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Archive: February 2006

Some Twistings and Tellings

David Allison has some thoughts on The Iron Dragon’s Daughter which I’ll inelegantly sum up by saying he thinks it’s a fantasy story about the discursive nature of reality. That’s the direction Steven and I went in talking about it when we read it and, to some degree, when we discussed it on Peiratikos. When I first put it down, I remember being annoyed that, oh, it was another book where a woman’s crazy or maybe she’s not and there really is another world! But that’s not really it, and I knew that. It’s most interesting maybe for what it does to its readers who have watched the protagonist Jane making the same circles in her life again and again in different iterations only to see her break through to something, maybe something new or maybe something more. I’m really torn on which I think it is, but I do think at least that it’s a question of self-determination and self-awareness there when those aspects had been cloaked earlier. Good old creation of self through narrative, how I’ve sort of missed you a tiny bit!

I’m not sure I’d have been reminded of this if David hadn’t posted, but I’ve recently been fascinated with another book about a sad, lonely woman learning her story, Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling. It was published in 2000 and presumably written before, which I mention because to me it exemplifies a “pre-9/11 mindset” that doesn’t take as a given that many of those who use the term are setting the stage for a worldwide theocracy but looks at this as an element in telling a story about a possible future. Set in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness and other books I haven’t yet read, it features another Earth-born rookie investigator for the Ekumen of Known Worlds scoping out a newer planet. This time around, though, it’s a woman, Sutty, who grew up just outside the reach of the Unist religious world government and lived long enough to see it begin to fray and fall as part of interacting with the Hainish aliens and others in the Ekumen.

Sutty and her girlfriend Pao planned to study together and travel to new worlds as a pair, but Sutty finds herself alone on the world of Aka, where indigenous culture has been successfully and quickly suppressed as part of the acceptance of technology and the consumerism that has become the Akans’ core value since their initial contact with aliens (in this case mostly from Earth). Eventually Sutty gets to leave the major city and head upriver to a place where she hopes to get under the surface of the propaganda and learn about the culture whose language she learned to read and which was already banned and obliterated in the years it took her to travel through space to Aka. It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that reading isn’t important in the same way as listening and telling and that books are a way to preserve the stories that preserve and sustain the traditional culture. Truth is in its tellings in a world where the idea of a dictated fact had previously held no ground, but Sutty is shocked and worried to learn that attempts to keep the telling a nourishing force have meant that stories of the rise of the corporate state and suppression of the words and tales have not themselves been incorporated into tradition. Does this mean the culture she’s growing to love will head in the same direction as the Unists who erased Earth’s history and were willing to forsake all other books for their one Book?

I’ve just begun to reread The Telling even though it’s only been a few weeks since I read it because the love story, core not only because of Sutty and Pao but because of the required duality of the traditional storytellers, inspires me and because all of it seems so pertinent and real. I worry that I’m complicit in the silence, that keeping a silly little blog where I’d never engage the people whose blogs I read in the bigger world is a way of ignoring the real stories, keeping my voice out of them. Then of course I can worry that thinking about this in terms of fiction is easier than talking about ports or birdshot or the hidden imam, even though the other things are ones I could say. But part of the power of The Telling is Sutty’s deeply personal story of oppression, love, loss, alienation, and learning. It’s also a witness to stories of heroes and regular people, many of whom are heroes of a sort as well. It’s not the story of the Earth’s post-Unist recovery but a reminder that there could be one at least. I’m more concerned, though, about intelligent life here, not the hope of eventual support from the heavens.

Ours was originally a blog sort of written in the dual, a shared way for Steven and me to muddle things out, to think and work together while we were far apart. But now we’re not far apart and I wonder if I should be rereading The Iron Dragon’s Daughter too because like Jane I keep spiraling around here and trying something new only to end up tongue-tied, uninspired, saying the same sort of things I’ve said with some derivative passion. I’m not at the jumping-off/restarting point yet, but I think I’m approaching it and maybe this self-awareness will help this time. Either way, I’ve just finished a sweater and will have a short list of books I’ve finished to post tomorrow and the rest of the world will keep marching to wherever it is that it’s going now.