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Where storytelling is a capital offense

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THE TELLING By Ursula K. LeGuin Harcourt 272 pp., $24

Imagine our culture if the texts comprising the Bible were never written down. Or if the Koran and the epics of Homer were wiped out of existence.

Thousands of documents comprise the history and cultural expression of humanity from paleolithic cave art to streaming video on the Web. The well-being of a society revolves around its poetry, parables, myths, and works of art - stories that pulse with a culture's spirit and soul. What if a political force were to take it all away and sanction only expressions that reflect the state's ideology? Using China's Cultural Revolution as a stimulus for creating a contemporary parable, Ursula K. LeGuin poses such a question.

Sutty is one of four observers allowed on the less technologically advanced planet of Aka. The government of Aka has deemed that the only way the world can move forward on its "March to the Stars" and become as advanced as other space-faring societies is to squelch all ideas - whether expressed through art, history, or stories - that would make people look toward their past.

Long ago, everyone was forced to become a part of a producer-consumer culture of the Corporation State. Dissidents were placed in corrective facilities, and some were even executed. All books were destroyed and only official texts are allowed now, such as the "Health Manual for Producer-Consumers of the Corporation."

Despite its tight cultural and social control of the people, the government has allowed more technologically advanced observers on their planet. They want to prove to these observers that Aka is a "civilized" world and not a backwater planet holding to outmoded ideas.

Sutty, however, wants to observe people in the country, outside the bureaucratic city, and is granted permission to enter a rustic town. There she learns of secret meetings led by the "maz," the storytellers who have the gift of "Telling." They have been secretly holding to the old ways, while outwardly pretending to follow the Corporation State.

Sutty also encounters a State Monitor, who observes her movements to make sure she doesn't become influenced by these people: "They are enemies of truth, of science," he warns. "Their so-called knowledge is rant, superstition, poetry."

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