18 November 2019

Review: Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

Hardcover, 826 pages
Published 2019 (contents: 1981-2019)

Acquired July 2019
Read August 2019
Always Coming Home: Author's Expanded Edition
by Ursula K. Le Guin

Always Coming Home is a critical utopia by Le Guin from 1985, here collected in a beautiful Library of America edition with many supplemental materials (I own all four LoA Le Guins, but this is the first I've read). The book is odd and tough to get into at first: Pandora, an anthropologist from our time, is doing a study of the Kesh, a civilization in the postapocalyptic Napa Valley. What we get are a mixture of texts: notes by Pandora on Kesh culture and language, Kesh poetry and song and myth, Kesh biography and memoir, short interviews with particular Kesh, and a partial Kesh novel. At first I admired it more than I liked it, but as I went on, I got into it more and more.

I particularly liked how it was structured: most of the biographies are short, but there's one long one, "Stone Telling," that's distributed in three chunks across the whole book. The first part is tough going, because you're thrown into this alien culture with pretty much no explanation. But as you read further into the book, moving back and forth between different kinds of texts, they start to reinforce one another. The specificity of "Stone Telling" brings some of the anthropological details to life, keeps them from being abstractions, but also by the time you get to the final chunk of "Stone Telling," you understand it a lot better because of all the other material about the Kesh you've read. It help that "Stone Telling" is about a Kesh who goes outside the valley; Le Guin correctly grasps that contrast is a strong way to reveal how something is constructed. We figure out the Kesh by seeing what they are not.

There are lots of neat little details. I like the train, and the Kesh lodges and houses, and the attention to how language structures thought, and the discussion of Kesh adolescence, and the Kesh term for "pets," and how some Kesh became warriors because of outside influence. I like how at first the society seems non-technological, but as you go you realize that this seemingly "primitive" people have solar panels on every roof and a computer access terminal in every village! I liked the City of Mind (a vast computer network) and the City of Man (the way the Kesh understand our civilization). As someone who reads a lot of nineteenth-century utopian literature, I liked when Pandora gets metatextual with one of her cicerones: "This is the kind of conversation they always have in utopia. I set you up and then you give interesting, eloquent, and almost entirely convincing replies. Surely we can do better than that!" (370) I laughed out loud at that (and then struggled to explain why it was funny to my wife). H. G. Wells made a similar joke in The Time Machine, but Le Guin takes it in a much more optimistic direction.

I don't think you have to read every word to enjoy this (I skimmed some of the poetry, sorry Ursula, and occasionally some of the narratives got a little too weird to be interesting), but by the end I was really enjoying it, and I feel like I learned something about my own society, which is what any good utopia should do. I don't think I would like being Kesh, to be honest, but thank you to Pandora and Le Guin for letting me visit them.

The book also contains three other sections: "Pandora Revisits the Kesh and Come Back with New Texts," "Other Writing Related to Always Coming Home," and "Essays." The first is some extra material Le Guin finalized just before he death, published here for the first time. The most noteworthy part is that Always Coming Home features a one-chapter excerpt from the Kesh novel Dangerous People, but here we get three chapters, and extra footnotes from Pandora; when I got to where Dangerous People was incorporated in the original ACH, I jumped ahead and read the version here, before going back. There's also some more poems.

The second section is Kesh-related material published elsewhere; the standout part of it is "May's Lion," a great little short story about a dying mountain lion, in both our world and the Kesh's.

The final section is a number of essays and lectures by Le Guin that illuminate Always Coming Home in some way. They did indeed deepen my appreciation for the book, and allow me to see more of the levels on which it was operating. But also Le Guin was an accomplished essayist, so these make for thoughtful, interesting reading on their own, especially "A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be" (about how to imagine utopias better), "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction" (fiction that moves away from conflict), and "Indian Uncles" (Le Guin's relationships with three Native men who were friends of her father, himself an anthropologist).
"Many theorizers feel that the earliest cultural invention must have been a container to hold the gathered products and some kind of sling or net carrier." So says Elizabeth Fisher in Women's Creation. But no, this cannot be. Where is that wonderful, big, long, hard thing, a bone, I believe, that the Ape Man first bashed somebody with in the movie and then, grunting with ecstasy at having achieved the first proper murder, flung up into the sky, and whirling there it became a spaceship thrusting its way into the cosmos to fertilize it and produce at the end of the movie a lovely fetus, a boy of course, drifting around the Milky Way without (oddly enough) any womb, any matrix at all? I don't know. I don't even care. I'm not telling that story. (726-7)

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