#160 – The Telling, by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Read: 11/13/18 – 11/17/18
- Rating: 4/5 stars
A beautiful story about storytelling as a way of life, a religion, a suppressed cultural tradition.
When I started the book, I was not aware that it was inspired by Taoism and the Chinese oppression and attempted erasure of Tibetan culture. I realized about halfway through; the message is hard to miss.
But before I was hit with the real-world symbolism, I fell in love with the Telling as it’s depicted. A religion that is not a religion in any sense of the word I understand; one that does not hold sacred any kind of deity, one that does not focus on past lives or future reward and punishment, one that reveres stories and knowledge as sacred, in as much as “sacred” is even a concept to its practitioners. While I believe an individual’s spirituality is their own business and would never interfere, I can’t help but feel that organized religion, both now and throughout history, is more often a driving force for turmoil than it is for good; Le Guin seems to share that belief with me, at least in part, because she gives future Terra a deeply tumultuous history with religion, where Unism takes over and bans science on a worldwide level, instituting a theocracy and persecuting all nonbelievers, whether they are “followers” of science, or simply devotees of another religion.
I don’t find this the least bit unbelievable, since America can’t even get its act together after more than 200 years about the separation of church and state. I don’t want religion in my government at all, no matter which religion it is.
On Aka, though, the Corporation controls society, a pro-science and -technology government that has banned not only the Telling, but all of its own culture’s history, as a way of promoting forward progress and not being held back by “superstition” and “useless tradition.” Even basic social niceties went to the chopping block; there’s no more “please” and “thank you” allowed.
Both extremes are bad, and Le Guin doesn’t mince words about it.
This book is definitely about the society more than the characters, an anthropological work that does, in many ways, remind me of the earlier great The Left Hand of Darkness. But that’s where this falls flat, comparatively; TLHoD had compelling characters AND a great society.
If I had been reading a similar story from a few of my other favorite authors, I actually would have expected a romance between Sutty and the Monitor; two people from strikingly different backgrounds coming to love/accept/understand each other. TLHoD did that too, even if it went unrequited. And while I didn’t truly expect that–their interactions of that nature were too brief and too near the end to have adequate time for a romance–the actual ending was something I didn’t expect, though perhaps I should have. That’s why I dinged the fifth star off this; after all the beauty of the story and all of my emotional investment in the world, everything just kind of …ended. Abruptly. And with only a sliver of hope that things would get better.
#161 – A Free Life, by Ha Jin
DNF @ page 101.
This narrative has no subtlety, no room for reader interpretation. Everything is a series of recited events, occasionally with named emotions attached. “This thing happened; then that thing; Nan felt angry about it. Then his wife said something; he wondered why he married her if he didn’t love her. Then he remembered how heartbroken he was over a past lover. Then he remembered he married his wife out of convenience and hope that he could forget his past lover. Then he was angry about his job again.”
I wanted to read this because it was about an immigrant man from China struggling with how to cut ties with his past and his country of origin, how to become American, how to balance pursuit of his interest (writing poetry) with the need to bring in a salary and support his family; all in all, an experience of an immigrant’s American Dream. I thought that would be a valuable story for me to read.
However, Nan is cynical about the Dream most of the time, bent under the realities of earning a paycheck, envious of those around him doing better than he is by exploiting typical capitalist behaviors. And the story is pretty critical of capitalism, which is worth examining; America is not perfect and it is not depicted as such.
But it’s just such a trial to read, because I’m being spoon-fed everything I’m supposed to think. There is no subtlety, no room for reader interpretation; there is only one way, the author’s way, to read this. If that’s somehow a metacritical comment on Chinese government and society, well, sir, bravo; but that makes the book awfully boring to read.
#162 – 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
I went into this more than a little worried I wouldn’t like it, compared with the movie, but boy, was I wrong.
Now, reading a fifty-year-old sci-fi novel, science and technology have moved so far beyond what they dreamed possible back then it’s amusing. The first part of the book I found almost quaint in its old-fashioned view of what the future looked like. I don’t hold that against Clarke, and it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book as a whole.
I have seen the movie several times, though it’s been many years since the last time. What struck me as I was finishing this, was that the book did best what the movie did worst, and vice versa. HAL in the movie was disturbingly menacing and dominated the tone of the movie; in the book, I found him far less creepy, and though his actions are still wrong, the insight we gain into his functioning (and his malfunctioning) means I see him now as a victim of mental illness far more than an evil AI gone rogue. And I actually like that better, because that makes this story less about the perils of AI and more about the journey beyond the stars, what the “odyssey” is supposed to be about.
The big plus of the book in my personal book v. movie debate is that the entire ending makes so much more sense. Kubrick’s directorial vision gave us a trippy and memorable epilogue of cosmic weirdness that I never liked. Clarke’s novelization of the screenplay gives me, instead, a clear view of the intent of Bowman’s final journey beyond space-time, beyond human consciousness, and into/beyond the stars. The final epiphany, and Bowman/Star-Child’s status as a protector of Earth, is just so much more moving when I can understand it, you know?
#163 – African Nights, by Kuki Gallmann
Boring, clumsily written, and full of exoticism. DNF @ 15%.
These aren’t even stories, they’re hardly vignettes. Two or three pages will focus on one person, spending half a page describing how strange, short, tall, thin, naked, gaunt, or simple they are. Then there will be some brief action and a revelation or epiphany about them, then the story is over.
Gallman makes constant comparisons between her beloved “Africans” and animals. While some of them, strictly speaking, seem to be complimentary, most read as demeaning and racist.
Then there’s the fact that she frequently includes “African” words without explaining their meaning or even identifying which “African” language they’re from. Yes, after looked in the back of the book, there’s a glossary, but who wants to be checking that all the time, interrupting the flow of their reading? It should be there for reference if the reader forgets what a previously-explained word means, not the sole provider of those explanations.
The fact that her experiences in Kenya and the Kenyan people she’s talking about are all disguised as “African” strikes me as an attempt to romanticize and make “mysterious” the whole continent, adding some more of that “exotic” appeal to her narrative, but it’s another sign of racism. She does mention the tribal identity of some individuals, when it’s important to their story, but other than that everything and everyone is just “African.”
Also, Gallman makes reference by name to her family members without identifying them, either, at first; how am I supposed to know who they are? I managed to infer after a few mentions that Paolo was her husband (or at least partner, because I never saw it explicitly mentioned they were married) but I had to wait quite a while before she finally outright said her children were her children. It does’t seem like that knowledge was deliberately obscured for any reason, so why not just say it outright? Because I’m not psychic, I don’t just know the names of her family.