Review of Always Coming Home (1985)


Ursula K. Le Guin (writer).

Read in 2018.

Read with a group in memory of the author, whose death was recent. Page numbers refer to the SF Masterworks edition, which predates the 2019 expanded edition.

The Kesh exist in northern California, after “all security proved futile” and the Central Valley flooded. The Great Basin region east of California, including present-day Nevada and Arizona with probably yet more land east of there, is also flooded and has become known as the Omorn Sea. The most significant historical development covered by the book is the volatile city-state of the Dayao, a formerly nomadic eastern people that settled near the present-day Lava Beds National Monument and became too civilized.

A utopian anarchist post-apocalypse pastoral. The book is not a novel but a collection of primary documents and imaginary anthropological fieldwork from a future human culture; a marked improvement upon The Female Man (1975).

It’s a highly entertaining read, but contrary to what I see as its main purpose, it gave me the sense of a stressful balancing act. In this book, Le Guin tried to combine a slew of ideas about what was wrong with her own society into a fairly comprehensive vision of an alternate, resilient, sustainable society. That’s hard. The vision is mostly along the lines of Marcel Mauss (economic simplicity by choice), Pierre Clastres (non-coercive societies “against the state”), Stone Age Economics (1972) and The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (1982). Some of the foundational ideas, including the philosophically speculative anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, are outlined by the author in “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be” (1982).

The ideas are presented in a realization of Le Guin’s own “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” (1986). Seeing the theory put into practice is itself powerful and worth the read. For instance, the chapters on the City of Mind and on “Dancing the Moon” recontextualize and magnify everything around them just as effectively and impactfully as peripeteia will do in a classically structured plot. Oddly, for a work of fictional anthropology, there is a very little repetition of the same stories with minor variations. Instead, the point is to probe what the author articulates as follows:

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, Aristotle said, and nobody has proved him wrong yet; and that which has no beginning and no end is neither story nor history.

This is true in the sense that history, in e.g. Hayden White’s view, is seen from the historian’s later time. As a discipline, history—except counterfactual studies—inverts scientific practice by trying to identify beginnings with the end results in hand. This connects to literary theory in that beginnings and endings in fictional narratives mark causal chains that are the putative source of meaning in plot. See for instance the contemporary Recent Theories of Narrative (1986).

Le Guin questions this relationship along the lines of Karl Marx, who said that history, and perhaps narrative, will end when there is a classless society. She demonstrates that it is possible for a reader to derive meaning and pleasure from a literary description of a stable, fictional, indeed classless society without wrapping the whole thing around an Aristotelian powertrain plot. It might not be a novel, but it extrapolates from the novel: Where a typical novel will flatten an Aristotelian plot across too many pages for a single sitting, Always Coming Home goes one step further. As an experiment, however, it’s moderate. There is one story in the book that is both longer than the others and has a clear three-act structure, used as the beginning, middle and ending of the book. This story follows a traditional dramaturgy to the point of placing an action-filled climactic war in the last third.

The fiction is of a markedly speculative sort but I would not call the book a prediction or extrapolation. The specifics of Kesh society seem to owe a lot to Le Guin’s father, A. L. Kroeber, an anthropologist who worked with the Wappo where Le Guin put the Kesh. Theodora Kroeber, the mother, also wrote about native Californian societies, apparently including the importance of the number nine. Indeed, the Kroebers had a summer home at the precise location of Sinshan—implicitly a conlang corruption from “St. John”—the town most central to the narrative.

The connection comes partly from the implicit idea that the Wappo should be the model for a new local society because they were adapted to the local climate and ecology. However, there is a clear personal aspect to the choice, to the point of blurring the ontology. Just as Plato has an unclear role in the Republic (ca. 375 BCE), several individuals in Always Coming Home correspond to Le Guin: The nameless “editor”, the nameless anthropological fieldworker(s) using the first person as in “when I said I liked it the author wrote it down and gave it to me” (page 70), the more fully intradiegetic/emic Little Bear Woman (Latin: Ursula), the archivist at Wakwaha-na who calls the book “an Up Yours to the people who ride snowmobiles” (page 316) and the etic Pandora, who is alternately immersed in the world and paranoid about the book being a flat fantasy heartbreaker. The choice of the name Pandora is a bad one, given the illogical and misogynistic nature of that myth, but I appreciate the nod to Hesiod; Plato’s Socrates makes many such nods. Apparently the name of Pandora was chosen because Le Guin felt bad about describing a catastrophically reduced future population (“Was it I that killed the babies?”, page 147) as a prerequisite. In that light, Cassandra would be a more interesting, albeit conceited choice.

Le Guin used the same image—“killing the babies”—for reducing the human population via catastrophe, in The Lathe of Heaven (1971). By inserting herself as Pandora, she assumes the roles of both William Haber and George Orr from the earlier novel, interrogating her own imagination in search of utopia. Her conclusion, this time around, is a lot more restrained, both in the scale of its answers and in their precision. We don’t get the equivalent of Orr’s new memories to explain the continuum. Always Coming Home never quite describes how the Kesh got their culture, nor how the old world ended. There might have been a nuclear winter (“fires and smoke and bad air and then ice and cloud and cold”, page 160), but that would not even begin to explain the sinking of the middle of North America, including Nevada, with its average elevation in our time of around 2000 m. That change, described only as “events on the geologic scale”, is big enough that it should impact the climate, yet precipitation in California seems unchanged. I wonder if it may have been inspired by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, seemingly a natural extension of volcanic Mount Hood towering in the background of The Lathe of Heaven. There’s a poetic vagueness to it, like the fanciful description of a storm in “The Wind Begun to Knead the Grass” (1864), where dust throws away a road.

Besides the pulp geology, the amazing White Clowns and the fascists at the lava beds, Le Guin is careful to avoid most other “genre” post-apocalypse motifs, implying for instance that fossil fuels are scarce so far beyond the point of diminishing returns that a Mad Max car cult is out of the question. There is no selfish survivalist masturbation and the entire mentality of the old world has been rejected as evil and poisonous, not recycled as myth. When the focus comes off sustainability, the mood is pretty close to A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), without its bicephalous mutant: Both books take place in roughly the same era and area. I do wish Le Guin had done some of Miller’s historical development for her backdrop, and showed it.

My principle objection to the proposed utopia is that Le Guin’s faith in the stability of a casually maintained local culture appears to be exaggerated. It seems as if Kesh children are not formally educated about the fact that their culture was selected or why. Indeed, it is never stated that it was selected. It seems extremely probable that a generational shift will eventually occur where a group will, for instance, not choose to live out their teens in celibacy. The result will reasonably be more children, needing more food, and so on. Likewise, the novel diseases can be expected to decline in incidence, similarly increasing the population. Some victims of disease can be expected to effect greater investment in medicine, increasing technological intensity, reliance, ambition, and so forth. Without a consensus on why they are artificially limiting their own population, each local society will forget. Compare the crowning insight of “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937). If I had a terrible chronic illness and the means to cure it, I would propose to “build again” to get that cure, however carefully.

Religion forms part of Le Guin’s explanation for the supposed stability of Kesh culture in the face of these facts. For example, Kesh songs around death are religious in nature, the lyrics strongly implying a luminous afterlife. However, as in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973), it’s “Religion yes, clergy no.” Le Guin takes a stand against organized religion and clarity. Like Antisthenes, who misinterpreted Homer’s fantasy literature as metaphor to rescue it for use in ethical philosophy, or Rabbi Akiva who misinterpreted the “Song of Songs” (ca. 200 BCE), or William Adlington who tried to pass off his translation of The Golden Ass (ca. 160 CE) as salutary metaphor, Le Guin wants to have both an entertaining fantasy where religious beliefs are justifiable and a realistic framework where such beliefs are unfounded. The latter would make them false and dangerous, though potentially a noble lie told to stabilize society, like the religion of Plato’s Republic. To soften the premise, Le Guin preserves the possibility that all apparently religious beliefs are only understood by the Kesh as useful or poetic metaphor. In effect, as in the conflicting early Christian theologies of Alexandria and Antioch, Le Guin vacillates over whether Kesh beliefs are taken to be metaphorical, symbolic or substantial religious claims. For example, from page 424:

To call an olive tree grandmother or a sheep sister, to address a half-acre field of dirt plowed for corn as “my brother”, is behaviour easily dismissed as primitive, or as symbolic. To the Kesh, it was the person who could not understand or admit such relationship whose intelligence was in a primitive condition and whose thinking was unrealistic.

In describing the literature of the Kesh, Le Guin also states that they do not draw a clear distinction between fact and fiction, which seems like a dangerous cultural trait, given natural human selfishness in the absence of compelling facts. The Kesh practice of “Gedwean” sounds like a corrupted form of psychiatry, with the originally scientific methods forgotten in favour of placebo: “Statistics comparing rates of alleviation, short-term cure, long-term cure and failure would be interesting, but inappropriate” (page 472); inappropriate how? In these passages, Le Guin toys with obscurantism. This is no better than the fantasies of individual liberation through apocalypse in The Day of the Triffids (1951).

The stability of the Kesh seems implausible because of this rejection of Plato’s controls and of Enlightenment ideals. For example, the Kesh are so intellectually incurious that they have no explanation whatsoever for their own incest taboo: “neither religious, nor genetic, nor social, nor ethical” (page 427). It is as if they have never wondered about it, despite the prevalence of incest in their fiction. There is no mention of what benefits the Kesh derive from considering the members of their House (20% of people without blood ties) kin for the purpose of incest. If the reason is a safe space in the heyima, it is as if they have forgotten it. Kesh theories of the soul are “imperturbably self-contradictory” and incoherent by choice (page 89), as if there is no investigation, no drive toward reliable knowledge or maintainable, parsimonious theory even for the purpose of sustainability.

The Kesh reject the distinction between human and natural history, as well as the distinction between objective and subjective fact and perception (page 153), including the subject-object distinction in study (page 274, footnote). This aspect of their culture appears to be inspired by academic postmodernist fads, rather than ecstatic mysticism where the subject-object distinction is dissolved only in a state of trance. While some aspects of Kesh society clearly follow an artificial, tabular pattern, they regard listing and charting as childish, even risky, believing that it locks the information (page 44). That attitude may be common in illiterate societies, but even the ancient Sumerians had tables. A fear of tables is not going to preserve awareness of invisible, counter-intuitive ecological relationships. It will, however, produce the people’s generalized technophobia. Their technicians, the millers, are permanent outsiders as a result. I was greatly amused by the romance narrative of “The Miller” (page 97f.), where such a bad-boy engineer commits both incest and suicide in a pastiche of the Gothic tradition.

Where the Kesh themselves do anything like science, it is the harmless tinkering of C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), but the book implies a larger view. It is an echo of Bruno Latour’s infamous conclusion that Louis Pasteur did not discover microbes, he “collaborated” with them. In Latour’s actor-network theory, science is a social activity that brings together human and nonhuman entities, transforming the world. Though she does not make it her focus, Le Guin suggests that in her utopian future, science will be thought of in terms wispily unifying Daoism with Latour, but it will not be practised by her “human people”.

I wonder if perhaps Le Guin posited that the Kesh exist in a fundamental pattern of myth different from ours, something Lévi-Strauss pictured—incorrectly—as distinct from eventful history and therefore potentially more stable. I sense an echo of Jean-François Lyotard’s then-trendy postmodern relativism. In reality, selfless attitudes do not reproduce well from one generation to another in the absence of the type of bedrock knowledge gained from institutions like public schools. This is true even if the attitudes are based on fact, and the same applies to language; compare the Dyirbal.

The Kesh have teachers and novice periods, but no curricula ever appear in the book, despite its diversity. They certainly do a lot of singing and dancing, dogmatically repeating “heya”. A cosmological “teaching song” mixes poetic fluff with a handful of facts and can be performed without lyrics (page 394ff.). Another “teaching” claims that careless girls can become pregnant with hungry ghosts (page 390f). An effective course in ecology or critical thinking is not replaceable by such activities.

One of the least contradicted statements on Kesh culture is made by a refugee to it: “Animals live softly. They don’t make it hard to live. Here people are animals” (page 366). Rather than a myth, this describes a foundational philosophy of trimming your goals, and I can believe that a culture will tend to do less damage while it remembers that people are literally animals. However, it is dangerously convenient to forget, and we animals have developed plenty of unsustainable societies.

The presented cultural continuity of the Kesh must lie outside of this philosophy, even outside words and actions, apparently in a Lévi-Straussian structuralism divorced from content. I do not think this would work. Even Le Guin seems dubious. The various tribes of the area view each other with realistic suspicion and derision. To the “Cotton People” of the south, the Kesh themselves are merely the “Wine People”, a bit like how the tribes of precolonial Papua viewed one another. Warfare was endemic on Papua, conducted much as in the story “The War with the Pig People” but with cycles of revenge. In “Bear Man”’s account of demilitarization, the character muses that “the sickness of Man” (i.e. civilization, hierarchy, competition, war) is human nature and will not be eradicated (page 386).

In a related passage, an unclear narrator lampshades some of the uneconomic choices of the Dayao—“Destruction destroys itself”—and speculates that “natural selection has had time to work in social” terms (page 380). Bear Man almost confronts the more likely case that people, as a species, are unchanged since the industrial age and get the same impulses. He thinks that knowledge of history can protect people from sliding back into the old mentality, yet he proposes no institutional response to make sure that history is taught to a strong majority of the population. It as if the survivors of the Vietnam War had never bothered to commemorate it except through conversation with friends and family and giving their notes to a library. Though Bear Man approaches a humanizing insight about the “backwards-headed” monster reader, it seems that even a museum would somehow invite another apocalypse.

Part of the reason why scientific thinking and skepticism seem almost dead among the Kesh is the City of Mind: A distributed artificial intelligence that collects all available information and makes it available to all, seemingly as its conatus. It is essentially a “paperclip maximizer” AI for science and free science communication, conveniently non-interventionist, apolitical and conspicuously tiny; it runs no visible experiments or archaeological digs. It is a wonderful bit of wishful thinking, but it reminds me of one of my nieces, at age 7, suggesting that her utopia would be for her school and everything in it to be made of candy with no need to eat anything else, no accommodation to taste, no risk of tooth decay and so on. The Exchange is likewise all advantage. Again I am reminded of the divine plan in the science fiction of C. S. Lewis.

On Papua, wars are less frequent than they used to be, but as of 2018, poorly educated people are still killing each other over accusations of witchcraft, which is a natural fear in our species. There is a faint possibility of magic among the Kesh. This might also help explain their lax epistemology. The most prominent magical episode comes early, with uncle Corruption’s non-clipping arm. There is no indication that this particular event is one of the magical-realist episodes of Kesh literature, nor a childhood memory embellished after the fact. No enabling ontological premise is presented and there is no investigation, so it seems necessary to conclude that it is a supernatural event, much like the prophecy in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Perhaps even the hungry ghosts are real. In their marginal cults, the Kesh practice self-mutilation and animal sacrifice (page 464). At the same time, there is apparently no fear of witches among the Kesh. This is a paradox.

It’s impossible to say whether the Kesh achieved their sustainability on a scientific basis. Perhaps they did and forgot. More likely, the implication is supposed to be some kind of Daoist reassertion of the lifeways of the Wappo stemming from the ecological envelope of the river valley. This is coupled with the golden mean, an informal logical fallacy. The Kesh do a lot of things in moderation: Some hunting (by children, as in The Coming Race) and some animal husbandry; some foraging and some agriculture; some excess fat but not a lot; some oral literature and some writing; some sexual liberation like The Dispossessed (1974) but also some neuroticism and celibacy; uchronian technology including some elements of modern medicine but not the technologically intense parts; some computers but not in wide use; permanent towns larger than Dunbar’s number but not cities; some religion but not organized religion. No argument is heard for the specific choices of the Kesh over any other. “All that was to be avoided was the extreme” (page 491).

One area of life where the Kesh go relatively far from the mean is their construction of gender. They have discrimination by sex but only for some religious roles and matrilocal housekeeping. Women must be present in all slaughter to legitimate it in Kesh religion, while the clowns who frighten and delight the children are men. Beyond those rare divisions the Kesh seem to favour the prosocial and traditionally feminine. For instance, some traditionally masculine activities in 20th-century American society are either obviated (breadwinning, leadership), banned (war, technological mania) or marginalized (competitive games are discouraged and hunting—especially by adults—is stigmatized). Men wear kilts, which seems impractical. In reality, the kilt originated as light armour for a colder climate. Pants make it easier to pee and to navigate the thorny Californian scrub. I suspect Le Guin selected kilts for the feminine implication they carried in 1980s popular culture.

The only alien anthropological detail in the book is sexual. “Dancing the Moon”—an annual, public, nine-day orgy where men lure and orbit women—has parallels in myth, such as the universal, purportedly cultic once-in-a-lifetime prostitution of all Babylonian and Cypriot women in book 1, chapter 199 of the The Histories (440 BCE), for which there is no evidence. Le Guin may have taken it from Welch’s Taoism: The Parting of the Way (1957/1965), which describes a “Union of Breaths” (heqi) taking place at the new or full moon in certain parishes of the Daoist Church movement: “in it men and women had intercourse ‘like animals’ without regard to family ties or social status” (Holmes, page 120). Holmes apparently based his description of it on the work of Henri Maspero who—before he was murdered in Buchenwald—may have been misled by outraged Buddhist sexual fantasies of what the religious Daoists were getting up to. Crucially, heqi—if it existed—seems to have been a monthly thing, and took place in private cubicles. There are annual and public parallels among bighorn sheep and similar animals with a brief mating season, but the perennial sexual interest of humankind does not agree with the bighorn lifestyle.

Since I mentioned Welch, I have to quote the entire final page of his Taoism, about the future. Its relevance is obvious.

It is reasonable to suppose that some clever people will survive the next war. From a Taoist point of view, therefore, the only hope can be that all other surviving human beings will be so confirmed in their stupidity that cleverness cannot lead them astray. Dolts, bumpkins, and savages, they will dully and persistently refuse to rebuild what they have seen to be a self-destructive way of life. They may even—though it is a dubious hope—teach the clever people to be as stupid as themselves. Then at last Chapter 80 of the Tao The Ching will be realized. Men will “live in small settlements, refusing to use machinery even though it requires ten times, or a hundred times, less labour. They will value their lives and not go far away. There will still be boats and cars, but no one will ride in them. There will still be small arms, but no one will drill with them. They will have no use for any form of writing save knotted cords, will find sweet savour in their food, beauty in their clothes, peace in their homes, and pleasure in their rustic tasks. The next settlement may be so near at hand that they can hear the cocks crowing in it, the dogs barking, but the people will grow old and die without ever having been there.”

Le Guin deburred the edges of Welch’s vision, preserving writing in Always Coming Home. Like The Dispossessed, her book is an ambiguous utopia, with an element of dystopia. Good dystopias like Brave New World (1932) similarly have some element of a poisoned utopia to them.

The “Moon” ceremony touches that delicate balance in the gender space. It is portrayed as if it is meant to compensate the men for their curtailment, but I do not think the ceremony would curb appetites for the rest of the year. It’s not quite the golden mean fallacy, but it does target the mean: The Kesh have some sexual détente without objectification, and some public orgies with the people they meet every day, implying full compatibility there. It is as if Le Guin thought this horror would make men tolerate feminism, which in turn implies that she thought of feminism—incorrectly—as anti-male. On the other hand, these attitudes might all be detached from Le Guin herself. Compare A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and its misogynist sayings about “woman’s magic” on Gont.

I was a bit disappointed with the Dayao, or rather, with their impact. Their visits to the Valley of the Na (Napa) seed a Warrior Lodge that forms a similarly solipsistic sky-god cult, as if that particular religious pattern were so much more of a threat than spontaneous cultural development, and somehow infectious even without evangelism or colonization. Dayao religion is a straw man that seems to combine Moses with the “oneness” of Greek henology, the Mundaka Upanishad, Islamic tawhid etc. It is so paralytic that the Dayao refuse to have engineers make effective weapons to meet their imperial ambitions. They clearly don’t have Haber’s ability to work toward their goal. Tweaking the Dayao to be something like a hybrid of the Mongol Empire with its Song Chinese victims would have been more to the point. I was constantly reminded of the corresponding villains of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982), who are deeper and more interesting. In the end, influential speakers at a gathering of the Kesh decide that the Warriors, with whom they are debating, “have gone” already, so they go (page 385). I don’t know whether to read that as a master suppression technique à la Ingjald Nissen or as supernatural sensitivity to a social inflection point à la The Left Hand of Darkness. In any real debate, it would be a delusional tactic.

In the final analysis, Always Coming Home expresses what is nebulously called a pseudophilosophy. The reasoning of the Kesh is enigmatic. They reject natural philosophy yet appeal to nature, syncretize with apparent superstitions and are excused from being tested. It is a good literary experiment and would be a poor guide to life.

References here: “The Inner Light” (1992), Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō (1994), “Paradise” (1994), Mizuiro jidai (1996), Accelerando (2005), Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin (2018).

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