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Always Coming Home

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Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home is a major work of the imagination from one of America's most respected writers. More than five years in creation, it is a novel unlike any other.

A rich and complex interweaving of story and fable, poem, artwork, and music, it totally immerses the reader in the culture of the Kesh, a peaceful people of the far future who inhabit a place called the Valley on the Northern Pacific Coast. The author makes the inhabitants of the valley as familiar, as immediate, as wholly human as our own friends or family.

Spiraling outward from the dramatic life story of a woman called Stone Telling, Le Guin's Always Coming Home interweaves wry wit, deep insight and extraordinary compassion into a compelling unity of vision.

525 pages, Paperback

First published September 1, 1985

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About the author

Ursula K. Le Guin

936 books24.4k followers
Ursula K. Le Guin published twenty-two novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and has received many awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc. Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia, an essay collection, Cheek by Jowl, and The Wild Girls. She lived in Portland, Oregon.

She was known for her treatment of gender (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Matter of Seggri), political systems (The Telling, The Dispossessed) and difference/otherness in any other form. Her interest in non-Western philosophies was reflected in works such as "Solitude" and The Telling but even more interesting are her imagined societies, often mixing traits extracted from her profound knowledge of anthropology acquired from growing up with her father, the famous anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber. The Hainish Cycle reflects the anthropologist's experience of immersing themselves in new strange cultures since most of their main characters and narrators (Le Guin favoured the first-person narration) are envoys from a humanitarian organization, the Ekumen, sent to investigate or ally themselves with the people of a different world and learn their ways.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 402 reviews
Profile Image for Ivan.
436 reviews284 followers
October 13, 2017
This is only book from Ursula Le Guin I didn't enjoy. Second read and my opinion remains unchanged so my original reviews will remain unchanged as well.

This is ethnology book, the fact that it's ethnology of made up civilization in post-apocalyptic world doesn't make it less so.
Because of that I find it hard to rate this book. On one hand there is evident effort to create culture of one entire civilization with it's unique culture poetry, folktales, myths, plays and songs and all that in world that used to be technologically advance before catastrophe. It's something that is extremely hard to do in high quality and thematically consistent but luckily Ursula Le Guin is great writer and manages to pull off something that only few authors could.

After all that praise why am I leaving it unrated? Simply, while I can see that why this book is great it definitely isn't my cup of tea. I don't care much about poetry, I didn't find most of folktales or plays interesting . I can appreciate this superbly written book for what it is but that doesn't mean I had much fun with it.
Profile Image for Nathan "N.R." Gaddis.
1,342 reviews1,375 followers
February 3, 2018
The Millions discusses Always Coming Home ::

"The Utopias of Ursula K. Le Guin"
by Kelly Lynn Thomas

Again, me saying things I'm not authorized to say :: If you've not read Always Coming Home you've not really read LeGuin's vision.

Okay and then so for a few scrambled thoughts and reflections and impressions and way=off course remarks.

This is, true, only the second Le Guin I've read. It may be the last.

Most possibly so because I suspect that this may be her masterstroke, the iceberg cap, the little tassel on the mortar board swung to the other side upon a stroll cross the stage. But don't take it from me.

I mean of course specifically in what she has done here with the form of the novel. And that's really what's going to hold my interest. I've not caught wind that she's done more or similar elsewhere.

I'm not interested in what she does with genre tropes ; sci=fi and fantasy. She may do all that stuff veryvery well but that one other of Le Guin I read didn't raise itself above the water line of the genre.

This one did. This one rose right up into the realm of the Novel. And what a novel can do. And what you can put into a novel. And how wide the waistband of the novel is. Stuff it all in like a bagful of jelly (tis the season still!) [I saw someone say it's not even a novel!]

This isn't it but I once thought (and still do) that Benjamin's Arcades Project would make an excellent formal model for a novel. Le Guin did something very similar here.

In other words, there is a reason this volume has such a miserable gr=score -- 2,232 Ratings · 166 Reviews -- relative to the Le Guin readership. Because there is much more here than story.

And as to the story, like with that famous Hopscotch, you are invited to (freely of course) decide which path to take ; the novel path or the story path. If story is all you are in for, just read the three parts of Stone Telling. But if you want Novel, read the rest and even The Back of the Book.

There is a cassette of Kesh music included with the first editions pb/hd.

Of course this novel may be read as more than in-itself. I was rather impressed how closely it could be (I won't) described as a precursor to the Seven Dreams--from all the formal (and superficial) elements (all that back matter! all those illustrations!) right down to the clash of cultures and imperialisms and things of this nature. Either as a prequel volume or sequel, depending how you signify what's here.

And too Tom LeClair, in his The Art of Excess, places this novel at the end of the Rainbow, as the epilogue of the Systext ::
Gravity's Rainbow
Something Happened
The Public Burning
Women and Men
Always Coming Home
in such a way, so LeClair, that Always Coming Home provides a kind of wholeness of human existence which at first, at the beginning of the rainbow arc, is found torn asunder by Control. Let's quote a bit ::
"The novelist Le Guin is both White and Sun Clown, but Always Coming Home is the most reconstructive work in the systext, more explicitly oriented to the subjects of home, children, and future. A masterful combination of bildungsroman and ecological model, Always Coming Home joins human part and cultural whole, is simultaneously a psychological study that offers an active alternative to Heller's regressive self and a systems novel that provides a steady-state alternative to Gaddis's runaway. As epilogue to the systext, Always Coming Home both circles backward--in time to a past before our civilization, in space to Pynchon's prologue--and casts forward to a time after our civilization, a time without excess." [204]

And--make it explicit--"I believe Le Guin intended Always Coming Home to be read as a direct reply to Gravity's Rainbow." So should we say, if you've not read Always Coming Home, you ain't yet read GR?

And further making it explicit. Always Coming Home is not a model is not a map is not a program for us. It cannot be "applied" to our situation. It is not the politicalsocialeconomic solution to our situation. Nor are the Amish. But, like the Amish, Always Coming Home is an exercise of the imagination which goes towards evidence, towards 'proof', that the way things are now is not inevitable and necessary. It is an exercise in imagination which would invite us to exercise our own imagination in building a world for our selves in which we can live as we dream, freely and justly.

I recently saw a comment which to me epitomizes our chains. The sense of it is this--don't bring me a problem if you don't first bring me three solutions. Thus is criticism cut off before it begins and things continue as they were. And so most of the Systext does indeed bring you three criticisms and complaints and diagnoses but no solutions. Not their job. That's your job. In rare exception however, Le Guin steps up to the rare plate of offering an imaginative path one might trod. All the more beautiful because impossible.

Remember, always dream impossible.
Profile Image for Joanne.
55 reviews
July 7, 2008
There are few books I have read, none of them being fiction until now, that have required such a concerted effort of study on my part to even read through the book.

If it wasn't Ursula... I doubt I would have bothered. But it was, and I did, and of course it was well worth the effort.

The woman has created an entire culture. I don't know when I will have enough time to create an entire culture in my own head and then write a novel about it, but the fact that another woman had the time and did it is inspiration by itself.

The book is written in little tidbits, a morsel here, part of a story there, then bits of poetry, history, explanations of various aspects of their society...

Besides a few flips to the back of the book for glossary explanations and then a few flips back near the front for the chart on the different houses of society, I read it front to back. It was tempting, really tempting to skip ahead, especially with Stone Telling's story being cut into three parts, but I trusted Ursula's wisdom to teach me what I needed to know so that I could properly appreciate the next bit of the story as I got to it, and I was not let down.

I thought the review on the cover was a bit much, something about it being "her best work yet", but after finishing the book I just may have to agree.

The clever comparisons to our own societies are an immense banquet of food for thought.

An easy read, it is not. But it is worth every minute you spend.
Profile Image for Terence.
1,168 reviews394 followers
August 7, 2011
It is unfortunate but my “book-reading biorhythms” rarely coincide with the books being read by the various groups I belong to here on GR so I missed out on the reading of Always Coming Home that took place in the Always Coming Home group a few months ago. I originally read the book nearly 20 years ago, probably in my first year or two of graduate school, and it didn’t lodge itself overly much in my conscious but what a difference twenty years makes. My latest nonfiction reading has focused on the impending collapse of Western civilization as 7 billion (soon to be 9 billion+) humans outstrip Nature’s ability to provide the resources or to absorb the wastes our way of life generates so it seemed “natural” that I would fall back on UKL to see a positive vision of the post-industrial future.

And it is a powerful vision of what humans might be capable of. When I was compiling my GR shelves, I gave ACH three stars because I remember liking it (and UKL defaults to three stars) but having reread it I have to revise my rating to four – it’s a remarkable accomplishment and deserves greater recognition.*

Always Coming Home is not a novel, though you can find one in there if you want to. The setting is an indeterminate future on an Earth slowly recovering from its industrial age. The vast, destructive technologies of our time have vanished though advanced technology exists: “All that had been replaced by the almost ethereal technology of the City…which had no use for heavy machinery, even their spaceships and stations being mere nerve and gossamer….” (p. 404)

But that’s not Le Guin’s focus. Her attention is centered on the Valley of the Na and the Kesh who live there. The Nine Towns are not Utopia. UKL is too perceptive a writer to think humans will ever live in a perfect society (however defined). For example, the Kesh are a peaceful folk and violence is almost unheard of but when the Condor People** pass through the region, it sparks the emergence of the Warriors Lodge (for men) and the Lamb Lodge (for women), a recurrence of the “sickness” that tore the old world apart: “Only in war is redemption; only the victorious warrior will know the truth, and knowing the truth will live forever. For in sickness is our health, in war our peace, and for us there is only one, one house. One Above All Persons, outside whom there is no health, no peace, no life, no thing!” (Skull’s speech, p. 409) The culture she describes through Stone Telling’s tale, myths, poetry, song and stories, as well as the anthropological reports that frame it simply exists. It makes no claim to special wisdom nor does it harbor designs on its neighbors. The people who live their lives there are born, grow up, form friendships, fall in love, fall out of love, dance, sing, tell stories, suffer pain and disaster, and then they die. But – unlike our industrial age – they haven’t made a fetish of violence and they’ve recognized that you can’t live in a perpetual war against your environment. I think it’s safe to say which society Le Guin prefers; and I agree with her.

Always Coming Home is probably not the place to start your love affair with Ursula. It’s more the type of thing you want to learn about after the first bloom has come off the romance but it’s all the better for being an expression of a mature, loving relationship.

* I should clarify here that I picked up my copy at a used book store and it didn’t have the accompanying cassettes of Kesh poetry and songs – an early example of interactive literature.

** Anthropological Note: The Condor People comprise the culture Le Guin contrasts to the Kesh (primarily through Stone Telling’s story). They’re a resurgence of the exploitative, hierarchical, patriarchal, violent cultures of the past, and the only thing that keeps them from becoming a greater threat to the cultures of the Inland Sea is that the world is too poor to support that type of society for very long.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
875 reviews2,273 followers
April 15, 2018
A Pitch for Greatness

This novel seems to be Ursula LeGuin’s pitch for credibility and/or greatness, not just as a science fiction writer, but as a fully-fledged novelist (i.e., not confined to any one genre).

You have to wonder whether the exhaustive (and exhausting) effort was worth it, at least partly because I’d argue that she had already achieved her goal in 1969 with “The Left Hand of Darkness”.

My reservations largely relate to the dressings of Post-Modernism that crept into the execution of the novel and in my opinion diminish its aspirations to greatness.

Nostalgia for An Age Yet to Come

Le Guin explains in “A First Note” that “The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.”

I’m not sure what tense you’d call this, but the catachresis hints at the fundamental premise of the novel. Where relevant, it is written in the past tense, yet it is set in a future that seems to be based on archival fragments (or reconstructions) of a past that hasn’t happened yet. Thus, in the words of Pete Shelley, it’s “nostalgia for an age yet to come.”


It’s not necessarily a Utopia or a Dystopia; it’s just an alternative world, an idealised, if only partly realised, Sistopia, which is sufficiently precisely drawn or invented (on the basis of feminist and egalitarian perspectives and aspirations), so as to allow us to comprehend it in anthropological detail and to compare and contrast it with our current world, as well as past worlds or cultures.

As with any fiction, Le Guin was dealing with invented fact (whatever amount of imagination was required - I occasionally wondered to what extent the detail was based on actual North American tribes studied by Le Guin or her anthropologist father).

The Smartasses of Utopianism

It could be argued that Le Guin was opposed to pure Utopianism, especially if it was prescriptive:

“I never did like smartass utopians...people who have the answers are boring, niece. Boring, boring, boring.”

Post-Modern Information Overload

LeGuin elaborates on the structure of the novel:

“The main part of the book is their voices speaking for themselves in stories and life-stories, plays, poems, and songs.” To this, she adds family trees, maps, drawings, music, messages, histories, interviews, a glossary, an alphabet and a numerical system.

Some of this material is explicatory, but most of it (“The Back of the Book”), in the manner of Post-Modern maximalism, is simply an anthropological information dump after the relevant narrative. Thus, unlike footnotes (notes at the foot of the page to which they relate), it doesn't inform the narrative, except retrospectively. (“The Back of the Book consists largely of information...things from here on will be just as fictional, but more factual, although equally true”). Whatever that means or signifies.

Making Up the World

As a literary work, therefore, most of it presents as the case notes of an anthropologist or ethnographer “making up the world” and documenting a tribe or culture they have encountered (albeit it in the imagined future). Hence, the novel adopts the style of ethnography, in its quest for (self-conscious metafictional) verisimilitude.


About (only?) 20% of the novel is the life story of a woman called “Night Owl” (later “Stone Telling” and “Ayatyu”). This is one of the few sections that is related in the first person, so that we as readers are conscious of an “I” (rather than a “we” or a “they”). It’s only here that the social or cultural becomes personal or individual. For the first time, we become conscious of an ego (rather than an abstract superego), and therefore potential and actual conflict and confrontation with an other (or the others).

The reserve in other sections of the text is a product of the Post-Modern aversion to plot. You have to wonder why Le Guin was tempted to go down this relatively self-less path.

Not Information, But Relation

While this method of story-telling is conscious and deliberate, overall it means that the novel lacks a second act, let alone, a third act (and therefore a resolution). As a result, it lacks dramatic tension. The fictional editor of the texts, Pandora, says:

“A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.”

It’s difficult, therefore, to unreservedly recommend the novel to anybody but librarians, archivists, blind faith maximalists and enthusiasts of excess (poor dears), who might be interested in the cruft and detail.

Close Relations

Fortunately, most of the stories focus on relationships within the one people or between peoples.

The Kesh people of the novel live in the Na Valley of Northern California. Our (modern) civilisation appears to have ended, at least locally, as the result of an earthquake and/or rampant pollution, although there are occasional hints that there has been a nuclear war (an excess wreaked on the world by the military-industrial complex). The Kesh people are relatively benign (“introverted but cooperative”), although some of them are hunters and warriors (if only for self-defence from the Condor people, of whom Night Owl’s father is a general, making her a “half-person” within the ranks of the Kesh).

Mother Superior Jumps the Shark

It seems that at least the Kesh have reconstructed some aspects of contemporary western civilisation (e.g., guns, electricity, heating, steam engines, trains, railroads, surgery, pharmaceuticals, music, books, libraries, the internet [called the Exchange]).

The warlike Condor people (“these sick people...destroying themselves”) have retained or invented machine guns, tanks, planes, cannons and hydrogen bombs. They seem to have inherited the worst legacy of modern civilisation. It isn’t explained why, if they are this sophisticated in some areas, they aren’t equally so in other aspects of science and technology.

At the very least, none of these peoples is primitive, even though they are farmers and engage in potlatch ceremonies.

The Condor people are extremely patriarchal (“every relationship is a battle”; they “seemed never to decide things together, never discussing and arguing and yielding and agreeing to do something before they did it”), while the Kesh are slightly less so, purporting to be matrilineal, exogamous and matrilocal. Nevertheless, the women are confined to their household, and rarely have the opportunity to develop skills other than gardening, cooking, cleaning, weaving, dressmaking and parenting.

We see Night Owl struggle against these rigid customs, in order to find her own identity and role in society (including as a lover, wife and mother).

Coming to Be

Stone Telling explains the status of women in these (pessimistic) terms:

“There is no way that men could make women into slaves and dependents if the women did not choose to be so.”

Again, while feminist in intent, we don’t see any particularly satisfactory resolution, at least with respect to Stone Telling's marital relationship:

“I did not want his need of me...I will not let his need eat up my life. I must come to be myself by myself.”

Energy, Liberty and Grace

Much of the inter-tribal relationship continues to be patriarchal and subject to ongoing tensions and conflict, which lead to theft, disputes, wars, conquest, murder and rape. It’s not clear whether this is the legacy of the old military-industrial complex that prevailed under the original (i.e., our) civilisation, or whether there is a suggestion that these traits emerge in any advanced civilisation or culture. If the latter, then, this might indeed shape Le Guin’s Dystopia, despite her best efforts to posit something more optimistic:

“In leaving progress to the machines, in letting technology go forward on its own terms and selecting from it, with what seems to us excessive caution, modesty, or restraint, the limited though completely adequate implements of their [Kesh] cultures, is it possible that in thus opting not to move ‘forward’ or not only ‘forward,’ these people did in fact succeed in living in human history, with energy, liberty and grace.”

The Smartass of Excess

Critic and placardist Tom LeClair devotes over thirty pages of forensic text analysis to this novel in “The Art of Excess”.

While he is an astute and detailed reader, he leaves the impression that he approached the novel with a preconception that it would vindicate his theories of “the systext”, “excess”, “mastery” and maximalism, when in fact the novel is a better example of a “sistext”. His analysis seems to emerge from the delusions of confirmation bias, rather than an open reading of the text itself. Apparently reluctant to acknowledge that Le Guin does anything original (as a female writer or otherwise), he states that the novel “is a meta-commentary on or reversal of certain features of the male-created systext.” He also asserts without much evidence or proof that “Le Guin intended Always Coming Home to be read as a direct reply to Gravity’s Rainbow.”

Unless LeClair has access to some private evidence that supports his opinion, I would question it for two reasons: firstly, I believe that Pynchon wrote his own direct reply to “Gravity’s Rainbow” in “V” (although the latter was published 10 years earlier, his first three novels effectively constitute an internal dialogue between the male and the female). Secondly, I suspect that Le Guin wrote in response to all patriarchal structures (including the most egregious of all, [Post-Modern] white male maximalist versions of the novel, which would have addressed the systext, had she been aware of the theoretical conceit beforehand).

Despite the profusion of detail and data, I don’t read the novel as an endorsement of literary excess (Le Guin says of the Kesh, “What we consider both desirable and necessary, they tended to consider a weakness and a needless risk: replication, multiplication. ‘One note only in the wilderness…’”).

Pandora elaborates in one of her poems at the end of the book (“Written Sideways from the Valley to the City of Man”):

“No god no king no One no thing
that comes one at a time
no dupli repli multi identiplication
prolifer proliferation same after same
so no city. Sorry.”

Instead, the novel embraces anthropological method to describe a culture and tell a story within that culture.

World Reduction

To quote Fredric Jameson, it’s arguable that Le Guin aims for and achieves “a process of ontological attenuation in which the sheer teeming multiplicity of what exists, of what we call reality, is deliberately thinned and weeded out through an operation of radical abstraction and simplification which [Jameson termed] world reduction.” Anthropology is just the lens through which the operation is observed. It’s a vehicle for the “good deal of discrimination” that leads from keeping to giving.

Nevertheless, it allows us, like Night Owl, always to come home to the culture that is our own (and perhaps to make changes).

[Mostly in the Words of Ursula Le Guin]


How could it begin once only?
That doesn't seem sensible.
Things must have ended
And begun again,
So that it can go on,
The way people live and die,
All the people, the stars also.

Still Coming Back

Something grew up here,
Something pretty.
Another little thing sprouted there.
Things began to grow right.
The water came out of the rocks clear again.
The people began to come back.
They are still coming back.

Dates and Epochs

You talk all beginnings and ends,
Spring and ocean but no river.

Being in Time

Oh, North Owl, who
Will you be, then?
Who are you now?

One Spirit

Maybe in all things
There is one person,
One spirit whom we greet
In the rock and the sun
And trust in all things
To bless and help.
Maybe the oneness
Of the universe
Manifests that one spirit
And the oneness of each being
Of the many kinds is a sign
Or a symbol of that one person.
People who say it is so
Call that person the self of all selves
Or the other of all others,
The one eternal, the god.

Being is Praise

Frightened, I will trust;
Weak, I will bless;
Suffering, I will live.
Having asked for help,
I will be silent, listening.
I will serve no person,
And lock no door.

So Utterly Gone

One may listen still,
But all of the words
Of their old language
Are gone utterly,

Farther Gone

Which is farther gone?
The dead or unborn?

The Inner Ear

Could you hear voices,
Mein Herr Schliemann,
In the streets of Troy?


Our knowledge does not close a circle
Or the void. What we do not know remains
Boundless, without limit or bottom.
What we know must share the quality
Of being known with what denies it.
What is seen with one eye has no depth.
I shut my eyes, so that nobody would see me.

Thinking and Believing

Some people are better
At thinking than
At believing.

Water Song

The bridge falls,
The river runs.
The Condor calls
The Valley's sons.

Fire Song

The fire came over the range
And went forward so fast,
That even birds could not escape it.
They fell burning from the air.

Valley Song

The roots of the Valley are
In wildness,
In dreaming,
In dying,
In eternity.

Wind and Fire

High winds fan
Forest fires.

Pieces of the Valley

Pandora doesn't want to see the Valley
Jewel-bright, distinct, tiny and entire.
Instead, what she gets is bits, chunks,
Fragments, shards, pieces of the valley,
Lifesize. Not at a distance, but in the hand,
To be felt and held and heard.
Not intellectual, but mental.
Not spiritual, but heavy.
Let the mind draw its energy,
Let the heart complete the pattern.

Going Westward to the Sunrise

Follow the sun, love,
In the western skies.
Catch the sun, again,
Just before sunrise.

Burial Rites

A wisp of silvery ashes,
Or of the dead one's hair,
Is cast upward in the air,
And scatters round the graveside.

Butcher's Formula

If you die
For my needs,
I will give
You my words
In return.

A Pebble

The stone
The mountain.

The World in a Rock

The younger one of my sons
Saw the rock in the water,
And picked it up, saying, "A world."
I told him to keep it in his heya-box,
Which he did. When he died,
I put that rock back in the water of Moon Creek.

The One Last Word

It was the last word
Of a lost sentence.
It was the one word
That contained the world,
Visible and invisible,
On this side and on
The other side of death.

The Universe Speaks

It is with my voice
That the universe speaks,
And the word I hear it speak
When I listen is myself.

For Whom Bell Tolls

Death is nothing to fear.
Listen, my wife,
If you're afraid to die,
I'll do it for you.
I will die for you,
My wife.

Puma Gaze

Once I gave you
A name in my heart.
Do you want to
Know what it was?


The love in me loved
Everything he loved.


Desire unacted
Is corruption.


There is nothing but anger
In the house of anger.

My Father's Daughter

He looked at me then,
Instead of at his thoughts,
And said my name,
"North Owl".
I said, "Give me a name."
He said, "Do you want this name:
I said, "My name is Ayatyu."


She was my slave,
Whom I obeyed.

Lost People

Lost people are dangerous;
They do things without meaning.

Profile Image for Cally Mac.
238 reviews70 followers
January 3, 2019
Probably overlooked as an example of one of those Great, Long, Terribly Important Novels. But it actually is one, and not in the sense that people can simply claim it from its length and subject matter, but because it really is. I haven't read anything recently that so thoroughly challenged my notions of what a novel does, what a novel should do and what it is for, let alone what are appropriate choices in terms of style, genre and form.

Also it was just enjoyable. Not all of it. A lot of was difficult, and sometimes dull, but a lot of it was clever and engaging and funny and astute and Ursula Le Guin was one of the greatest American writers of her generation, easily.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,954 reviews1,293 followers
April 16, 2015
Why is it Ursula K. Le Guin always makes my life as a reader and reviewer difficult? Her books can’t be nice, straightforward stories—no, she has to create lyric, moving pieces of experimental literature that transcend our ordinary definitions of form and genre. I have a problem with Always Coming Home, but that problem is entirely independent of the book itself. It is, rather, a result of me and my particular biases and hang-ups.

I can’t help it: I love novels.

I know that, as far as literature goes, the novel is a relatively new invention—more of a fad, really, than anything else. And, as much as it pains me to admit it, studying novels really isn’t all that necessary when studying English. As much as I would love, as a teacher, to sink my teeth into a great novel with a class and watch them explore it … well, at least in the limited time we’re allotted these days in the school calendar, there are more pressing concerns. Literature isn’t the alpha and omega of English, and the novel is not the only entry or exit into that particular part of the discipline.

But I can’t help it. I’ll watch a play, sure. Read a short story? In a pinch. Devour a novella during a car ride? Can do. None of those satisfy the itch like a good, well-written, honest-to-goodness novel. Novels are my jam. I crave semi-linear narratives about a defined and stable group of people.

So when Le Guin sets out to deliberately break—well, shatter, really—these conventions with something like Always Coming Home, I can admire her aims even though I’m not particularly enthralled by the result.

Far from a novel, Always Coming Home is an intricate collection of texts by and for and about the Kesh, a culture of people inhabiting a Pacific Northwest valley in the far future. The editor of this volume has conducted an archaeology and anthropology of the future, recovering texts, interviewing inhabitants, reproducing poems and songs, and describing customs. Le Guin separates out the driest of this into “The Back of the Book,” an entirely academic section that explores the background of the society—its houses, naming conventions, marriage, etc. The remainder of the book is a medley of literary forms, genres, and conceits.

The most recognizably narrative sections are “Stone Telling,” about an eponymous woman from the Valley whose father is from another people known as the Condor. Unlike the Kesh, the Condor people replicate the type of patriarchal society seen ad nauseum in human history. Stone Telling’s father drops into her life when he visits the Valley, and eventually she leaves the Valley to live among his people. While she doesn’t necessarily regret it, it’s clear that her time among the Condor people is not the highlight of her life. Predictably for me, I enjoyed these sections (they are spread across the book but form a single narrative)—Le Guin is, aside from anything else, a consummate storyteller.

I also enjoyed some of the other sections. If you’re paying attention (and on an airplane, there is nothing to do with a book except pay close attention) you can see the general outlines of the future world as Le Guin conceives it. Humanity unleashes a combination of radiological and biological disasters—not as a single, grand apocalypse like the twentieth century envisioned, but the gradual and cumulative death that we embrace so far in the spectres of global warming and biodiversity collapse. Our machines go on without us in the City of Mind, replicating and bootstrapping themselves towards artificial godhead, spreading out to other planets and stars. Meanwhile, humanity survives as a species if not a civilization, rebuilding and restarting in various paradigms. The Kesh seem, at first brush, “primitive” by our highly ethnocentric, Western ideals. Yet they have access to certain “modern” conveniences, and in many ways their society is more equal and better structured than ours.

Le Guin’s heritage as an anthropologist’s daughter informs all her work, but it is overt in Always Coming Home. The unconventional structure has the effect of reminding (most of) us that our tastes and perceptions of literature are, to begin with, highly Westernized and Eurocentric in their origins. We have shed many of the traits of a predominantly oral culture, and as a result we do not necessarily privilege poetry, song, and dance in the ways that we once did and other cultures still do. In particular, I thought a lot about Aboriginal cultures and storytelling traditions while I read this book. I live somewhere with a large Aboriginal population, and I’m interested in learning more about Aboriginal cultures and storytelling. At the same time, it’s somewhat ironic for me to resolve to “read more Aboriginal-authored literature,” because while that is a laudable goal, it also makes certain suppositions about worthy ways to transmit culture….

So we come down to that eternal question for reviewers. Do we review based on our perception of a book’s merit? If so, Always Coming Home has a lot. Or do we review based on our enjoyment of the book? In which case, while I didn’t hate it, this was a much more lukewarm experience. Both of these modes are eminently subjective, of course—perceptions of merit can make no more claim to objectivity than personal enjoyment. But what do I want to say?

Well, once more Le Guin astounds and impresses with her skill. She is a juggernaut, a force of literature not to be taken lightly, and the world will be a darker place when she leaves it. Always Coming Home only reaffirms these convictions in every sense. This is a powerful, intense, complicated construct.

I didn’t like it that much. It wasn’t the kind of book I wanted to read on my flights last week.

So if you go into this book unaware of its nature, you will likely be disappointed (or else, really pleasantly surprised). You have to be willing to explore and immerse yourself in this book, at which point it will be rewarding. Always Coming Home isn’t a novel, never purports to be, and I shouldn’t fault it for that. Alas, my fallible human nature means I can’t necessarily give it all the praise it deserves.

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Profile Image for Wealhtheow.
2,448 reviews549 followers
July 18, 2014
Sort of an exercise in building a low-tech society set after our industrial modern age. The people of the Valley live a largely peaceful, non-hierarchical communal life that prioritizes listening and understanding, and considers being generous synonymous with wealth. The poor are those who do not give; giving makes one rich. It's fascinating, and I loved the ways the world building was woven into Stone Telling's story, and how the world building sections (hundreds of pages of an anthropologist's notes) enriched my understanding of Stone Telling's sections. That said, the notes were so very long that at times I skimmed them.

This is not a novel, and expecting it to follow the conventions of that form will lead to disappointment. There's a fourteen page glossary, several hundred pages of songs, poems, and novel excerpts from the Valley culture, even extracts from the galactic computer system of the future about the Valley. And there are wonderfully meta moments, like this interchange between Pandora the anthropologist and her interview subject, a librarian of the Valley people:

Pandora: I never did like smartass utopians. Always so much healthier and saner and sounder and fitter and kinder and tougher and wiser and righter than me and my family and friends. People who have the answers are boring, niece. Boring, boring, boring.
Archivist: But I have no answers and this isn't utopia, aunt!
Pandora: The hell it ain't.
Archivist: This is a mere dream dreamed in a bad time, an Up Yours to the people who ride snowmobiles, make nuclear weapons, and run prison camps by a middle-aged housewife, a critique of civilization possible only to the civilized, an affirmation pretending to be a rejection, a glass of milk for the soul ulcered by acid rain, a piece of pacifist jeanjacquerie, and a cannibal dance among the savages in the ungodly garden of the farthest West.
Pandora: You can't talk that way!
Archivist: True.
Pandora: Go sing heya, like any savage.
Archivist: Only if you'll sing with me.

This is a complex work, and I know I didn't get all of it--if I read this many times, I think I would understand something new, or differently, every time.
Profile Image for Lobo.
634 reviews75 followers
May 7, 2023
Ostatnim razem takie poczucie - nie da się tego ująć inaczej - wzniosłości miałam przy lekturze "Silmarilionu" i to jedyny z tekst, z którym można porównać "Wracać wciąż do domu". Jestem pod wrażeniem (a nawet jest przytłoczona) rozmachem, złożonością, drobiazgowością i ogólną wizją świata i kultury Kesh. Kolejne miejsce, które wzbudza we mnie tęsknotę jak za domem, chociaż nigdy tam nie byłam i nigdy tam nie dotrę, ale wiem, że byłabym tam u siebie. Czytanie "Wracać wciąż do domu" to rodzaj medytacji nad tym, jak świat działa, jak mógłby być postrzegany, jak można go rozumieć - i jak rozumieć siebie w świecie. Magiczna, monumentalna książka.
Profile Image for Ruby.
32 reviews
February 2, 2022
I read in another review for Always Coming Home that the book may not be Le Guin’s best novel, but certainly her most novel, and I couldn’t have said it better myself; consisting of prose narratives, poems, myths, dramas, customs, maps, a glossary, an alphabet and even food recipes of the Kesh (the fictional people the book is about), Le Guin has created a book that isn’t like the page turners where you can’t stop, but one that invites you to participate and exercise the muscle of your imagination. You have to engage with the story yourself, not sit and experience it like a movie from afar. It isn’t necessarily always an easy sort of engagement, but the things she leaves you with to contemplate are endlessly rewarding. Even in the section of the book that is a linear history - the story of Stone Telling - I found my experience of reading it much unlike other stories. Learning about and engaging with the ideas and ways of the Kesh from the other anthropological accounts and sections of the book connected me in a much deeper way with her narrative.
Nothing is superficial in Always Coming Home - within all of Le Guin’s work, she finds over and over that sense of what’s happening in the world that touches us, and in Always Coming Home she hands it to us again in her wonderful creation of the Kesh.
1,211 reviews19 followers
January 20, 2012
Though the introduction describes this as 'an archaeology of the future', it's no such matter. It's an ETHNOLOGY of (part of) the future, after the style of the Bureau of American Ethnology Reports, to which LeGuin has no doubt had access for most of her life. Most people who read LeGuin's works apparently are unaware that she is the daughter of the famous anthropologist AL Kroeber, and of the writer Theodora Kroeber, both of whom specialized in Northern Alta California. AL Kroeber was a friend of Ishi, last of the Yahi, in his last years, and Theodora wrote at least one biography of Ishi, as well as several volumes of legends and folktales from the area.

Contrary to the comments of many reviewers, I don't see much sign of any global catastrophe so far. The story is set, not in the current location of Northern Alta California, but on an island in the North Pacific, created during the normal processes of continental drift. There may have been quite a few severe seismic events in the process (the area is very seismically active, after all). But continuing processes were probably predominant.

The island is not on any major shipping routes, evidently, and there may no longer be any widespread travel. This may be because of one or more pandemics, since epidemiologists have repeatedly warned that our current culture of continuous mass migration is extremely dangerous.

There is also evidently little in the way of mass communications, though I seem to recall some later in. The population is quite a bit less than present day...but there's mention of widely available contraceptives. There are also electrical devices, though few electronic ones that I can see. There are floodlights, for example--but they're not used generally to saturate the night: only for special festivals, etc.

The society in question is matrifocal (NOT 'matriarchal'. With the exception of the 'childish' (almost exclusively male) warrior societies, there are no customs of unquestioning obedience. Though there are normative customs (such as 'people are not property'), enforced by clowns, there is little coercive behavior, and pretty much EVERYTHING is the subject of negotiation and discussion.) There is kinship from both sides (Stone Teller is regarded as a halfling because she has no paternal grandparents to call on, and at one point acquires a 'side grandfather' to help in not only ceremonies but also in material support), but the primary kinship is through the mother. There is also a culture of adoption.

There's a trace of homophobia, at least in the early parts. The warrior societies are regarded as fairly childish because of their authoritarian and violent tendencies, and because they are almost exclusively male. But I didn't catch at first that one of the insults leveled against them is that they are presumed (accurately or not) to be homosexuals. There's no necessary connection between homosexuality and childishness, even in the book--but at least one of the characters implies such a connection. She herself is viewed somewhat askance as being prejudiced, but she's not argued with.

This is a rich and long book, and should probably be read in short segments, with a chaser. I've recently acquired some new Wodehouse books, so I'll use them as interfilers, until I finish them. Then I'll have to pick something else, because Wodehouse is a quick read.

I'll add more on this book as I go on: but it'll likely take a while to read. When I tried it at first, I didn't get more than about halfway in. I hope that by rationing it out, I can finish it this time.

If you do read the book from beginning to end in sequence, you run into problems at first, as things are foreshadowed but not explained until later. There's quite a careful attempt to avoid observer bias by presenting things from several perspectives. It's middling successful, but it's often strained, as people try to put themselves in other roles, and find themselves unable to leave their own perspectives completely behind.

The island in the book has not gotten very far in its progress into the North Pacific. Well, after all, it's only been about 50,000 years: a millisecond by geological reckoning. It has a Mediterranean climate: wet winters and dry summers, with virtually no snow, except at the highest altitudes. The flora and fauna are mixed: at one point the partially hidden narrator comments that the grass, for example, was introduced by Spanish (Mexican, but Mexico was still under Spanish rule at the time) missionaries. This is possible, but not certain. There are grasses in Alpine meadows in the mountain ranges bifurcated by the rifts, but they may not be native, and they probably aren't Bermuda shortgrass, or the other shortgrasses introduced by the missionaries. There's an oddly gappy ecosystem. Bats. for example, are mentioned at one point (but not elaborated). Honeybees are mentioned, but native bees are not. Honeybees pioneered the area about fifty years ahead of Europeans, following the clover which was also introduced at that time. But in no place did they completely replace native bees: and as of the present time, it's not likely that they will.

I don't much care for the sublimation and displacement of violence. The representation of violence as a childish behavior, disciplined and restricted even in children, and socialized out of adults by shame and gossip, doesn't really resolve the problem. And while several people admit (often in shame) that they don't really fit into their society (the tongue-tied, the maladroit, the lazy, and the tone-deaf too often become 'forest-living', because they can't participate in the society fully, even if they want to), and though this defection is marginally accepted, it's apparent that it too rarely occurs to people just to leave.

The traumatic changes that occurred to the world during the interim between our time and that depicted are pretty clearly not one common disaster. There are references to 'poisoned' places: but these seem to be mostly landfills, including nuclear waste dumps and defunct nuclear reactors. The people are inbred and subject to all manner of congenital and environmental illnesses (some are pretty clearly both). The incest taboos, which seem extreme by our standards (many of the forbidden people are what we would call 'kissing cousins') are probably at least partly an attempt to temper the results of the inbreeding.

The society as represented is a self-exiled part of a larger society that is in some ways more advanced than ours, technologically. The computer systems which are literally and figuratively subterranean in the isolated society are described as engaged in a massive experiment trying to model the cosmos, though it's not clear what the computers and their attendants hope to gain thereby. But even (or perhaps particularly) this complex is far from monolithic, and such self-exiled communities may be common in the solar system at the time.

Like such enclave communities in our own societies (Mennonite communities are the most obvious, but there are 'ethnic' communities in other places, which have a strong element of tourism, but do genuinely maintain a separate identity), the people of 'the Valley' select what technologies they will use and innovate on. They have solar-powered looms--and pedal powered ones, most likely. They have electricity, but they don't always use it. It's not clear what kind of hot water systems they have: in some places it seems to be geothermal (hot springs and suchlike). At one point it becomes positively abhorrent to a librarian: there's a repeated ceremonial purging of libraries and archives. Often a literal bookburning. Though the narratives, recipe books, etc are not fully lost (the computer archives keep copies, which are, however, very poorly indexed), still this perennial destruction (even with recycling) of history is disturbing.

LeGuin recognizes something that most people in our society aren't conscious of: the indecent (almost obscene) haste we live our lives in. There's too much hurry in everything: indeed, it's one of our predominant causes of injury and stress. The people in the stories and observations have made (and are still making) a conscious attempt to slow things down. The fact that their primary compliment is 'mindful' is important. Slapdash haste causes all kinds of ills: the deaths and injuries attributable to sleep-deprivation alone are so common that unless we make a deliberate effort we can't even notice them. The people in the book blame a lot of their ills on the haste as well as the simple massive numbers of their ancestors. And there's quite a bit of justice in that assessment, as there was when the indigenous peoples blamed the plagues that swept through them on the arrival of (often literally) unclean Europeans pouring into their lands.

Minor linguistic note: The name 'Shinshan' kept nibbling at my mind, and finally I tracked it down. Looking up 'Tsimshian' I found that they lived (among other places) in the 'Na'a' valley. I don't think this is a deliberate gloss. I think it was just one of those odd bits of unconnected data that float around in our minds, and alight on the page when we're looking for a name for something.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,015 followers
January 23, 2011
I expected to take a long time over Always Coming Home. In a way, I wish I had: there's a lot in it, and a lot to reward a slower, careful reading -- this time I went plunging through it for the narrative, such as it was, enjoying the layers of understanding that came to me, imagining and figuring out what I didn't know. I didn't read the "Back of the Book" section, this time: another time, I think I will. I just wanted to fly through it, this time, total immersion in a culture that does not exist.

Always Coming Home is a collection of stories, of fake-histories, of poems and plays and things that do not neatly fit into our genres, belonging to a culture that does not exist. The first note says it best, "The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern Carolina." It seems to be the story almost of the Native peoples, and then it begins to mention computers and other technologies of our day... The way the world came to be this way isn't really seen clearly, only seen in its effects on the people. It's very interesting to read this way: interesting, and frustrating, because like real history, it doesn't always show you the bits you most want to see.

Ursula Le Guin's writing is beautiful, as always, and easy to read and understand despite the invented words and concepts. I sort of imagine this as the way she might build up any culture, in any book, through the scraps of their literature and histories that come to her... It's quite a nice thought, actually.

I didn't read the "Back of the Book" section, preferring to keep things vaguer, not spelled out. I will probably read it one day, but not now.

Though I greatly enjoyed this, I don't know if I'd dare recommend it to anyone. For me it required some patience with the original idea, which turned into delight as Ursula Le Guin once more captured my heart. For others, who didn't find Earthsea compelling, it'd be dry as dust, I think. And as with many books, but particularly with those that are a bit different, someone might find they love it, when they have never loved Le Guin's work before -- or that they hate it, when they've always loved her work.
Profile Image for Berfin Kanat.
395 reviews157 followers
September 8, 2019
"Kadınlar içeride tutulur, ama dışarıda bırakılırdı."
Hep Yuvaya Dönmek Ursula'nın doruk noktası diyebilirim. Şimdiye kadar okuduğum tüm kitaplarından çok farklı. Bu kitabında yazabileceği her şeyi yazmış, verebileceği her şeyi vermiş. Ve özgürlük, Hep Yuvaya Dönmek'in en güzel yanı özgürlük duygusu. O kadar güzel, o kadar olması gerektiği gibi aktarmış ki, okurken hissettiğim özgürlüğü tüm hayatım boyunca duyarsam huzurlu ve mutlu bir ömür sürebilirim.
Kitabı edebi bir metin gibi okumak kolay değil, genel olarak okumak da pek kolay değil çünkü çok katmanlı bir metin. Yazar bu kitabında Amerikan Yerlilerinden esinlenerek bir halk yaratmış ve onlara dair her şeyi anlatmış. Gelenekleri nasıl, ne yer ne içerler, şiirleri, oyunları, tiyatroları, kısa öyküleri... Bunun yanında "Anlatan Taş" ismini verdiği bir karakterin öyküsü mevcut, aralıklarla onu okuyorsunuz. Kitabın en sevdiğim kısımları Anlatan Taş'ın hikayesinin olduğu kısımlardı. Kalan bölümleri için okumak da keyifli oldu çünkü Ursula en sevdiğim, tarzını neredeyse tamamen bildiğim bir yazar. Başka türlü zorlar diye düşünüyorum, hatta bana kalırsa Ursula'dan okuyabileceğiniz her şeyi okuyup ondan sonra Hep Yuvaya Dönmek'e geçilmeli. Ya da edebi bir metin olarak görmeyip, bilmediğimiz bir ulusu anlatan tarih kitabı gibi düşünerek okuyabilirsiniz. Ursula'nın yarattığı, edebiyatın sınırlarını geçmiş bir dünyayı çok merak ediyorum derseniz bekletmenize gerek yok. Evet bu kitabında edebi bir şeyler sunmuş ve aynı zamanda edebiyatın sınırlarının ötesinde bir evren yaratmış. Hayran kaldım, çok sevdim. Buna rağmen neden 4 verdiğimi ben de bilmiyorum, belki biraz ağır bir okuma olduğu için belki de daha çok kurgu görmeyi umduğum için.
Burada kısaca bahsedip işte bu kadardı diyebileceğim bir kitap değil, hakkında yazılsa tez çıkar belki de. Bitireli günler oldu ama hala üstünde düşünüyorum, muhtemelen bir müddet daha etkisinde kalmaya devam edeceğim.
Yazının tamamı için: https://buyuluayrac.blogspot.com/2019...
Profile Image for Alex.
144 reviews47 followers
January 21, 2020

We are the Condor, that seems clear. And our self-destruction is inevitable, that seems even more clear. But maybe instead of total annihilation, what we face is a new, better way of life, brought to us by people we now fear, sometime after we implode. Maybe the singularity will not be the moment our machines decide to destroy us, but the moment they decide they are better off without us, and so recede from society. They may check in once in awhile. Today I heard that we are currently spending 5.5 million dollars an hour on the war in Afghanistan. We dispatch our Nestlings with assumed impunity, while our journalists are either purchased wholesale or fed through a sausage grinder in some damp embassy basement. But there is a valley, somewhere west of here, where the houses are hinged together, and the people live in iyakwun with the world around them. I walk, in undyed clothing, towards the sunset, towards the valley. Take my hand?

Profile Image for Laura.
6,911 reviews566 followers
September 18, 2020
3* A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle #1)
4* The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle #4)
4* Earthsea
3* The Diary of the Rose
4* The Dispossessed
4* Always Coming Home
TR Lavinia
TR Late in the Day: Poems 2010–2014
TR The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
TR Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with A Journal of a Writer's Week
Profile Image for Gökçe Leblebici.
83 reviews8 followers
January 22, 2019
the steps of human, then a himpie, cat, dog, any animals, following human again at the last pages of the books.

at the first pages of the book, mother warned up her daughter not to feed himpies with her (daughter's) meal. Then we read the grandma's amazing response; let it, she feed her soul.

Profile Image for Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all).
2,021 reviews186 followers
August 29, 2016
It's a great mistake to try to read this book as a "novel", since it isn't one. It's purported to be more like an anthropologist's notebook of field work: a collection of cultural facts, legends, poetry and song, writings--and obliquely, the story of one woman raised among the Kesh people who rebels against their close-knit Valley community and seeks something "outside the world." The "coming home" referenced in the title is her journey of discovery from adolescent rebellion to mature choice-making. Interleaving her story among many hundred pages of "anthropological musings" of a post-apocalyptic future northern-California is indeed annoying for most readers, who would prefer to get to the story--but I'm sure the author realised that if she had separated the story from the rest, well--most readers would probably not have bothered to trudge through all the rest of it. The book's structure strongly echoes that of Tolkein's The Silmarillion; however Tolkein's was indeed a personal writer's notebook, never actually intended for publication (and not published in his lifetime). Also, Tolkein avoided the pitfall of placing himself in the work, while Le Guin does not resist the temptation; the character of Pandora/the editor is probably her attempt to make the notebook more credible. However, of course, it is never explained how this character got into Kesh valley--from where or when, and how or if she got out again. I felt that by using the Pandora character, the author was looking over her characters' heads, talking to the reader directly, and I understood a friend who complains about actors who talk to camera, breaking the fourth wall of a movie. That doesn't bother me in movies, but it did here because it simply doesn't fit.

Published in 1985, Always Coming Home has deep roots in the N. California of the 1960s-1980s: living "off the grid", dropping out of consumerist society, going "back to the land" and all the rest. The Kesh culture is a mixture of Native American and New Age, with its drumming, dance rituals, free sex and open marriages, communal living, and distrust of the Condor people and what used to be called "the military industrial complex." However, their world is controlled by computers in the City of Mind and in other spaces. (Does anyone remember all the references to the Information Superhighway? Le Guin's computer-culture is very much of her own time.) Curiously, the Condor seem to be desert nomads; whether this was merely to add a touch of exoticism, or an oblique reference to those countries which provide fossil fuels (and were seen as "the enemy" in the US of the energy crisis), I'm not sure.

As a novel it wouldn't work, but then it's not a novel. As a book, I would not advise sitting down and reading it straight through justlikethat, as it would quickly pall. That is exactly what happened the first time I read it back in the early 90s, and I gave it away. Twenty years later I have come back to it, having realised that certain aspects of the work and the language used in it have continued to resonate. Reading it now, from a different perspective (and indeed, having become a different person in the twenty intervening years)I found a great deal more in it than the first time.

Is it my favourite book? No, it is not. Interesting, yes, in the same way I found My Dinner With Andre intriguing. Andre's journey is rather like North Owl's journey, but in reverse. Reversal, gyre...Le Guin would have appreciated that.
Profile Image for Isen.
233 reviews4 followers
January 28, 2017
Always Coming Home is a study of a fictional society situated in northern California, dubbed the Valley, sometime in the (presumably) far future. Within the book are collections of poems, tales, cultural practices, linguistic notes, and a central narrative of a woman called Stone Telling, told in three parts. It is a complex work, and the amount of world building is impressive, and the resulting society feels genuine, but ultimately the end result is just not enjoyable to read.

The poems, tales, and myths are just not very good. One might argue that they are lost in translation, but given that the language is fictional and the originals do not exist, that is a moot point. Moreover, I get the impression that they were never intended to be very good, but to teach the reader about the philosophy and worldview of the inhabitants of the Valley. Putting the sin of didacticism aside, what is the purpose of this course in Valley thought? Is it meant to help the reader better understand the inhabitants? In that case the problem is that the reader is never made to care about them. The main narrative, Stone Telling, is some 100 pages altogether, and fairly self-contained. It doesn't need 400 pages of social commentary. Is it meant to serve as a foil to our own society and give the reader an important lesson to take home? In that case it is woefully inane.

The strangest decision to me is to couch the narrative in science fiction. The Valley people are largely agrarian, and in most respects the book may have just as easily described a fictional past as a fictional future. Except beside the Valley people, there is an electronic hivemind spanning the surface of the planet, and much of the solar system. It doesn't really contribute in any significant way to any of the stories told, it's just there. Likewise, while the Valley people are largely content to live and work with iron age technology, they spice things up by maintaining trains, guns, and electric lighting. Why these three, the book never explains, nor do they play any vital role. It's all just there.
Profile Image for Cass.
488 reviews120 followers
March 15, 2011
This book is officially being abandoned by me. I can see someone would try to read this. I mean if this was a book by David Gemmell or Anne McCaffrey (authors that I love) I might see myself pushing on, almost as if I owed the author.

I feel like the author is having a fleet of fancy, writing a book that noone can read in a bizarre 'not really a book' kind of way. I get the idea, it is a textbook written about the future, it is a compilation of anthropological notes and stories. The book has a composer listed alongside the author.

However it is just hard to get into. I have heard others say that the author is very compact with words (in a way similiar to Hemingway), but I don't see it. I find the writing tedious, the tone fake. Why are people from non-technologically advanced societies always portrayed as having a greater amount of wisdom than 'us' (the readers)?

This book is officially being abandoned and probably added to the bookcrossing pile. I may choose to reopen it if some of her other books take my fancy. I am feeling rather disheartened by it all (because I was hoping to find another amazing author that I could read). I suppose I will have to go reread* the Pern series (this is my tragic solution when I feel like this).

*Reread the entire series can now be achieved in a single weekend as I have reached the point where I just skip through the books looking for the good bits!
Profile Image for Sarah.
14 reviews6 followers
January 9, 2012
I have to admit -- I didn't finish it. I did enjoy what I read. It felt like getting to look through a viewfinder at a future tribalistic society. The trouble is, I always hated seeing Native American museum dioramas and glass cases full of spears and pottery. In some ways, this book gave me that same sense of ennui. Why? Because it takes a mostly anthropological approach to the fictional world she's created. While I believe LeGuin aims to celebrate this culture, she ends up creating something rather dry and distant. There's a stiltedness that prevents the reader from really connecting with these people and I think that's a mistake. It's almost like she would be better suited as a historian or anthropologist -- though this wouldn't allow her to study the future. She doesn't let herself feel the characters. It seems like a very strict allegory to the people of our times, but it won't reach many because of its dryness and intricacy. I respect LeGuin and what she's done, but I wouldn't recommend this book to the average person. I think it's very intelligent, but without beauty or joy.
Profile Image for Easton Smith.
298 reviews11 followers
May 22, 2019
I've found in the past decade or so that my hope for a better future gets further and further away. Not the hope itself, that is, but the date in which I think something more beautiful will really emerge. After reading a book about the 5 Great Extinctions I found that my hope took root in some time after the next one, when the cockroaches have morphed into butterflies and the humans who've survived remember nothing of capitalism and patriarchy. And this is about the spot where Always Coming Home is placed.

It's a utopia I'd actually want to live in, where people take things slow: even the proper nouns take a long time to say. Here ceremony is calcified just enough to give meaning, but not enough to lock people into destructive patterns. In this place humans are animals and proud of it. It's not perfect, and wouldn't want to be.

Set aside your other Le Guin, especially those more clunky political/anthropological reads (like the Dispossessed), and dive into this world. If you have the patience (which I did not always myself, to be honest).
Profile Image for Kate Savage.
669 reviews120 followers
December 22, 2020
The first book I read of Le Guin, and it sticks with me.

An ethnography of the deep future. A celebration of the "no-account" people who build whole and healthy and beautiful cultures. It's a book to read slowly and with patience, like watching a Natalia Almada film.
Profile Image for Dtyler99.
51 reviews2 followers
July 23, 2017

Totally original.

LeGuin has been a major influence in my own writing and I have read most everything she has written, including her many short fiction collections and volumes on the craft of writing. Perhaps the only material of hers I've stayed away from is her YA stuff (A Wizard of Earthsea is NOT YA), although a couple months ago I read Very Far Away From Anywhere Else which is an exceptionally thoughtful mainstream coming of age novella.

Everyone will discuss The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Lathe of Heaven, and with good reason. There is a reason the former two volumes are so beloved and highly-regarded. The one book of her's that gets short shrift, in my opinion, is Always Coming Home, her far post apocalyptic "anthropological study" of the Kesh, descendants of survivors that live in the Na (Napa) valley region of California whose lives are reminiscent of the Coast Miwok Indians who populated the region before the coming of the Europeans.

It's no surprise LeGuin used this societal model, as her father, Alfred Kroeber, founded the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley and chief among his research were the dwindling native American populations in California as they were being systematically exterminated. Additionally, her mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote the volumes, Ishi In Two Worlds and Ishi: Last of His Tribe, recounting the life of the "last wild Indian" in California, who knew nothing of modern life. LeGuin's family also had a summer house in the Napa valley where she became intimate with the region and its flora and fauna.

The structure of Always Coming Home is, to be charitable, unusual. Although there is a narrative (broken into three parts) that follows the life of Stone Telling, a woman born to a Kesh mother and fathered by a member of a militant tribe hundreds of miles away, the narrative itself only accounts for about a third of the book. The other two thirds consist of what you would find in an ethnographic fieldbook: social structure, marriage rites, recipes, stories, poems, and descriptions of how the Kesh conduct their day-to-day lives.

When I first started reading, the structure seemed a little off-putting as there isn't the kind of straightforward narrative flow one expects from a novel, but the deeper into the book I got, the more engrossed I became and when I finished the last page I put the book down, realizing I had just read a novel! I have since re-read it twice and each time the book seems utterly new to me, even though I know the shape and the arc of the "story."

When it was published in 1985, it was hailed and reviled; hailed because those that saw through to LeGuin's intent and dexterous construction, saw in the volume what I did, and some even welcomed her as one of the few crossover SFF writers to REAL LITERATURE. Reviled because it seemed like LeGuin was shaking her feminist-leaning finger at those who slaughtered the tribes and make people of European descent feel shame and guilt, though they had nothing to do with it.

I won't deny it's cryptic, but the untangling is the reader's craft, n'est-ce pas?
Profile Image for Blue.
50 reviews25 followers
Currently reading
June 7, 2019
a long, long time from now, in the valleys of what will no longer be called northern California, might be going to have lived a people called kesh. this is their stories, poems, songs..
Profile Image for Kelly Lynn Thomas.
810 reviews19 followers
March 9, 2012
Read for my Ecofem lit class. I don't have a Bible, but if I did, it would be this book. In it, Le Guin explores an "archaeology of the future" through her character/alter ego Pandora, who studies the Kesh people of California. The book, therefore, contains life stories, information on Kesh culture, practices, medicine, etc., recipes, poems, Kesh literature, plays, a glossary, pictures, music (the first edition came with a cassette tape and you can buy the CD from the website), etc.

I read this in an ecofeminist way, since themes of pollution and genetic mutation run throughout the text, and the longest story in the book clearly deals with issues of feminism and theology (our current culture/ideology vs. that of the Kesh), but you could also do a Marxist or a postcolonialist reading, or just a straight feminist reading. There's so much STUFF in here that I imagine you could write several volumes of analysis. The book is structured around a hinge spiral, which is also the way the Kesh structure their society and provides their primary sacred motif. This image permeates everything--at one point in the text, the words themselves form the hinge. Not only is it brilliant and new, it's absolutely beautiful.

On a more practical note, I think the Kesh give us an alternate way to live. This book came out in the 1980s, but many of the ideas of the current "green" movement are clear within it. I love the way the Kesh call all creatures people, and differentiate by species: dog people, deer people, human people, etc. I love the way they view the sacred, and I love the way they've built their society around the hinge spiral. I was uncomfortable with the way the Kesh don't keep literature around. Certain books and works of great importance they do, and literature and literacy is of utmost to them, but no Kesh would have a room full of books like many of us do (they do have public libraries). The reason, of course, is that they are not materialistic and are okay with words "dying". The Kesh support their artists and writers, so no writer would slave away alone, starving or struggling, for years, working on a novel only to have it removed from a library after a few years. And everyone wrote poems or improvisational oral poetry. I can, of course, see the value of this attitude, and imagine that if I didn't have to work hard to find time and money to write, I might be fine with adopting it. But it does bring up an interesting idea of word hoarding or book hoarding and being crushed by all the words and knowledge and things we've written...
Profile Image for Cosmic Paula.
163 reviews9 followers
November 19, 2019
Qué grande fue esta mujer y que injusto que no tenga el peso que merece. Esta obra es una maravilla de principio a fin donde su amor por la antropología, patente en la mayoría de sus obras, es llevado al extremo construyendo una sociedad que personalmente quiero conocer, saber más de ella y que pese a sus casi 800 páginas me ha sabido a poco. Es ficción, pero podría ser un estudio antropológico perfectamente ya que la autora juega con una existencia real al dotar a la novela con todo tipo de resto documental.

La historia de la cultura Kesh es transmitida por una narradora que interviene de vez en cuando con el lector para contarnos puntos de vista, aclararnos algo o simplemente para expresar una idea o pensamiento que nace durante el relato. Pandora, nos presenta a este pueblo de la mano de Piedra Parlante mediante tres capítulos que narran su viaje interior exterior y que se alternan con documentación sobre la cultura Kesh, las gentes del Valle. En estas notas documentales Le Guin nos muestra desde el territorio y el clima, los animales, las tradiciones, la importancia de lo comunitario y el vínculo de la naturaleza, la filosofía, etc. A una lengua que introduce mediante apreciaciones ya notaciones y un completo glosario.

Es una obra compleja, que hay que leer con calma, de poco en poco para poder disfrutar de todo lo que la autora creo en su maravillosa mente. El valle, la cultura Kesh te atrapa, no son suficientes esas 800 páginas. Me río yo de Wordbuildings tan aclamados y no me imagino lo que hubiese dado de sí esta ficción antropológica si Le Guin hubiese decidido convertirla en una saga novelizada.

Por soñar...

Os la recomiendo muchísimo, pero en esa época que sepáis que vais a poder dedicarle tiempo, no es algo para leer con prisa.

Profile Image for Ed.
464 reviews13 followers
July 21, 2021
Ursula Le Guin, I am so, so sorry. What you have achieved here is undoubtedly a masterpiece of literary and anthropological invention; crafting an entire civilization and culture from scratch. Not just the story of one or two people living in a society, but everyone; fathers, mothers, children and grandparents, all professions, religious rites and walks of life and how they intertwine, and interact with the natural landscape around them. And more importantly their stories; how would the lives, works and homes of these peope influence the kind of stories they told, and how they told them? You've examined this in great detail and presented it all for us here, and it is for sure impressive.

But it's also just kind of boring. I'm so sorry, I tried so hard to get engaged with the stories; I really have been picking this book up and putting it down again for three months. But I just can't find myself connecting with fables and moral tales that I have absolutely no link to, that are just not grounded in anything real, or given anything to contrast against or be used for. And reading the logistics and detailed workings of a tribe that doesn't actually exist just feels sort of... pointless, when there's no central character or plot or conflict to engage with. It's empty.
8 reviews
September 13, 2012
This book is a work of genius. I think Le Guin may have here beaten Tolkien for large-scale, complex, and detailed world-building - and considering that Tolkien recorded some 3,000 years of fictional history and created a handful of fictional languages, that's saying a lot.

It should be noted that this, like Tolkien's denser stuff, is not an easy read. There isn't really much of a plot, and I was often about to put the book down because I was so bored. Even if you like Tolkien's History of Middle Earth, you quite possibly won't like this: Tolkien focuses on history (and military and political history in particular) while Le Guin here focuses on sociology and anthropology.

If you're completely all right with a brilliant social and anthropological description of culture that does not yet exist, this is likely the book for you. If that sounds even the slightest bit boring, however, stay away, because the actual 'novel' portion of the book is only about a quarter of its contents.
Profile Image for John.
208 reviews26 followers
December 22, 2011
Napa Valley would be one of the most beautiful places on Earth were it not for its people. Those leave a bitter taste, akin, I'm sure, to the sense of a sideways glance at a designer bag you no longer desire. Ursula K. Le Guin fixes this problem with golden descriptive powers and by removing the ugliest part of the place - its current residents. It's hard to express how much a revelation this is to me, as a current resident and outsider in this place of status and palate and terroir and superfluous French words and Italian Kabbalah. The only word I ever come to is "iniquity" and this imaginative correction feels gorgeous to me.
Profile Image for Gülay Akbal.
589 reviews16 followers
September 26, 2016
LeGuin kitapları okumak zordur. Hep Yuvaya Dönmek de bir o kadar zor bir kitaptı. Elimde bu kadar uzaması tamamen benden kaynaklı. 4 yıldız vermem kitaptan değil benim istediğim gibi okuyamamam dan kaynaklı. Siz siz olun vakti gelmeden bazı kitapları okumayın :)
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