Always Coming Home

Ursula K. Le Guin

Bantam Books 1987
A book review by Danny Yee © 1995
Always Coming Home is one of the few works I feel can be compared with Tolkien, though with the Silmarillion rather than with The Lord of the Rings, since it is a fictional ethnography rather than a novel. Where Tolkien drew on history (along with linguistics and mythology) to create his imaginative world, Le Guin draws on anthropology (along with linguistics and mythology) to create hers. This difference is clear cut: Tolkien's world has almost no ethnographic detail, while Le Guin's has no history.

The subject of Le Guin's work is the Kesh — a people who inhabit a valley in a far-future California and who are clearly based on native American models. Mostly she lets them speak for themselves, allowing the reader to learn about them through a montage of their short stories, poems, and myths. These are laid out around a central novella, which tells the story of a woman called Stonetelling who leaves the valley to live with her father's people, the Condor.

The "back of the book" contains additional information about the Kesh in more traditional ethnographic form. While there are a few passages of reflexive commentary in Always Coming Home, where Pandora the archaeologist addresses the reader directly, and some of these make direct comments on contemporary issues, Le Guin's "message" is not directly imparted. A more explicit account of her ideas about utopia can be found in the essay "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Very Cold Place to Be" (reprinted in Dancing at the Edge of the World).

As a work of fictional anthropology Always Coming Home is a brilliant success. As a utopia, however, it has some major flaws. One is the "machina ex machina" of the City of Mind, a benevolent collection of machine intelligences which provides the Kesh and other peoples with all the positive benefits of science and technology (weather forecasts, global communication, etc.), while sparing them the need to devote resources to those ends. Another is the straw-man patriarchal and authoritarian society of the Dayao/Condor. This is too extreme to be an interesting contrast to the Kesh, except polemically, and its implausibility means that the failure of the Condor to dominate the societies around them (in effect to reenact the historical incorporation of traditional societies by empires and centralised states) actually detracts from the credibility of Le Guin's vision. (I can't help thinking that things would be a little different if the Kesh were to face Julius Caesar and a single Roman legion, even with their technological inferiority.) In an attempt to avoid this criticism Le Guin falls back on possible genetic changes in "human nature", a move which undercuts her work's engagement with reality and which I found as distressing as the ending to Tehanu. Le Guin seems to have lost the strength of mind and the intellectual courage which were so apparent in The Dispossessed, where she went out of her way to face the likely problems in her anarchist utopia.

Despite its flaws, Always Coming Home is a work of extraordinary creativity. Though many who loved Le Guin's novels will find it unapproachable, many who would never think of touching a science fiction novel would enjoy it.

August 1995

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%T Always Coming Home
%A Le Guin, Ursula K.
%I Bantam Books
%D 1987
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0553262807
%P 562pp