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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Telling, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harcourt, September 2000, 24.00

Spindle's End Robin McKinley, Putnam, 2000, 19.99

I've probably mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness was one of three texts responsible for leading me to penetrate the shiny surface of the sf field, looking for questions, the right questions, to ask about life, the past, the present, and the future.

Novels are rarely a place to look for answers. But novelists bring an eclectic (and mostly invisible) experience to their works, and very often, in reading works of fiction, truths are brought into focus, put under the magnifying glass, dissected, and brought to life again in ways that make novels the perfect place to search for the right questions. The fact that not all of these truths are evident to all readers makes reading what it so clearly is: a personal experience; a private communication between printed page and reader.

The Left Hand of Darkness was the first novel that I had read, at that time, that focused so clearly on duality and difference as a bridge, rather than a wall, when at that time so many other things in life emphasized similarity, assimilation, the ability to fit in, to belong. It was a theme that was explored in other Hainish novels, such as City of Illusions and The Word for World Is Forest. But, being the callow youth I was then, none of this would have had impact were it not for Le Guin's ability to bind these philosophies into a character with whom I could identify, a story which moved me, and consequences which made me examine whole lives, not just the fictive one.

Le Guin has written quite a few Hainish stories in the past decade, but The Telling is her first Hainish novel in years. Even when I read the earlier works, they had been under the microscope for a decade, and the gap between then and now—for me, as I can't speak for her—has been filled with the mundanities of daily life; education, work, marriage, children, morning to night spreading out in one jagged but continuous stretch. To return from that path to the universe of the Ekumen filled me with an odd anxiety, because I've learned over the years that you can't go home—but I've never quite gotten the knack of not desiring that return from time to time.

First, let me say a bit out The Telling. It was, according to the author's introductory note in the advance reading copy, a story that grew out of her own ruminations about China and its political situation; about an ancient, but living culture, plowed under by a new ruler, a new ruler's vision. She empathically states that the world of her novel, Aka, is not China, but rather something that grew out of those thoughts, so reading this with a historian's eye is pointless.

That said, this is the novel that Le Guin writes best: a poetic exercise that acknowledges in full measure the humanity of the people who give any philosophy about living its breadth and depth. Sutty, the novel's protagonist, is a woman who grew up on Terra during a brief and vicious resurgence of fanatic monotheism. She does not dwell on it, but it has affected the whole of her life, including the decision to join the Ekumen as an Observer. She travels to Aka as one of four Observers, and lives a sterile life, set apart in the end from anything she had hoped to accomplish by the men and women who live in the world's ruling city: Dovza. She is fed the official line of their regime: Down with the Old, Rationalism over Religion, Commerce over Superstition; they are a people who desperately want what the worlds of the Ekumen have achieved: Technological progress. But they approach it with a zeal and a complete fanaticism that Sutty has experienced before, to her lasting regret.

She is surprised, in the gray of her daily life, by an offer: One member of the team of four Observers has (after eighty-one requests) been given permission to travel to the Aka that exists outside of the boundaries of Dovza. And the head of the team, Tong Ov, has chosen Sutty to be that one. She doesn't want to go, especially not when he tells her that he has chosen her because of the background that she doesn't speak of.

But she does go, in the end. And on the way to her backwater destination, in a boat of all things, she finally meets the faces beneath the reserved and official masks of Aka. In some ways, the heart of the novel begins with, and is described by, the beginning of that journey:

"These dull and fragmentary relations of ordinary lives could not bore her. Everything she had missed in Dovza City, everything the official literature, the heroic propaganda left out, they told. If she had to choose between heroes and hernias, it was no contest."

And so with the novel.

Sutty lands on a small dock, and wanders through the streets to the first open doors she sees; she is greeted by a crippled woman and her nephew, who use, in that first meeting, forms of speech that are forbidden. They offer her room and board for what she sees as a ridiculously small amount of money, and she chooses to stay there while the life that the Dovzan officials decry unfolds before her.

She is followed, however, by a Monitor, an official of the Ministry that has chosen to burn all books and neuter all language, and he is what she is loathe to admit she hates: Officious. Cold. Bureaucratic. He warns her of what to avoid, and she chooses instead to avoid him—but her past experiences cause her to judge him, despise him.

And so she continues to examine the things she values: the day-to-day life of a culture that has been driven underground, sometimes brutally. Their language comes first, snippets of their old script in faded letters on a shop wall; the Telling comes next, and from that, the things they most value: the words that they have lived to both speak and hear.

Sutty believes at first that the Telling must be a religious ceremony, but quickly discovers that nothing is easily pinned down; not even the Telling itself. The stories aren't fixed; they change, generation by generation, and each version is as valued and respected as the last. She discovers that there is no god, are no gods, that there is no exclusivity; that if there are rules, they are muted and subtle, rather than the commandments she has come to expect from her own experiences. She values the lessons and the people who teach them; she feels at home for the first time in a very long time—but it is not the home of her adult choice; it is the home of her childhood, rich with the colors and relationships her adult life lacks.

Ultimately, she discovers the books. For the Akans know that the Ekumen is valued, valuable, and they hope that with the Ekumen behind her she might somehow preserve the wisdom in the texts themselves; the knowledge of, the stories of, the past. If they are preserved unchanging, so be it—they are at least preserved. They offer to lead her to one of the libraries that was not burned to the ground, and she agrees to accompany them.

But she is still being watched, and in the end, when she is forced to confront her watcher what she sees—perhaps what is always seen—is a shattered, but recognizable mirror.

Where once Le Guin celebrated difference, made of it the bridge across which two aliens might meet, she has turned her gaze in another direction; she shows us the obvious difference, and then slowly and gently peels it away.

This is not a novel that would have shattered my younger self's life. I am not certain I would have had the patience for it—being, as I was, someone who was looking for either alienation or heroes. It is a quieter book, a subtler work, spare without being dull, poetic without excess.

I turned the last page of The Telling, closed the cover, and thought for a long time about the nature of the heroic; about the phrase, belief is the wound that knowledge heals, about how a small act, in the right place, becomes, as its effects ripple outward almost endlessly, a great act.

And I thought, as well, that if you cannot go home, you can, with some wisdom, still return to an old friend's side and discover that their experiences have not changed the compulsion they feel to question, and to encourage questions, in a humane way that sees, Observes, and tries very hard not to judge.

* * *

McKinley is back in fairy tale country, and while I desperately want another Damar novel (and technically, I believe that this might take place in the same world because of references made to Damarian histories, albeit as favorite stories), McKinley fans should nonetheless rejoice. Beauty and the Beast was the source for two fine novels, Beauty and Rose Daughter respectively, as was Deerskin, for the novel of the same name. In Spindle's End, she turns her pen to the tale of Briar Rose, or Sleeping Beauty, and the results are sheer joy.

One does not read retellings of fairy tales for the surprise their plots provide. It's a given that things will work out, more or less happily, and more or less in keeping with the story—or stories—that were their source.

Well, sort of.

McKinley has made some significant changes in the plot and in the characters upon whom that plot rests, while retaining much of the same trappings (the part about the fairy godmothers' gifts is particularly amusing). What she has done—and what she always does so well—is to give life and depth to characters that weren't really characters at all in earlier tellings.

For instance, the fairies upon whom the princess—called Rosie, rather than any one of her twenty-one birth names—depends are very untraditional fairy tale denizens. It seems that the kingdom in which Rosie lives is overrun with magic. Magic is literally a dust that settles over everything, and if it isn't cleaned mercilessly, you end up with unfortunate occurrences (like, say, having your cereal turn into spiders). Some people are born with a particular gift for using that magic—and those people are called, for want of a better word, fairies. It is entirely probable that a fairy might have a nonmagical brother or parent; being a fairy and being a human are not mutually exclusive activities.

Pernicia is a fairy with a burning hatred for Rosie's family line, in particular for the last queen who ruled some four hundred years ago. She wants vengeance, in the form of, say, destroying the entire kingdom, and she wishes to start with Rosie, hence the need to have a baby spirited away and hidden. Obviously, to combat a woman who has become a master of magic, you want women who at least have some claim to be experts—but because fairies are, in the end, both human and mortal, much of the novel's charm resides in their story, related though it is to the story of the Princess.

There is, I should add, a prince, a magical hedge, and numerous instances of magical sleep; there are talking animals, or rather, animals that can talk to Rosie. There are whole passages that come, minus the muted beauty of McKinley's prose, straight from Sleeping Beauty variants—but the whole is greater than the parts, because McKinley is a master story teller.

Have you ever wondered about what the parents of a child fostered out immediately after birth must feel like? Have you wondered what it must be like to return such a child, when in every sense of the word you've been that child's parent? McKinley does. And she does this in a such a deft and gentle way you forget that you're reading a fairy tale.

Rosie is as memorable a character as either of McKinley's Beauty's. Katriona, one of the two fairies who shepherd her through the terrible risk of discovery, is just as good. There is plenty here that does surprise, all of it with McKinley's characteristic gentleness, her obvious affection for the people she writes of—and writes for.

Don't miss this book. If you liked any of McKinley's work, and you have missed it, run to the nearest bookstore that has the taste and foresight to carry it, and grab it immediately.

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