The Telling (2005) is yet another installment in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish cycle, and another example of her brand of soft, social, anthropological science fiction. It’s not her best work, and not her worst, but rather in the middle; comfortably average Le Guin, certainly a decent read.
Sutty, an Ekumen Observer, is sent to Aka, a planet ruled by the Corporate State, a materialistic, modern, progress-driven government which has outlawed the “old ways” — old literature, old traditions, and particularly the Telling, an ancient social phenomenon that is not quite a religion, not quite a philosophy, but more like a “system for living” and a way to remember the past. Anything not serving the modern fixation on progress, science, economic expansion, and the “March to the Stars” was made illegal and punishable. And not only did the Corporation outlaw these things, it used force to rid the world of them — blew up the old libraries, put violators in “rehabilitation” work camps, etc.
So is this a cautionary tale about materialistic, secular governments that use heavy-handed tactics and censorship? Not so fast….
It turns out Sutty comes from an Earth which, during much of her lifetime, had pretty much the opposite problem: it was ruled by a fanatical religious group, the Unists, which was anti-progress, anti-science, and against anything that didn’t fit in with their traditionalist religious viewpoint. And like the Akans, the Unists were all too willing to use violence, punishment, and censorship in futherance of their goals.
So what’s the point of all this? Le Guin dishes out plenty of criticism of both the Akan Corporate State (for their blind pursuit of progress at the expense of their heritage) and the Terran Unists (for doing pretty much the opposite). I think what Le Guin is saying is that almost any kind of belief system (be it religious, political, or whatever), if in a position to gather power, can be used to oppress others in order to advance itself as the best or only allowable choice. At one point she speaks of it in terms of balance:
From an active homeostatic balance they had turned it to an active forward-thrusting imbalance.
Both Aka and Earth fall into this imbalance, with one particular belief pushing itself forward to the exclusion of all others and becoming the basis for a totalitarian regime. But as Le Guin reminds us, just because a belief is strongly or widely held, that doesn’t mean it’s the right belief, and beliefs, once examined, often turn out to be flawed or not as well-supported as we think. My favorite line of the whole book was:
But belief is the wound that knowledge heals….