The Telling (Gollancz) - Ursula K. Le Guin image
Christmas 2010: I realised that I had got stuck in a rut. I was re-reading old favourites again and again, waiting for a few trusted authors to release new works. Something had to be done.

On the spur of the moment I set myself a challenge, to read every book to have won the Locus Sci-Fi award. That’s 35 books, 6 of which I’d previously read, leaving 29 titles by 14 authors who were new to me.

While working through this reading list I got married, went on my honeymoon, switched career and became a father. As such these stories became imprinted on my memory as the soundtrack to the happiest period in my life (so far).

Like two desperate wretches clinging to opposite sides of the Wheel of Fate, it sometimes seems, to me, like Fantasy and Sci-Fi, the two heirs of Speculative Fiction, must always suffer from opposing fortunes. When one rises up the other must be forced down.

In 2001, Fantasy was on a high. A Storm of Swords won the Locus Fantasy award, the Hugo that year went to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Perdido Street Station took the BSFA and The Amber Spyglass and The Truth made up a very strong pack.

Sci-Fi, on the other hand, went through a lull. I’m sure that’s doing many fine sci-fi novels a disservice, but the genre certainly wasn’t reaching comparable heights to its sword and wand wielding kin.

The Locus Sci-Fi, 2001 winner, was Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling, part of her Hainish Cycle which, at time of writing, stands at 13 works (none of which I had previously read). Her best known work is the Earthsea Cycle (which I also hadn’t read), and the only book of Le Guin’s which I had read was Lavinia (which didn’t exactly grabbed me).

So I had low expectation when I started.

You might think I must have really hated this book to give it 1-star.
I didn’t hate it.

You might be wondering when (if ever) I’m going to get around to saying something about this book in particular.
I’m wondering that too.

Now, let me tell you, my friend: I have a good memory for books. I may not remember your girlfriends name until I’ve met her a dozen times and she’s called me a jackass for asking who she is (again) but I can tell you about plots and characters from a book I read, once, 15 years ago.

I read The Telling last year, in the run-up to my wedding. Maybe I was distracted. I certainly had bigger things on my mind, but still – I’d expect to remember more about it than I do. I read it between Cyteen and The Integral Trees and I remember both of them crystal clear.

I did actually wonder if I even read this book – or just thought I did – but my wife reassures me that she saw me reading it, that definitely did happen…

I remember the cover of the book. I’m two-thirds sure that the protagonist was a lesbian. I think she was of Indian descent. I’ve got one mental image of a helicopter crashing in the desert. And I’ve got a feeling – a hypnotic sort of Taoist staring-at-water feeling. Aside from that, I’ve got nothing.

You might be outraged at such a low score for a book many people regard highly. The interweb tells me this is a delicate and subtle investigation of how traditional cultures survive underground in headstrong progressive times (such as Mao’s China). But for me – this book isn’t just forgettable, The Telling is forgotten – and that is a crime I find hard to forgive.

ps. On further reflection another image which I think is from this book came back to me... old people standing around in a hall doing a kind of yoga dance. Exciting, no?