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First edition cover
|Author||Ursula K. Le Guin|
|Published||1985 (Harper and Row)|
|Media type||Print (hardcover and paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3562.E42 A79 1985|
Always Coming Home is a 1985 science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is in parts narrative, pseudo-textbook and pseudo-anthropologist's record. It describes the life and society of the Kesh people, a cultural group who live in the distant future long after modern society has collapsed. It is presented by Pandora, who seems to be an anthropologist or ethnographer from the readers' contemporary culture, or a culture very close to it. Pandora describes the book as a protest against contemporary civilization, which the Kesh call "the Sickness of Man".
The book's setting is a time so post-apocalyptic that no cultural source can remember the apocalypse, though a few folk tales refer to our time. The only signs of our civilization that have lasted into their time are indestructible artefacts such as styrofoam and a self-manufacturing, self-maintaining, solar-system-wide computer network. There has been a great sea level rise since our time, flooding much of northern California, where the story takes place.
The Kesh use technological inventions of civilization such as writing, steel, guns, electricity, trains, and a computer network (see below). However, unlike one of their neighboring societies - the Dayao or Condor People - they do nothing on an industrial scale, reject governance, have no non-laboring caste, do not expand their population or territory, consider disbelief in what we consider "supernatural" absurd, and deplore human domination of the natural environment. Their culture blends millennia of human economic culture by combining aspects of hunter-gatherer, agricultural, and industrial societies, but rejects cities (literal "civilization"). In fact, what they call "towns" would count as villages for the reader - a dozen or a few-dozen multi-family or large family homes. What they call "war" is a minor skirmish over hunting territories, and is considered a ridiculous pastime for youngsters, since an adult person should not throw his life away.
Pandora observes that a key difference between the Kesh and the readers' [her?] society is the size of their population: "There are not too many of them.". Their low population density means that they can feed themselves from their land. The Kesh maintain this low population without coercion, which would be antithetical to their loosely organized society. They carry a large accumulation of genetic damage, which leads to fewer successful pregnancies and higher infant mortality. They also have social taboos against multiple siblings and early pregnancies; a third child is considered shameful, and the Dayao's practice of large families is referred to as "incontinence". Abortions are practiced freely.
The book is divided into two parts: The first part consists mostly of Kesh texts and records of oral performances, interspersed with Pandora's commentary, accounts of a few aspects of Kesh life, and personal essays. The longest text is a personal history narrated by a woman called Stone Telling. Stone Telling's autobiography fills less than a third of the book, told in three sections with large gaps filled with other material. The second part, called "The Back of the Book", contains a few Kesh texts but consists mostly of Pandora's accounts of various aspects of Kesh life.
Stone Telling recounts how she spent her childhood with her mother's people in the Valley, as a very young woman lived several years with her father's people in The City, and escaped from it with her daughter, who was born there. The two societies are contrasted through her narrative: the Kesh are peaceable and self-organized, whereas the Condor people of The City are rigid, patriarchal, hierarchical, militaristic, and expansionist.
The next longest piece in the main part, in the section "Eight Life Stories", is the novelette "The Visionary", which was published as a stand-alone story in Omni in 1984. This part also includes history and legends, myths, plays, a chapter of a novel, and song lyrics and poetry.[a] Some editions of the book were accompanied by a tape of Kesh music and poetry.
"The Back of the Book", about a fifth of the number of pages, presents cultural lore, with the format and attributions or annotations that an ethnographic fieldworker might make. It includes discussions of village layout and landscaping, family and professional guilds, recipes, medical care, yearly ritual dances, and language.
It has been noted that Always Coming Home underscores Le Guin's long-standing anthropological interests. The Valley of the Na [River] is modeled on the landscape of California's Napa Valley, where Le Guin spent her childhood when her family was not in Berkeley.
Like much of Le Guin's work, Always Coming Home follows Native American themes. According to Richard Erlich, "Always Coming Home is a fictional retelling of much in A. L. Kroeber's [Ursula's father] monumental Handbook of the Indians of California." There are also some elements retrieved from her mother's The Inland Whale (Traditional narratives of Native California), such as the importance of the number nine, and the map of the Na Valley which looks like the Ancient Yurok World. There are also Taoist themes: the heyiya-if looks like the taijitu, and its hollow center (the "hinge") is like the hub of the wheel as described in the Tao Te Ching. Le Guin had described herself "as an unconsistent Taoist and a consistent un-Christian".
One of its earliest reviews, by Samuel R. Delany in the New York Times, called it "a slow, rich read... [Le Guin's] most satisfying text among a set of texts that have provided much imaginative pleasure"
A box set edition of the book (ISBN 0-06-015456-X), comes with an audiocassette entitled Music and Poetry of the Kesh, featuring 10 musical pieces and 3 poetry performances by Todd Barton. The book contains 100 original illustrations by Margaret Chodos. As of 2017, the soundtrack can be purchased separately in MP3 format (ISBN 978-1-61138-209-9). A vinyl record was also released, together with a digital album for streaming and download in several formats. That combination sold out, but the digital album by itself remains available, and a second pressing of the vinyl, plus the digital, was scheduled to ship "on or around 25 May 2018".
A stage version of Always Coming Home was mounted at Naropa University in 1993 (with Le Guin's approval) by Ruth Davis-Fyer. Music for the production was composed and directed by Brian Mac Ian, although it was original music and not directly influenced by Todd Barton's work.
John Scalzi, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, wrote, in his introduction to the 2016 edition, that he discovered the book as a teenager, and calls it "a formative book...sunk deep in [his] bones", one to endlessly return to, always coming home.