Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Truth and Telepathy: The Optics of Lying in Ursula K. Le Guin’s City of Illusions

Truth and Telepathy: The Optics of Lying in Ursula K. Le Guin’s City of Illusions

Sydney Queen

Ursula K. Le Guin has often been revered for her application of linguistic and anthropological concepts in fiction, especially within her main body of science fiction work, The Hainish Cycle. One of Le Guin’s earlier and less well-known novels from this series, City of Illusions, explores the social, cultural, and political implications of mankind’s ability to lie. After establishing the relationship between science fiction and anthropology, this paper investigates the metalinguistic beliefs, cultural attitudes, and norms of lying maintained by the two opposing fictional groups in the novel. These beliefs, however, are complicated by the presence of telepathy in the Hainish universe. The intent (or lack thereof) to lie changes the way characters employ language, as well as what mode of communication they use in a reliably consistent manner. City of Illusions’ publication precedes much of the academic work about deception in anthropological linguistics, and at times seems predictive of analyses involving prototype semantics, questions of intention, or imperialism, making it worthy of comparison. Through a close reading of the text and a literature review on the existing array of research on lying, linguistic power structures that closely mirror historical and modern colonization emerge, as well as a dichotomy that differentiates between interpersonal lies and political ones. 

April 12, 2021 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Huge LeGuin fan here. I’ll have to re-read City of Illusions now. All I can say here is that I see a pattern (n=2, so be skeptical) of LeGuin undermining presumably binary states. In Left Hand of Darkness she blurs the lines between gender identity; in City of Illusions, between true/false. Easy to conclude that her upbringing had led her to question the given.

    Comment by Daniel Harrison | April 16, 2021 | Reply

  2. What an interesting topic! I think this would provide insight on the ways lying is used and how its interpreted by others. I also think by incorporating telepathy into the mix will inspire thought about what a world would look like if others were able to detect lies. Even more interesting is how your work will relate similarities to historical and modern colonialism.

    Comment by Antione M | April 25, 2021 | Reply

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