Ursula K. Le Guin: Telling makes the world

Maria Popova has written onstorytelling around the fire her wonderful website Brain Pickings about Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay on the nature of speech, “Telling is Listening.” This brought back to me the sense of how much Le Guin—a master storyteller herself—has made the importance of storytelling a central theme in many of her novels and stories.

In the essay, from her collection The Wave in the Mind, Le Guin argues that human communication is not some mechanistic process, involving the transmission of data bits from one brain to another, but is a complex and mutually created event. The message, she says, can’t be separated from “the relationship between speaker and hearer.” Language itself is social. In an image recalling the primal experience of listening to the storyteller around a fire, she says, “The voice creates a sphere around it, which includes all its hearers.”

That very human experience appears again and again in Le Guin’s work, where she has meditated on its significance in different ways. In The Telling, one of her Hainish cycle novels, an ancient culture has been kept alive by the spoken sharing of its history, myths and poetry, while its sacred texts are hidden away from the authoritarian regime that now rules the planet. Then, even this connection is threatened when the authorities outlaw any gatherings to hear The Telling, as it’s called. Le Guin’s young-adult fantasy trilogy Annals of the Western Shore begins with Erroc, a boy who rejects his inherited gift for “undoing,” only to eventually find his calling as a powerful storyteller. In Voices, the second book in the series, Erroc helps the members of a people whose tradition of learning and literature is under attack by a fundamentalist group.

These books tell us that stories, spoken or written, are not just information, but the medium that weaves a culture into existence—in the same way that speech, for Le Guin, is the medium of a shared understanding. But in one short story of Le Guin’s that has stayed with me, and that Popova reminded me of, the power of storytelling goes even beyond this.

“The Shobies’ Story” is another Hainish cycle story, from Le Guin’s A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. The crew of the Shoby, an intergalactic spaceship, embark on the first voyage with a new faster-than-light propulsion system that will involve a human crew. No one knows what to expect, and one crew member’s attempts to explain the new system make it sound more metaphysical than mechanical: “‘It is not physical, and it is not not physical,’” he tries. “‘So the ship will be moved,’” another asks, “‘by ideas?’”

The trip is instantaneous. But where exactly they’ve arrived is not clear; and, more frightening than that, everyone, from the old navigator to the children, seems to be having a different experience—they can’t even agree on what is happening. Something in the trip has fractured their shared reality, and different probable events jostle with each other, all equal in weight. In a later story, a character calls it “‘the chaos experience.’” It’s only when they all sit down at the hearth in their living quarters (yes, this ship has a fireplace) and start to tell a communal story of their journey, that space and time begin to knit back together into a narrative they can agree on.

Wow. “The Shobies’ Story” seems to suggest that we need the mutual creation of stories not just to share cultural knowledge, but even to create the perceived universe that we all agree on. Without the human sharing of speech and story, that understanding breaks down, and we’re lost in our individual dream worlds. This story may offer a mirror of Le Guin’s classic novel The Lathe of Heaven, a nightmare scenario in which one man’s dreams actually change the world he wakes back up to. But in the Shoby crew’s desperate and humble reenactment of an ancient tradition, Le Guin seems to suggest that the shared experience of telling, in some fundamental way, has the power to make, and remake, our world.