I’ve had a previously undeclared quest over the past few years to read as much Ursula K Le Guin as I can. Her more well known and recent works–like Earthsea and Annals of the Western Shore–are old friends, but she wrote a lot more. A number of those earlier and more forgotten works are now being reissued, which helps except that it also fills me with rage that these seminal books from a giant figure in SFF are just now being republished after her death.. (I have a lot to say about a system which ignores women writers while they live and rewards them with posthumous praise, which allows them in only when they’re writing in “approved” genres and then slams those genres as immature and less important, #ursulashouldhaveanobel, Joanna Russ was right. Read and recognize women writers.)
SO. I am both really sad at the circumstances and glad to have finally read Always Coming Home. It’s a strange book, a book that’s almost all un-narrative. I called it a book of worldbuilding on Twitter by which I meant that it’s the kind of work SFF writers usually do invisibly to create a world which they then write a narrative in, work which remains largely hidden but without which the world doesn’t come alive. Here, this work makes up most of the book. I didn’t realize until just now that this almost exactly the description of “women’s work” but having realized it, I can’t stop thinking about it.
Le Guin calls Always Coming Home an “archaeology of the future”–a record of the daily life, beliefs, and practices of a people who live in some version of a future California. It’s an idea which I think was important to her understanding of the book and structuring of it. But it made me uneasy, because archaeology is such a fraught and political field, which has often been used in the service of western colonialism and white supremacy. And I don’t know that Le Guin ever fully grapples with the implications of setting her project in that context. If anyone knows of perspectives from Native critics on this, I want to read them.
That unease is real and I don’t want to just lay it down and say that this book is great regardless. But I will say that Always Coming Home succeeds far better than it has any right to. The narrative form is deliberately challenging and asks us to set aside our notions of what a book should be. It asks us to set aside our understanding of books themselves. As one of the Kesh people says, “Books are mortal. They die. A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.” I said on Twitter that one of Le Guin’s great gifts is the ability to unsettle and force the reader out of our comfortable patterns of thought. I don’t always agree with her–in fact I often disagree–but I’m always enriched by doing so.
One of her other great gifts is the strength of her language. There’s a way that she wrote which holds so much emotional density and complexity of meaning in a few words. It’s not simply that she was good at stringing words together in a nice-sounding sentence. It’s that she uses these nice-sounding sentences sparingly and effectively, so that they hold more meaning and more emotion than they otherwise would. I can’t really describe this in technical writing terms, but as a reader I feel it every time.
Perhaps my least favorite parts of the book are the moments when the compiler, the archaeologist, herself speaks. These are all titled “Pandora” and I found them distracting from the main sections of the book, and the places where the archaeology aspect of the project was most troubling. The one exception is the section where Pandora talks with one of the Kesh people about about information, and the flawed systems we have in place for access to it.
Because this book is very long and very rich, I could talk about a lot more. But instead, I will just quote part of one of the poems in the book, meant as an initiation song for the people who leave the Valley that is their home and go out into the wider world.
“Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.”
“Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.”
Previously, on By Singing Light:
Recovery Reading: non-mysteries (2018)
The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier (2016)
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (2015)
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (2014)
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott (2011)