Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home is a major work of the imagination from one of America's most respected writers of science fiction. More than five years in the making, it is a novel unlike any other. A rich and complex interweaving of story and fable, poem, artwork, and music, it totally immerses the reader in the culture of the Kesh, a peaceful people of the far future who inhabit a place called the Valley on the Northern Pacific Coast.
The closest analog I can think of for describing it might be Middle Earth—particularly the post-Lord of the Rings portions—though the themes, and even the genre, are completely different. There is the same desire on the part of the author to create an entire world, with its geographies, customs, languages, writing, arts, history and every other aspect on full display.
For my part, Le Guin is less successful at this task than Tolkien was. Some of it may be different natural talents for this particular kind of detailed world-building. However, where Tolkien conceived of his world and then built stories in it, my impression is that Le Guin conceived of a novella (the main story line is only 133 pages out of 563) and built the world around it. Of course, I have no idea of her creative process and might be wrong, but the impression remains that this wasn't a living, breathing world for her from which stories arose organically.
The result is something that is inherently contradictory to read. The story of Stone Telling begs for linear reading. The rest is like an encyclopedia where one wants to dip here, follow a link there, skim things of less interest. I got the impression that Le Guin wanted to tell just a bit of the story and then say, "Ah, but forget the story for now; step over here and see if you can understand how the Kesh lived their lives." It sounded interesting in the book description but, in practice, I found myself losing interest in the story line while reading about pottery and losing interest in the encyclopedia while reading the story.
Ironically, I think the novella portion, taken alone, has some of the same faults as above-mentioned creation of Tolkien's: there are characters wearing the white hats; there are those wearing the black hats; there aren't (unlike the real world) a lot of people in between who are fleshed out for us. Le Guin does give a nod to the fact that jealousy, murder and rape exist in her world of the Valley, but is so slightly referenced that it doesn't really impinge forcefully upon the reader's consciousness. The literal words she writes are submerged under a sense that the flower children of the Summer of Love have encountered the KKK. She rescues this somewhat at the very end by having Stone Telling speculate on social natural selection, that the Kesh could live lightly upon the land and each other because the apocalypse that had destroyed our world had left only those who could survive in that way.
This book has a reputation in some quarters for boiling down to a formula of: patriarchy is bad; matriarchy is good. I think that's a misapprehension. There's little doubt about the "patriarchy is bad" part but, while the Kesh are matrilineal and matrilocal, I didn't see anything that indicated they were matriarchal. Rather, it seemed that they pursued a rather egalitarian form of consensus government, a philosophy more consistent with what I read in her other books. I think the erroneous impression is because there are very few sympathetic male figures in the story and the ones who are sympathetic tend to be rather peripheral. I feel that this creates an impression in the reader's mind of "women getting it right," with the extension to matriarchy being somewhat natural, if not necessarily indicated.
In the end, this was an ambitious project for which I have respect: building a world as finely detailed and consistently conceived is something most authors would fail at miserably. As a story, however, I was left wanting—it was a fair read but nothing more for me. Le Guin remains one of my favorite authors of speculative fiction but this is not among my favorites of her work.
The Kesh, as these people are called, are in many ways very primitive, with a Native American-style culture that revolves around seasonal celebrations, growing crops, caring for livestock, hunting and gathering, and taking care of all the work of life. The Kesh’s society is the opposite of capitalism, in that wealth comes through giving things away, not owning them, and everyone shares in the village’s resources.
But the Kesh are not entirely primitive. Though all fossil fuels are gone, they have electricity (sun-, wind- and water-powered, no doubt), as well as access to a network of computers–a network that extends around the globe and into outer space via unmanned probes and satellites–that store all of human history and knowledge. The Kesh just don’t seem interested in progressing past their idyllic state, and they refer to societies like ours as “people with their heads on backwards.”
Not that life is perfect for the Kesh. They suffer from a high rate of birth defects and early mortality due to radiation and chemical poisoning, leftovers from our defunct civilization, which keeps the population from growing too large. And their stories reveal that they suffer from human nature just like any of us.
One such story–the longest in the collection, almost a novel–presents a dystopian alternative to the Kesh. A warlike society called the Condor people come to the Valley where the Kesh live, and one of the soldiers marries a Kesh woman and fathers a daughter, Stone Telling. When she gets older, she chooses to accompany her father to his home. Her story is the only the knowledge the Kesh have of how the Condor people live. They hold slaves, are ruled by a dictator and worship a single powerful god. The women have no rights and are not allowed to leave their homes without completely covering themselves. They are obsessed with war and building war machines that they don’t have the fuel to power, at the expense of feeding their people. Eventually, Stone Telling escapes back to her own people, but we get the sense that the Condor people are well on the path to self-destruction.
It took me a while to get caught up in the stories of the Kesh. Stone Telling’s long memoir, broken into three parts and interspersed by other writings, helps anchor the book. I gradually found myself enchanted and fascinated by the Kesh as I learned more about them, especially their spiritual practices and the important ritual dances they hold at significant times of the year. Mostly, I admired their approach to life, without judgment or a strict moral code, respectful of both the individual and the whole, which includes the animals, plants, stones, earth, stars, everything.
I have lately felt overwhelmed by depressing world events, our materialistic culture and the problems we felt, particularly our environmental problems. This book offered both an escape and an alternative way of thinking about those problems.
Talking to a friend who loves this book shed some light on what she liked about it and made me see other ways to look at the stories, but I don't share her delight.
ARC: But I have no answers and this isn't utopia, aunt!
PAN: The hell it ain't.
ARC: This is a mere dream dreamed in a bad time, an Up Yours to the people who ride snowmobiles, make nuclear weapons, and run prison camps by a middle-aged housewife, a critique of civilisation possible only to the civilised, an affirmation pretending to be a rejection, a glass of milk for the soul ulcered by acid rain, a piece of pacifist jeanjacquerie, and a cannibal dance among the savages in the ungodly garden of the farthest West.
This is not a novel, and expecting it to follow the conventions of that form will lead to disappointment. There's a fourteen page glossary, several hundred pages of songs, poems, and novel excerpts from the Valley culture, even extracts from the galactic computer system of the future about the Valley. And there are wonderfully meta moments, like this interchange between Pandora the anthropologist and her interview subject, a librarian of the Valley people:
Pandora: I never did like smartass utopians. Always so much healthier and saner and sounder and fitter and kinder and tougher and wiser and righter than me and my family and friends. People who have the answers are boring, niece. Boring, boring, boring.
Archivist: But I have no answers and this isn't utopia, aunt!
Pandora: The hell it ain't.
Archivist: This is a mere dream dreamed in a bad time, an Up Yours to the people who ride snowmobiles, make nuclear weapons, and run prison camps by a middle-aged housewife, a critique of civilization possible only to the civilized, an affirmation pretending to be a rejection, a glass of milk for the soul ulcered by acid rain, a piece of pacifist jeanjacquerie, and a cannibal dance among the savages in the ungodly garden of the farthest West.
Pandora: You can't talk that way!
Pandora: Go sing heya, like any savage.
Archivist: Only if you'll sing with me.
This is a complex work, and I know I didn't get all of it--if I read this many times, I think I would understand something new, or differently, every time.
It has the added benefit of music to go along with it. She creates a world that is believable and real. Read this instead of 5th Sacred Thing. I don't care if that makes me a terrible Pagan. It's a terrible book.