“Always Coming Home” is something a little different. Rather than being a single narrative, it is comprised of many different parts, stories, poems, articles, even recipes. All of these serve to illustrate a culture, created by the author, of a future America. The main people described in the story are based in California, but it branches out to speak of other areas and peoples, in an attempt to describe the world of that time.
Le Guin has attempted to create a culture where the people have discovered the correct balance between nature and technology. People live in small communities, and are farmers, herders, weavers, potters. Most of this work is done by hand and on the surface it would appear that they are primitive. However we soon learn that they are familiar with electricity, computers, trains, and so on. They are literate and educated. They just don’t use these tools very often. It seems to me that she is trying to show that it is possible to find this balance. Many people refute arguments to preserve the environment by saying those who champion this cause want everyone to live in the stone age. Le Guin is indicating here her belief that a balance can be maintained.
The people have the idea that wealth can be found in how much you have to give, not in how much you keep. They refer to people with ideas of keeping and hoarding as ‘having their heads on backwards’. When a character refers to his wife and daughter as ‘belonging to him’ the people around him think that he is crazy.
Owning is owing, having is hoarding.
The author has used her knowledge of native American culture as the basis for the residents of the valley around which the book is centred, known as the Kesh. These aspects are most obvious in ritual, teaching, and medicine. Songs and stories are used to instruct the young and help in aiding the sick and injured. For example, a dying person would be surrounded by others who would sing specific songs for that circumstance, which the dying person would also sing for as long as they could. It is called ‘Going Westward’, likening dying to the setting sun. It would be a comfort for them to know they were not alone by hearing and singing the familiar words. The people would belong to different ‘lodges’ (another nod to Native American culture) which would be in charge of different areas in the community (for example, the Black Adobe Lodge would teach the funeral songs and rites, and officiate at the cremation ceremony.) I found it interesting that the characters in this society go through different names in their lives. Their parents will give them their first name, but they will find their own adult name, and will change their name again when they grow older. The names of a person are indicative of the life they have lived. So the child North Owl, who lives many years in a foreign place and with a foreign name, becomes Stone Telling in her maturity, a name she gives herself, indicative of her endurance and her incredible story.
Le Guin juxtaposes the Kesh with the Dayao, or Condor people, a warrior culture who have, under the influence of a charismatic leader, decided to conquer their neighbours. The reader learns that the computer archives can be accessed by anyone for any reason, anywhere in the world, and so the Dayao research the making of ‘modern’ weapons. Their worship is of the One, a kind of god, who made the world but is not of the world. This is, of course, a critique of many world religions and their disconnect from the earth in which we live. (An aside – I usually find the disconnect in worshippers rather than in faith itself. As a Christian I see no Biblical precedent for disdaining creation, however I have met many Christians who would disagree. It is a failing in us.) The Dayao are extremely patriarchal, disdaining and abusing women. They also disdain anyone who isn’t of their own tribe.
They represent, in this book, modern culture, which is often foolish, prejudiced, and violent. It is interesting that the Dayao sow the seeds of their own destruction. When they consult the computer, they don’t ask how to make better guns than their neighbours, weapons they might have manufactured in plenty and would have served to help them in their aims of domination. Instead their leader demands big weapons, planes and tanks. But the reason why the future world, with it’s knowledge that is mostly unused, becomes apparent here. Fossil fuels are virtually gone – petrol can still be found but it is rare. So a plane cannot run long before it needs to refuel, or crashes. Tanks fare the same. Even metals are more scarce than they used to be, and the infrastructure is not there to build in any quantity. The Dayao pour their resources into something that ultimately does not help them.
… in the absence of the worldwide technological web, the ‘technological ecosystem’ of the Industrial Age, and on a planet almost depleted of many of the fossil fuels and other materials from which the Industrial Age made itself.
Another interesting facet of the Dayao/Kesh interaction is that the warrior mentality is not very far underneath the surface in many even among the Kesh and their neighbours. When the Dayao spend some time in the valley, they leave behind lodges where people start to train with weapons, espouse the Dayao notions of patriarchy, and become disconnected from their community. They claim they are training to defend against the Dayao, but the cost seems to be the ruin of Kesh culture. One of the shorter stories describes a community meeting where the warrior faction is confronted by community leaders. The leaders describe the lodge members who have followed this idea as having ‘become infected’ by Dayao illness.
You have let yourself fall sick with the Sickness of Man, and you seek to make us sick: and now you must be the one to choose whether you will be killed or cured or driven out.
The warriors, of course, have a different story.
Only in war is redemption; only the victorious warrior will know the truth, and knowing the truth will live forever.
The one writing the account of the meeting concludes:
It would be unwise in us to forget the warriors and the words spoken at Cottonwood Flats, lest it need all be done and said again.
Many of the poems and songs in the book are not particularly good, I must admit. I don’t think this was Le Guin’s strength, though the songs in ceremonies may be purposefully simple in order to make them easier to teach. That is probably the only real issue I have with the book, as the stories, articles and descriptions I find very real and comprehensive. It is important to note, as is actually stated during the novel, that this culture is not utopian. It might be easy to think this was the purpose, but it is quite clearly not if you are paying attention. For example, if the people are a utopian ideal, then surely the warrior idea would never have taken root. Some of the stories speak of family feuds, angry teenagers, incurable illnesses due to damage done to the planet in the past. I think if it were some perfect paradise it would not work. It works because it isn’t, because while the Kesh don’t agree with the Dayao, some of them are lured by their ideas, and there is disagreement in how to deal with them. It is just like people today who might agree that they have a problem, but disagree on how best to deal with it.
I would very much recommend “Always Coming Home” to anyone fond of fantasy. I would reiterate, it has narrative in parts but it is not a novel as such. However, you end the book with an immersion into a culture no less fascinating for being imaginery.