Book Review Travel

Always Coming Home by Ursula Le Guin

impressive experimental speculative fiction

This is a wonderful, complex, massive novel that has recently been reissued in this gorgeous edition by The Library of America: a publisher whose huge, oeuvre-spanning books I was often tempted to buy in London, but have only ever shelled out for now I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. These beautiful tomes are a lot cheaper here than they were back in Foyles and Waterstones, and this is one of several I’ve had my eye on…

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After my very underwhelming first encounter with Le Guin several years ago was superseded by my surprising enjoyment of the first two volumes of her Earthsea saga last Winter, I began researching other things she’d written hoping to find myself a middle ground: something that wasn’t allegorical but was structurally intriguing, something that was aimed at adults but not off-putingly high-tech. When I read about Always Coming Home I knew I’d found the Le Guin for me.

Always Coming Home is a novel that masquerades as anthropology, a study of a people living in what remains of California’s Napa Valley a thousand years or so into the future. In this future, a lot has changed: the oceans have risen, society [as we know it] has irrevocably collapsed, but the remnants of a high-tech near-future persist in a benign (and possibly galaxy-spanning) network of information-gathering artificial intelligence.

This novel isn’t about the historic collapse, or about the threat from the remaining technology or the threat of future humans relearning dangerous technologies from the robots’ memory banks, it is instead about a near-idealised society that could potentially exist if people stopped hating each other, stopped fighting and stealing and hurting and hoarding…

Always Coming Home is a literary collage, a singular text combining drawings and maps and music (included on a cassette with the original 1985 edition of the novel) along with its internally collage-like text.

Le Guin’s text describes the Kesh, a matriarchy whose mythologies are neither stolen wholly from those of indigenous North American peoples, nor a clear evolution of ideas from our own “Western” society. Some things are the same, some things are different. Generosity is praised and hoarding is a social sin. Trade and community are deeply important and though there are mentions of the [inevitable] environmental repercussions wrought by our current era (e.g. genetic problems, high infant mortality, lower life expectancy, leakage of chemical/nuclear waste ), these are merely background notes to what Le Guin is trying – and succeeding – to do.

The reader is presented with the poetry of the Kesh, with their mythologies, but also too with their reported experiences. Le Guin supplies interviews with Kesh archivists/historians and includes third person essays about their culture: how they measure time, how they draw maps, what is their relationship with “the City of Mind” (their name for the powerful computer network) as well as their thoughts – or reflections – on the world that preceded them, the evidence of which is often found but rarely important.

This edition includes several additional texts alongside the original novel, some of which are part of the same [fictional] anthropological myth-making, while others are [genuinely] non-fiction essays exploring the motivations and methodologies that led Le Guin to make this gorgeous, evocative, frequently moving novel.

One essay is about how novels can function as containers holding many ideas, which is what Always Coming Home does: it isn’t really a novel in a traditional sense of the word. Is there a beginning, a middle and an end? No. Does anything change? No.

It is a collage of voices and anecdotes, of stories and feelings and personal histories and though, of course, none of it is true, it all comes together in a satisfying way.

What I felt the edition could have benefitted from was a critical discussion of its uses of elements from the historic cultures of indigenous North American peoples, because – though I’m learning lots about this due to it being a very very HOT TOPIC here in Canada – without that I don’t feel able to comment on whether or not this is a “respectful” text. And that’s an important contemporary consideration, for me at least. Le Guin’s novel doesn’t feel disrespectful, there is certainly no condescension or mockery of beliefs and rituals that are inspired by pre-colonial America, but that doesn’t mean that the usage is necessarily OK.

The novel is a speculative, post-anthropocene text. It is fiction without being storytelling, though it contains many stories within itself. It is about people who have returned to a way of life that is more in synch with nature. Which is something I believe would be beneficial for us all.

I read this big novel in the Canadian Rockies, which are beautiful and wild and peaceful and overflowing with wildlife.

I saw wild horses and mountain goats and deer and sheep and chipmunks and squirrels, but most memorably I saw bears.

The last bear I saw was while I was driving through the busiest part of the park on my way out of it. I passed a group of tourists who had got out of their cars to photograph a roadside bear. This is, obviously, stupid: bears are fast and strong and when they’re hungry or threatened or with their cubs – which this one wasn’t – dangerous as fuck. Bears are cute, but they’re not friendly. My lover and I were shocked: we had been mere metres from roadside bears a couple of times, but in no circumstances would we have opened the fucking car doors. My lover called the tourists “disrespectful”, which felt apt. Our society has lost respect for animals, for the natural world, and seeing this evidenced at the end of my trip (which I’d spent reading Always Coming Home) underlined that point.

The Kesh treat the world in their fictional future less arrogantly, less destructively, than we do in our real present. Le Guin’s novel is optimistic, it’s kind towards the potential of our species. It’s a glorious, meandering, engaging, highly literary and deeply impressive novel and I’m going to read more Le Guin again soon lol.


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1 comment on “Always Coming Home by Ursula Le Guin

  1. Pingback: Finding Time Again (À la recherche du temps perdu 7) by – Triumph Of The Now

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