Ursula Le Guin published Always Coming Home in 1980. It was, from an experimental writer and a leading voice in speculative fiction and feminism, an experiment. It was Le Guin, the “anthropologist’s daughter” (as she sometimes named herself) playing with anthropology, and creating a “future ethnography.” Certainly she had already done that with many, many of her books, but in Always Coming Home the thread, the stitches that make a community were her first interest; the stories, the songs, the poetry. If I remember rightly, there wasn’t even much of a story in terms of a plot and a through-story until the second half, or maybe the final third, of the book. The “back of the book” contained “scholarly” essays on the life of the Kesh; “What they Ate,” What They Wore.”
I bought mine as soon as it came out, and it had a cassette (yes, a cassette) with it of the music and songs of the Kesh, created by Le Guin with a composer named Tom. Courtesy of Le Guin, here is a free preview of one of the songs (no, it isn’t in English).
I don’t think Always Coming Home was a best-seller, and I don’t think Le Guin cared. I think it did what she wanted it to do. It wasn’t a favorite of mine although I appreciated it technically. I heard Le Guin speak at Diablo Valley College in Marin County, and she read from it, and then a funny thing happened.
I used to go up to Oregon quite a lot in those days. I’d drive over St Helena and somehow get on 505 to I-5 and— oh, who cares, that’s not even the important part of the story. There was a place I’d drive through, a narrow, shallow valley. A creek twined through it, rippling with water in the spring, dried out to gravel and a meander of water-rounded stones in the summer. The grass, in summer, was the color of caramel. There were madrone trees and oak trees on the hills, and sometimes I’d see a family of deer dosing in the shade, their oval ears, like flower petals, turned toward the road. When I’d drive this stretch, I’d hear a voice in my head say, “Be… always coming home.” It was Le Guin’s voice.
Le Guin was an inventive story-teller, a curious scientist, a brave and compassionate feminist and an inspiring teacher. She epitomized, for me, science fiction; the taking of a Big Question (or even just a “what if?”) and crafting a story with real people around the question. In Left Hand of Darkness, for instance, the question might be, “Just what’s the big deal with gender anyway?” although another question that underpins that book could be, “Why do we find control so attractive?” At the heart of her work was always an exploration of the nature of community. As a writer, Le Guin carried home with her, and she was always coming home.
Le Guin’s what-ifs didn’t assume that colonization was the natural order; that war was the resting state of humanity or that that capitalism was the default. Her books weren’t westerns in space or war stories in space (although there certainly were wars). Her stories were about societies, economics, and power structures, real things, the things conventional space opera was ignoring as a given. Nothing was off the table for Le Guin. There was not a thing that could not be questioned, explored, or put under a microscope of diligent, questioning fiction.
Her “philosophical statement” (or, as I like to call it, short story) “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas” asks a simple question, and answers it in a away that does not let any of us look away from the injustice of a society that lets one group suffer to provide for the happiness and well-being of others. To put this another way, watch Jordan Peele’s brilliant movie Get Out, and then re-read this story.
As the decades went on, it was entertaining and instructive to watch Le Guin wrestle with writing and philosophy, and her own work. At the time she wrote and published The Left Hand of Darkness, she was adamant that she would not make up some inclusive pronoun for the story. She said those were silly and made her twitch. In the opening pages of the book, the mono-gendered male narrator explains that he will use “he” because it’s available and it’s less specialized. In the past few years, Le Guin had stated in interviews and on her blog that she wished she had come up with a way to do that differently.
An aside: the narrator’s clinging to male nouns and pronouns when they are completely inadequate to discussing the culture he is visiting actually makes Le Guin’s basic point about rigid sex roles. Le Guin, however, grew as she watched and listened to the world around her.
She got into a famous spat with Kazuo Ishiguro when he worried publicly that his book The Buried Giant would not be read because it would be considered fantasy. Ishiguro was taking the same side of an argument Le Guin made often; fantasy is art and it can be the highest form of art; and it can be a vital tool to help people imagine a better world. Le Guin didn’t recognize that and sprang on him like a mother cat defending kittens, because she thought he was denigrating fantasy. Later, she gracefully and publicly apologized, stating she had misunderstood him. A good scientist, she could admit when she was wrong.
Better writers than me have talked about her legacy. Lately, I reread The Left Hand of Darkness, and a book of Le Guin’s essays. The detail, the observation, her love of nature, the things that spoke to me in Always Coming Home, shone through the essays about the house in which she grew up in Berkeley. The Kesh, the people of Always Coming Home, live in an area like the valley through which I used to drive, and Le Guin had been to those places, absorbed those places with a scientist’s eye and a writer’s discipline. And, I should say, a writer’s love.
I have to recommend Steering the Craft, her rewritten and reissued book on the craft of writing. This is for writers at any stage of development. You need her voice and her encouragement.
But how, if we go out into the world to question, to help, to learn, can we be always coming home? Home, community, is something that Le Guin’s character carry inside them, in their memories, their hearts, their spirit.
Ursula Le Guin, wherever the energy of you currently resides, wherever your subatomic particles have migrated, wherever your spirit rests, we hold your legacy and we share your words and we thank you. For us, you will be always coming home.