Always Coming Home
1985, republished by SF Masterworks in 2016
Always Coming Home is a wonderful book but it challenges easy categorisation. Like most of Le Guin’s work, it belongs somewhere in the ‘science fiction and fantasy’ area, but there’s very little science in it and even less fantasy. It is not even a novel, nor a collection of short stories, but an anthology including short stories, poems, play-scripts, an excerpt from a novel, myths and (the longest item) an autobiography.
Between them, they give us a richly textured introduction to a rich, exotic culture – much as an anthology of Kazakh folk tales and literature might do. But which culture?
Le Guin introduces it thus: “The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California. The main part of the book is their voices speaking for themselves. … The difficulty of translation from a language that doesn’t yet exist is considerable, but there’s no need to exaggerate it. The past, after all, can be quite as obscure as the future. … The fact that it hasn’t yet been written, the mere absence of a text to translate, doesn’t make all that much difference.”
The people are the Kesh, and they live in small communities, farming and hunting, celebrating a cycle of seasonal festivals, enjoying visits from groups travelling players, and so on. Their technological level is roughly equivalent to that of early twentieth century America or Australia, but they have chosen to remain at that level for centuries, a choice entirely in keeping with the balance they have maintained with the resources of their land.
By the end of the book, the reader feels like a traveller who has spent enough time in a new country to feel comfortable there and, in my case at least, is keen to visit again. It’s a nice place, with a great sense of community and a carefully managed work/life balance. One key to its success is a worldview (I hesitate to call it a religion) which sees ‘human people’ as just one kind of ‘people’ among many, each with particular roles to play in the landscape.
But Le Guin, as always, is using her fiction not merely to entertain but to illuminate our own reality. What would it be like to live in a community where women were the acknowledged heads of the household? What would it be like to live in a society where sex is treated as openly and non-judgementally as carpentry? Where everything is somewhat sacred but dogma is unknown? Where there is no concept of ‘progress’ but everyone knows that life is good and happily expects that it will continue the same way?
In the hands of a lesser writer, the whole project might have been stiflingly didactic but the answers emerge naturally from the vivid stories before we’ve even thought of asking the questions. To me now, the most important questions are about sustainability. Thirty years ago in America, when the book was new, they may have been about feminism or alternatives to monotheism or capitalism. But that’s the beauty of travel: we encounter different ways of thinking about all sorts of things, and can adopt whatever we find valuable.