Ursula LeGuin





University of California Press, 1985
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Science Fiction, Anthropology

On the first page of ALWAYS COMING HOME, the author tells us that the tribe of the Kesh has never existed. The publisher helpfully labeled the front cover for us with the words "California Fiction." On the back is a quote from a reviewer who tells us the book is a novel. All of this is necessary. Without it we might think that we were reading a true anthropological study of some as-yet-unknown, idealized Native American culture. That is, assuming the anthropologist writer has an unusually beautiful command of language.

I can, with tweezers, pick out a thread of plot for you, but it is only a small part of the book. Stone Telling, whose parents are of two different cultures, feels out of place among the Kesh. She goes to live with her father’s people. She returns to the Kesh with a daughter, and becomes an essential member of the community. Actually, every Kesh is an essential member of their closely-knit community. We meet many of them in ways that are evocative but very brief, in their poetry and accounts of incidents in their lives. Combined with these are descriptions of the organization of their society, their activities and their relations with the outside world.

Ursula LeGuin spent many years devising this culture down to its finest detail, an extraordinary feat of imagination. To present us with the convincing aspects of the "study," she will have turned to the work of her father, a respected – and genuine – anthropologist; and for the satisfaction of her own dreams she turned to some inner inspiration. The Kesh culture is so consistent, with such a seamless fluidity, that it appears to have grown on some other plane and found itself a congenial outlet in LeGuin. She and the readers who share her dream will find the Kesh Valley to be a soothing refuge. In fact I would not be surprised if some readers adopted her world to tell their own stories.

The contrast with the world outside the Kesh Valley jars. It is not only the culture clash that causes this, but the lack of dimension. The outside world is gradually revealed to be "the villain." As LeGuin’s description goes, the people built a city and lost their souls. It does make an interesting story when one of the groups attempts to build airplanes and a military tank on this future Earth depleted of fuel and metals, but it does not contribute to our understanding of humanity. The author has a clear agenda: her aversion to Western civilization. In her "outside world" she sees only trickery and destruction, with those who dare to be human trapped by an evil system.

Ursula LeGuin’s THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Science Fiction Novel of 1969. This novel also created a civilization, but was notable for its in-depth exploration of individual relationships. ALWAYS COMING HOME touches on individuals only as they are needed to help create her culture. Because of its uninvolved, observational approach toward members of the Valley, and its scholarly detail, this book requires a dedicated reader.

The concept of ALWAYS COMING HOME as a novel in scientific form is highly inventive. One reviewer referred to this book as "daring." I would say that was too exciting a word; I would rather choose "brave," considering the limited audience it is likely to have. Once I started reading I would not have chosen to stop reading it, because there is always the possibility that some faultless phrase will momentarily open another door to a brightly lit dream world. I would not have chosen to read it in the first place, because I am neither an anthropology buff nor looking for a more natural lifestyle. Selected carefully, this reissue of a 1985 title will be the right book for the right reader.

May 2001 Review Originally Published on the Independent Reviews Site

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