Always Coming Home - Ursula K. Le Guin It is unfortunate but my “book-reading biorhythms” rarely coincide with the books being read by the various groups I belong to here on GR so I missed out on the reading of Always Coming Home that took place in the Always Coming Home group a few months ago. I originally read the book nearly 20 years ago, probably in my first year or two of graduate school, and it didn’t lodge itself overly much in my conscious but what a difference twenty years makes. My latest nonfiction reading has focused on the impending collapse of Western civilization as 7 billion (soon to be 9 billion+) humans outstrip Nature’s ability to provide the resources or to absorb the wastes our way of life generates so it seemed “natural” that I would fall back on UKL to see a positive vision of the post-industrial future.

And it is a powerful vision of what humans might be capable of. When I was compiling my GR shelves, I gave ACH three stars because I remember liking it (and UKL defaults to three stars) but having reread it I have to revise my rating to four – it’s a remarkable accomplishment and deserves greater recognition.*

Always Coming Home is not a novel, though you can find one in there if you want to. The setting is an indeterminate future on an Earth slowly recovering from its industrial age. The vast, destructive technologies of our time have vanished though advanced technology exists: “All that had been replaced by the almost ethereal technology of the City…which had no use for heavy machinery, even their spaceships and stations being mere nerve and gossamer….” (p. 404)

But that’s not Le Guin’s focus. Her attention is centered on the Valley of the Na and the Kesh who live there. The Nine Towns are not Utopia. UKL is too perceptive a writer to think humans will ever live in a perfect society (however defined). For example, the Kesh are a peaceful folk and violence is almost unheard of but when the Condor People** pass through the region, it sparks the emergence of the Warriors Lodge (for men) and the Lamb Lodge (for women), a recurrence of the “sickness” that tore the old world apart: “Only in war is redemption; only the victorious warrior will know the truth, and knowing the truth will live forever. For in sickness is our health, in war our peace, and for us there is only one, one house. One Above All Persons, outside whom there is no health, no peace, no life, no thing!” (Skull’s speech, p. 409) The culture she describes through Stone Telling’s tale, myths, poetry, song and stories, as well as the anthropological reports that frame it simply exists. It makes no claim to special wisdom nor does it harbor designs on its neighbors. The people who live their lives there are born, grow up, form friendships, fall in love, fall out of love, dance, sing, tell stories, suffer pain and disaster, and then they die. But – unlike our industrial age – they haven’t made a fetish of violence and they’ve recognized that you can’t live in a perpetual war against your environment. I think it’s safe to say which society Le Guin prefers; and I agree with her.

Always Coming Home is probably not the place to start your love affair with Ursula. It’s more the type of thing you want to learn about after the first bloom has come off the romance but it’s all the better for being an expression of a mature, loving relationship.

* I should clarify here that I picked up my copy at a used book store and it didn’t have the accompanying cassettes of Kesh poetry and songs – an early example of interactive literature.

** Anthropological Note: The Condor People comprise the culture Le Guin contrasts to the Kesh (primarily through Stone Telling’s story). They’re a resurgence of the exploitative, hierarchical, patriarchal, violent cultures of the past, and the only thing that keeps them from becoming a greater threat to the cultures of the Inland Sea is that the world is too poor to support that type of society for very long.