Do you think this same quote can also apply to larger ideas of living, such as environmentalism or being against homogenous big business? Or is the metaphor too specific?

Sutty remarks that Aka has a “cash, not credit” economy – something which she relies on in the conclusion of the novel. Credit can be helpful in giving people opportunities in business or education which they otherwise wouldn’t have. However, high interest rates or failure for an investment to pay off can ruin a person’s life. Would you describe capitalism as credit-based, cash-based, or a combination of the two? Do you think any particular model is better at fostering trust and community?

When writing sci-fi/fantasy, it is often easier to have an outsider as a protagonist, as it gives the writer opportunities to explain how the world works. However, one review of The Telling says, “We are told about, but we never feel, Sutty’s personal stake in her task on Aka.” As always, this reviewer’s opinion may be a matter of personal taste as a reader. However, do you think this reviewer’s experience of the book was a result of mediocre character writing on Le Guin’s part or could it have been bettered by Sutty having more of a personal stake in the Telling’s survival were she a non-outsider to this culture?

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