Size / / /

Let there be a little country without many people. Let them have tools that do the work of ten or hundred and never use them. Let them be mindful of death and disinclined to long journeys. They’d have ships and carriages but no place to go. They’d have armor and weapons but no parades. Instead of writing they might go back to using knotted cords. They’d enjoy eating, take pleasure in clothes, be happy with their houses, devoted to their customs. The next little country might be so close people could hear cocks crowing and dogs barking there. But they get old and die without ever having been there.

—Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, as interpreted by Ursula K. Le Guin

Samuel R Delaney has Dhalgren, Vladimir Nabokov had Ada, or Ardor, and James Joyce had Finnegans Wake, or simply “the Wake,” as the true fans prefer. (Their funeral). Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin is another dense, late-career doorstop of a book considered in equal parts the summit of a life’s work and “one for the completists.” At 525 pages, including field notes, stories, maps, charts, poems, plays, histories, romances, interviews, and interpolated texts, all of which are housed in the front of the book, as well as a “Back of the Book” section, to house the sheet music, recipes, studies of flora and fauna, “generative metaphors,” the glossary, and a made-up alphabet with a guide to pronunciation, it’s easy to see Le Guin’s study of the Kesh people from the Valley of the Na, once the Napa Valley, as a folly, the work in which she gave into the temptation of all science fiction and fantasy writers—that of pedantic world-building, a sort of “map = territory” madness. Like many a masterwork that came before, the book is a storehouse of the author’s themes. But the one thing you couldn’t accuse it of is that classic combination of authorial self-indulgence and apathy towards the reader. (For one, Le Guin pointed out you don’t have to read her book front to back; approach it however you like.) Always Coming Home isn’t one of those masterworks that heaves through our culture like the spaceship Rama, to be explored but never understood by the puny humans who crawl across its unfeeling surface. With Le Guin, the door home is open, if you know the way.

In the Foreword to Tales from Earthsea, she explained:

“[t]he way one does research into nonexistent history is to tell the story and find out what happened. I believe this isn’t very different from what historians of the so-called real world do… When you construct or reconstruct a world that never existed, a wholly fictional history, the research is of a somewhat different order, but the basic impulse and techniques are much the same. You look at what happens and try to see why it happens, you listen to what the people there tell you and watch what they do, you think about it seriously, and you try to tell it honestly, so that the story might have weight and make sense.”

Le Guin had that impulse towards, and desire for, plausible worldbuilding; as a critic, she could be annoyed by the unjustified presence of coffee in a story set after ecological collapse, betraying to her a lack of seriousness on the author’s part. (Or, as the title goes for her late nonfiction collection: Dreams Must Explain Themselves.) How much sense a fictional world makes, how much weight it has doesn’t have to come from a VR-style fidelity to sense experience—“Try the snozzberries! They taste like snozzberries!” It can also come from the complexity with which the fictional world’s been made, and how complex that complexity is. (Imagine God’s spreadsheets.) In this way, a book mirrors in miniature the complexity of the so-called real world.

Always Coming Home is on a page-by-page level dense with patterned information about the Kesh, their society, and their Valley in far-future former California—not just information, then, but meaning. As well as using the forms listed above, Le Guin wove them into each other, a sort of inter-intra-textuality, so that a technical description of occult kettledrums (occult because kept underground) links up with the emotional role played by their “heartbeat rhythm without break from sunrise to sunset” during the Kesh’s communal death-dance ceremony called the World. In the life story of a burgeoning Kesh spiritual visionary called Flicker, she cries out the Gauguinian lines from a play we’ve read fifty pages earlier called Chandi: “What am I here for? What was I born for?” (Comforting to see people in the future still defining their anguish through pop culture references.) Any large book might have these kind of callbacks, but for Le Guin, they gave her the opportunity to offer shifting perspectives on the book’s features. We read about the Kesh lodges for the handling of violence in their world—the female Blood Lodge and the male Warrior Lodge (our closest analogues would be butchers and militia, though it’s more complicated than that); about how these lodges kept their practices occult and hieratic because of the inherent danger of violence to the soul; then hundreds of pages later we read how these lodges were disbanded for that very occultism itself turned dangerous. 

If Le Guin made Always Coming Home so complexly complex in order to make the world of the Kesh substantial and coherent, was there any reason for that, beyond verisimilitude? The maps, the detailed descriptions of foreign customs, a traveller from our world talking to the locals about their more easeful life, a glimpse of a drowned skyscraper, a mention of “the Old Straight Road”: these are also the familiar trappings of post-apocalyptic, utopian literature. Societies portrayed in utopian literature could be seen as the ultimate expression of the science fiction and fantasy trend for worldbuilding and escapism. How much better Infinite Fun Space would be than the boring finitude of our daily lives. Maybe Always Coming Home was Le Guin’s attempt to create, as best as is possible in written form, a plausible world—but to a political end: a highly effective propaganda for another way of life, effective because attractive, too. But, to put it in Kesh terms, if Always Coming Home wants the reader to escape anywhere, it’s not out of the world but into it.

There is another world. There is a better world. Well, there must be.

Utopian books fall somewhere on the following spectrum. At one end is the straight description of an alternative society, structured by category: customs, landscape, institutions, a kind of ethnography crossed with tourist brochure, but little or nothing in the way of narrative. Think Thomas More’s patchily egalitarian, serf-and-turf island Utopia (or Plato’s Republic, likely only hospitable to YouTube logic guys). Further along are books like William Morris’s socialist future in News from Nowhere, in which there are rudiments of narrative (a love story, for one) but where the visitor narrator is largely a device to be expositioned at, as he travels a society as bland as it is distantly admirable. Later on, we get books like Aldous Huxley’s Island, a work written with the express purpose of marrying the didactic with the ordinary pleasures of a novel, a purpose Huxley remained unsure whether he pulled off. One of the two great examples of succeeding where Huxley struggled is Le Guin’s own The Dispossessed.

Her solution in that book was to give the protagonist Shevek two storylines; the first from adulthood when he leaves his anarchist moon, Anarres, to when he returns there from capitalist parent planet Urras (as in ‘Ur’ text); the second storyline runs from his childhood on Anarres up until his decision in adulthood to leave it; the two storylines alternate chapter by chapter, then merge in the final one. Shevek doesn’t wash up on an island shore or wake up magically transported to another time. He decides to leave, and we read why: his home society is stagnating, and he can only complete his scientific work in his home’s antithesis; and he plays a part in saving both. His story is the commentary on both, not just a vehicle for it.

With Always Coming Home, Le Guin went back to this favourite device of hers, which she’d used throughout her career: the protagonist as cultural exchange student. In the same way sceptical male Genly Ai travels the genderfluid world of Winter in The Left Hand of Darkness, the protagonist of the longest story in Always Coming Home, Stone Telling, is a girl of the peaceable, leaderless Valley of the Na who follows her foreigner “Condor” father to his martial, hierarchical city. But the story is only about a fifth of the book. If Le Guin had once dodged the trap of utopian literature and written a novel as instructive as it was delightful, then why does her second foray into almost-utopia feature narrative as only one of its many elements? Is it really true she was nonetheless able, in the words of the London Evening Standard, to “write about a Utopia without making it sound bland or impossible”?

Le Guin was aware she’d written ambiguous utopias before, in The Dispossessed, but more compactly in short stories like “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” In fact, The Dispossessed contained the seeds of Always Coming Home: when we read in the latter that “the image of the other’s pain is the center of being human,” we hear an echo of the speech Shevek gives to the Urras rebels about individuated suffering being paradoxically what unites people. She explained once in an interview that The Dispossessed originally had twelve chapters, till a Marxist friend chided her that this number made a complete circle whereas a thirteenth chapter would keep the book open, keep freedom and possibility open (i.e. the entire theme of the book). The central symbol of the Kesh is the heyiya-if, a two-armed spiral, the arms not touching, both arms incoming and outgoing. The antithesis of this symbol is the circle: Stone Telling regrets her adolescent bouts of “walking the circle of anger”; earlier in the book in a short history, we read about the way “hating gets going, it goes round, it gets older and tighter and older and tighter, until it holds a person inside like a fist holds a stick.” But Always Coming Home is also a reply to The Dispossessed. Famously, The Dispossessed begins with a wall, the one around the Anarres spaceport, the single location that joins/separates it symbolically and emotionally from Urras, if not physically. But “[w]hat on earth did they need a wall for?” Le Guin wrote in the opening of Always Coming Home. “What I had taken for the gate was the bridge across the meeting of creeks.” (Further on, she’d write about herself, “persisting in several blockheaded opinions—that [the Kesh town] must be walled, with one gate for instance.”) Her second utopia doesn’t repudiate the first, but she at least had little intention to write The Dispossessed 2 (or: The Repossessed).

She had, though, been building towards Always Coming Home her whole career. All the Kesh festivals are dances—(“They dance their lives”)—which mostly take place in the common ground or empty hinge of their “heyiya-if”-structured towns. But the first time we read about these dances was in the Earthsea book The Farthest Shore from a decade previous: “The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.” And we rediscover the egoless, globe-spanning, omnidirectional consciousness of the plant-planet in her story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow” when we read in Always Coming Home a meditation on a chaparral plant, “but what about all the shadows of all the other leaves on all other branches on all the other scrub oaks on all the other ridges of all the wilderness? If you could imagine those even for a moment, what good would it do? Infinite good.” The protagonist of her early novel City of Illusions shelters with a pastoral people in a future North America who base their culture on the Tao Te Ching, as translated by one Ursula Le Guin …

But Le Guin didn’t set Always Coming Home on that Terra, or even on any of the other far-flung but nonetheless admonitory planets of the galaxy-spanning Ekumen in her Hainish sequence of novels. Nor did she set it in the past, despite the Kesh’s low-tech ways, nor in a new, completely fantasy realm. This time she was acting as a self-professed “archeologist of the future”—our future. Her focus narrowed back home; and the instructive element of the book strengthens accordingly. And though she reused the cultural exchange device in the book, she didn’t repeat herself so much as best herself.

The Kesh alphabet.

There and back again

Unlike Huxley’s Island, with its literally washed-up cynic on the shores of enlightened Pala, the culture exchange device in Always Coming Home doesn’t only get us to compare our world with the one depicted. The comparisons are internal as well. Le Guin split Stone Telling’s story of her time with the Condor into three parts. Before we and Stone Telling reach her destination, we read, among other things, two shorter stories of Kesh encounters with other peoples and ways of life. The first, “A War with the Pig People,” is the guilt-stricken account of a deadly, adolescent conflict with a neighbouring tribe over hunting territory. Though in the Kesh’s eyes the Pig People don’t come out looking well—a note dryly explains how “[they] went rather too far in identifying themselves as Farrows of the Great Sow”—it’s their own people who made the Kesh ashamed: “It is appropriate for children to fight,” writes a commentator on the story, “not having learned yet how to be mindful, and not yet being strong.” (The word “strong” it not accidental; it’s the name of the young warrior who submitted the initial account.) Contrasting with this is the story “The Trouble with the Cotton People,” which is about a more peaceable, if cunning, conflict resolution with some other neighbours, ones who are so ashamed to admit a bad harvest that they defraud the Kesh.

By putting these two stories before the second and third parts of the “Stone Telling” story Le Guin taught us that the Kesh, though introverted, are not hostile to foreigners. So before we reach the city of the Condor, we understand that people like Stone Telling can tolerate and deal with most other peoples and ways of life. Hence we understand that her horror at, contamination by, and eventual escape from the Condor doesn’t at least come out of “the prejudice of the householder against the nomad.” Nor should ours.

Once we reach Condor or “Dayao” society, The Dispossessed-style device of extreme contrast comes into force. The Kesh that Stone Telling left behind have no leader or central authority, and get along fine, a feature so mundane to them that the lack of emphasis put on it by the book becomes the very thing that highlights and makes it strange for the reader; but when Stone Telling encounters the Condor she learns that for them “everything was done because there was a law to do it or not do it, or an order to do it or not do it. And if something went wrong it seemed never to be the orders, but the people who obeyed them, that got blamed.” Stone Telling’s people dislike superstition, yet live in and through a massively complex ideological superstructure which is best thought of as “a working metaphor.” Through her powerful father Stone Telling gravitates towards the Condor ruling class, and learns they’re exclusivist monotheists who believe in a delivering messiah and the end of the world. The Kesh are a matrilineal society, and though not matriarchal, inasmuch as they have no leaders, they combine marriage with ritualised “free love,” and have no word for bachelor or spinster. Stone Telling is married off to a Condor man and experiences how omnivorously misogynist their society is: veiled, high-class women can’t even look at their patriarch leader lest they pollute him with their eyes; the men rape the women and the women of the other peoples they conquer. The Kesh see all life as “people”—an ecological egalitarianism which nonetheless incorporates the abyss between individuals and species. The Condor think they are the only people, and that everybody else from their slaves on down are animals. The Kesh are so wary of violence that Stone Telling is almost debilitated by the thought that she might have put the accomplices of her escape in mortal danger. The Condors are so violently imperialistic that Stone Telling describes their men as “intent to kill all that they could kill, and the women to praise them for it.” For the Kesh, land is communal, and though personal property exists it does so in a constant gift exchange. For the Condor, land itself can be owned, so foreign a concept to Stone Telling that when she learns about private property from her father, she “could not imagine what he meant, how he had won an enormous piece of the world like that, or who he had won it from, or what use it was to him.” But it’s with Stone Telling’s father that we also get one of those Le Guinian complications within complications that illustrate her at her best. The father, a man who the Kesh name “Kills,” is the archetypal good bad man, who helps his daughter escape: the seed of the good in the heart of the “sick” Condor. In turn, the daughter concludes that “it is easy to say that [their] customs are barbaric, but then what has one said? Having lived in civilisation, in the City of Man, I do not use those words, civilised, barbaric; I do not know what they mean.”

Thou mayest

Though Always Coming Home avoids superiority—“Like and different are quickening words brooding and hatching / Better and worse are egg-sucking words, they leave only the shell” says a Kesh aphorism—though the book avoids the bold claims other utopian literature makes about sanctified post-historical humans (who zestily eat their gruel and thrill at the productive use their sinews are put to) the society of the Kesh is minimally attractive. After all, a possible world that was some horror-planet to everybody but a single person, like some kind of reverse “Omelas,” you couldn’t exactly describe as utopian, even if you added quasi- or crypto- or whichever ambivalent prefix you prefer to that descriptor.

Homicidal and sexual violence, within the Valley, if not the City of Man, have been relegated to ghost stories and defamatory satires. The rumour that men gang up on women during the Kesh ritualised ceremony of sexual licence called the Moon dance is dismissed by the book as a romantic male fantasy. A Kesh poem, “The Third Child Story,” describes a young man who “split the belly” of another, ignored people when they told him a girl was “too young,” and who in turn accused young girls of “pestering” him and “making” him have sex with them. The book notes, however, that the accusations might be “a vengeful biography pretending to be autobiography; or may be pure fiction.” Nevertheless, what distinguishes Always Coming Home from other utopian literature before it, is how modest its claims to the good life are. In no way have the Kesh eradicated—nor would they try—violence, suffering, illness, death, grief, heartbreak, existential anguish: these are facts of life, in fact, themes of life.

This modesty comes from how provisional Le Guin presented the Kesh society as being, how everything depends on chance and choice. One thing that distinguishes Always Coming Home as utopian is the lack of world-state or kindly AI god or neuropharmacological coercion thought necessary to harass the population into paradisal order. The Kesh have no police or prisons, no private property or big government. Nearly everyone works, without anyone being compelled to. Nearly everyone shares, and are thought poor if they don’t. (“The relation of our words miser and misery, miserable,” Le Guin wrote, “shows that the Kesh view has not always been foreign to us.” Take the Piaroa people.) What control there exists is applied without violence or laws but through community approval and disapproval.

The lack of compulsion exists down to the level of customs (not “traditions,” as the Lao Tzu in the opening quote is usually translated). Again and again, Le Guin used the word “may”; when describing a ritual song ‘the four/five heya’ she wrote that “it may be sung four times, or five times, or nine times, or as many as you like, or not at all.” There are no Kesh missionaries or revolutionaries. “Introverted but cooperative,” they are far from evangelists about their ways. All of which makes the Valley seem less a paradise, and more a pocket of reasonableness, and hence all the more attractive and precious for it.

It always ends the same

The effect of the cultural exchange device goes beyond making Kesh society look so much more reasonable and attractive by comparison to the Condor, or hinting how much more like the Condor than the Kesh we ourselves are. Thomas More’s Utopia wasn’t across the sea from Dystopia; but Le Guin filled the wider landscape in which the Kesh live with their negation, their contradiction, and, as it might turn out to be, their doom. But this isn’t a fatal flaw. “What we call strength it calls sickness; what we call success it calls death,” as Stone Telling writes on how the Condor view her people. Le Guin continually emphasised how the Kesh way of life is not the final horizon, their Valley not a perfect city destined to last forever because of how good it is—instead it is totally contingent. In doing so, in writing a kind of anti-utopian-literature (as opposed to anti-utopian literature), she surpassed what’d come before.

In the conclusion of the Stone Telling story, the Condor plan to conquer the Kesh by accessing the City of Mind, a machine network that shares Earth with humans, provides information when requested, but otherwise does not take sides. The Condor leader, the only one allowed to access the City of Mind at one of its Exchanges, downloads plans for the manufacture of tanks and planes. These work with limited success; mainly they crash and malfunction, and so the conquest fails. Some have criticised this as a deus ex machina rescue, though Le Guin guessed that it was more the lack of fossil fuels in the depleted world of the future, its small introverted populations, and a restricted use of the Exchange by the Condors as opposed to the free sharing of information by their prospective colonies, that made any empire-making implausible and liable to be outfoxed.

Nevertheless, she’d been openly interventionist as an author—open that she’d invented this world, and so was responsible for it. She even had the guilt of the world-builder and potential world-ender: “If they burn, it will be all of us that burned it down.” But she wouldn’t burn it down on the page just for our apocalyptic, cynical pleasure. Though she was in the short-term optimistic, the risk to the Kesh way of life remained present, even if like the impending military invasion of Pala in Huxley’s Island, the author was too kind to show it.

But she did show us how the Kesh might fall. Their society reverses expectations about gender roles, but even this has ossified into occasional, subtle, anti-male sexism. In the story of Flicker the Visionary, Flicker describes how her female mentor “thought a man’s place was in the woods and fields and workshops, not among sacred and intellectual things … ‘A man fucks with his brain and thinks with his penis.’” Even though the Condor’s empire was ultimately a damp squib, Stone Telling’s story is followed by a debate among the Kesh, some of whom have been infected by the attempted colonisers' ways and lost their own. These young men decide to leave their harmonious, supposedly fulfilling way of life for the more earthy goals of war and pillage with the Condor.

Nothing is guaranteed, certainly not happiness. A text called “The Dog at the Door” recounts a dialogue had in a vision: “‘Must all things end?’ / The answer was: ‘They must end.’ / ‘Must my town fall?’ / ‘It’s falling now.’ / ‘Must the dances be forgotten.’ / ‘They are forgotten.’” Since ‘utopia’ means both good place and no place, the no place element for Always Coming Home is provided by the inevitable end of the Kesh. But an end as part of the flux of existence, which the Kesh venerate: a flux that means not only impermanence but return. “The Dog at the Door” dialogue continues: “‘Is the world at its end?’ / The answer was: ‘There is no end.’ / ‘My town is being destroyed!’ / ‘It is being built.’ / ‘I must die and forget all I have known!’ / ‘Remember.’”

Music and Poetry of the Kesh, the 1985 collaboration based on Always Coming Home between Ursula K. Le Guin and electronic musician Todd Barton.

The peace of plenty and content, or the peace of unburied dead

One of the largest and maybe most uncomfortable reversals for us and for our expectations of utopian literature is that Le Guin made the Kesh not even post-industrial; they are a-industrial, and by choice. The Kesh’s use of complex technology doesn’t extend past light textile manufacture, one wooden train shared with other tribes, some electric heaters, and solar power units. They do have engineers, called Millers, who along with the Finders—our closest analogue to which would be explorer-researchers—are “professions [that] contained an element of moral risk,” socially looked-down upon as much as they are thought “dangerously attractive.”

Le Guin didn’t ever specify the nature of the apocalypse that preceded the Kesh, though there are multiple references to some kind of tech-related, ecological collapse and maybe even nuclear conflagration: the visionary Flicker sees a Hephaestus-like miller, “making wheels of energy” which “kept growing and joining until the whole machine was interlocked cog within cog, and strained, and brightened, and burst into pieces. Every wheel as it burst was a flare of faces and eyes and flowers and beast on fire, burning, exploding, destroyed, falling into black dust.” The people that climbed out of that black dust have little sympathy for scientism and Theories of Everything—“We have to learn what we can, but remain mindful that our knowledge not close the circle, closing out the void, so that we forget that what we do not know remains boundless, without limit or bottom, and that what we know may have to share the quality of being known with what denies it.” This attitude stems from the value they place on the concrete and so incomplete, as opposed to the abstract and purely cerebral. “Nothing we do is better than the work of handmind,” Stone Telling writes. “When mind uses itself without the hands it runs the circle and may go too fast … Purity is on the edge of evil, they say.”

Does this make the Kesh and the book Luddite? Le Guin responded to the charge, via her note on the translation of the Tao Te Ching chapter that inspired Always Coming Home, which chapter she pointedly titled ‘Freedom’:

“To dismiss this Utopia as simply regressivist or anti-technological is to miss an interesting point. These people have labor-saving machinery, ships and land vehicles, weapons of offense and defense. They ‘have them and don’t use them.’ I interpret: they aren’t used by them. We’re used, our lives are shaped and controlled, by our machines, cars, planes, weaponry, bulldozers, computers. These Taoists don’t surrender their power to their creations.”

Surrender their power! The frame of our own debate, in which killjoy anti-tech smarmy sentimentality is pitted against modern pro-tech joie de vivre, is another nonsense. The point isn’t that there are better, earthier, realer things to spend our attention on. It’s that we are giving away our power and freedom, desperately. Kurt Vonnegut said that television would be for us what lead water pipes were for the Romans. In this gold-plated era of television, maybe it's our version of the City of Mind that plays the toxic role.

Le Guin’s genius in Always Coming Home was how she depicted the machines that remained: through the City of Mind. In her future, something like the Singularity happened already. AI exists in the form of a globe-spanning, spacefaring network of computers. This City of Mind coexists with the humans in a relationship almost devoid of mutual interest. But should they want it, available for them at the City via the Exchanges are all scientific discoveries so far. (The Web 1.0 of the Exchange is also the humans' only real, minor telecoms with one another.) ‘Pure research’, the conquest of knowledge, technological progress has been left to the techs. And so Le Guin solved the And Then What? problem of scientific and tech-heavy utopias. Say we all become godlike AI-human cyborgs. And then what? Le Guin threw down the City of Mind concept as a challenge to the genre. If science is truly disinterested, is ideally free of ego or human ambition, then once as-good-as-omniscience is available from the City, then, little man, what now?

Scaring the Whigs in the back, Always Coming Home is actively against progress, though not for regress or stagnation either:

“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 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?”

Because the Kesh are as a-teleological as they are a-technological. Though the neighbouring Pig People have myths of the Great Sow, and the Condor are messianic, the Kesh have no grand narratives, and yet (and hence) are all the more flourishing, an idea so counterintuitive to us, we’d dismiss it as postmodern relativism or nihilist. (Though some Kesh have begun to dismiss the idea as well. “We are not insects, we are human people. We serve a higher purpose,” one young warrior complains after the Condor encounter. His neighbour dissents in turn: “That’s a mouth on the back of a head talking! ‘I serve, I eat shit,’ that’s Big Man saying, ‘I’m better than anything else, I’ll live forever, everything else is shit!’”)

“O what we ben! And what we come to!”

In her ethnographer guise “Pandora,” Le Guin asked, “Am I not a daughter of the people who enslaved and extirpated the peoples of three continents? Am I not a sister of Adolf Hitler and Anne Frank? Am I not a citizen of the State that fought the first nuclear war? Have I not eaten, drunk, and breathed poison all my life, like the maggot that lives and breeds in shit? Do you take me for innocent, my fellow maggot, colluding reader?” Because like so many before, Le Guin grew her Jerusalem out of the corpses of the Apocalypse. She too redeemed a (fictional) apocalypse even if she wouldn’t, unlike others, show the gory details.

Le Guin left the apocalypse off-stage—narratively, as in many other novels, which start with lines like “The Year 36094 after the Big Whoops”; but also emotionally and thematically. Unlike the “Memorabilia” of books from our time that survived the Flame Deluge in A Canticle for Leibowitz, or the psychic furrows in the nuked Kent landscape for the protagonist to track in Riddley Walker, neither our world nor its end is agonisingly fawned over by the Kesh, or anyone else much. Dethroning assumptions about our civilisation’s importance, and upending our expectations for how post-apocalyptic books are written, our civilisation is barely remembered; Always Coming Home is an anti-post-apocalypse-novel, too. At most, Le Guin made our end just one among a series of apocalypses, described mystically in the “Four Beginnings” chapter, one of which Flicker sees during her psychic quest through Kesh cosmology that forms the hinge of the book and reads like a spectacular verbal Koyaanisqatsi: “That happened, and it was one flicker of brightness and dark black dust.” Our fall is not theirs, and certainly not their founding myth.

At most the Kesh think of our civilisation as a place outside time and the world. (How we ourselves think of the fifty millennia of fellow humans parcelled off in the label “prehistory.”) The Kesh era is so far ahead that they can provide us no firm dates. Not least since they don’t think of time in terms of numbers like we do: “Chronology is an essentially artificial, almost an arbitrary arrangement of events—an alphabet as opposed to a sentence.” A Kesh person doesn’t even perceive “time as a direction, let alone a progress, but as a landscape in which one may go any number of directions, or nowhere. He spatialises time; it is not an arrow, nor a river, but a house, the house he lives in.” (The best the Archivist can manage when Pandora asks her to date the world is let us infer the vast spans of time ourselves when she describes the millennia that separate two styles of architecture within her own society.)

Accordingly, Le Guin indulged in few references to the known past, few ruins of language or building. The Golden Gate Bridge is now a sea strait called the Gate (the Kesh tell ghost stories of old souls who live in houses under the sea who can inject themselves into the foetuses of paddling pregnant women). In the “Trouble with the Cotton People” story, the narrator describes what the reader infers is the top of a drowned skyscraper. Culture-wise, the Judeo-Christian God is only referred to in passing by the author/ethnographer when contrasted with the Kesh’s lack of gods, as Old Jealousy and Big Man (“He had nothing more to do with anything”). And although the Kesh do celebrate a winter festival called the Sun dance, with decorated trees and figures called Sun Clowns who are “supernaturally fat, and dressed in green, with … fanciful beards and whiskers” that “gave all kinds of little presents,” I’d hazard the Kesh would claim that Christmas and the Sun dance were both different windows on something more general and profound.

These references to the past are so few and far between in such a large book that they have the quality of magical interruption, an “oh yeah!” reminder and subsequent sense of dislocation and distemporality, a subtle bell-chime to the clanging gong of the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes. This matches the interrupting quality of whenever the book moves out of the Valley. (“He spatialises time.”) The home theme is so central, this deep localism, a connectedness not with all Mother Earth or the entire Na’vi biosphere, but something much more plausible and sympathetic and modest, extreme connectedness to a few hundred square miles, that when the book leaves the valley the half-a-dozen times that it does, you feel the pressure change, the foreignness, the separation from the warmly familiar.

Boring, boring, boring

By the innovations she came up with, Le Guin clearly knew about the dangers of writing utopias and apocalypses. In reaction to their smugly hectoring nature, she depicted Kesh society as ambiguously as she did complexly. What makes Always Coming Home attractive to even the sceptical reader are the implied question marks in the margins and squiggly lines under the various stories told and customs described. There’s a reason the ethnographer guise she adopted wasn’t named Prometheus or Promethea but Pandora. As Pandora, Le Guin told an Archivist from the Valley that she “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.”

Maybe it’s not too surprising that an author would give literature a special place in their future world, as Le Guin did through the Kesh’s “Oak Society,” a sort of guild for the art and craft of the written and printed word. But later in the book she critiqued what Milan Kundera once nicknamed our culture’s “graphomania”: “Perhaps not many of us could say why we save so many words, why our forests must all be cut to make paper to mark our words on… [W]e do it obsessively, as if afraid of something, as if compensating for something. Maybe we’re afraid of death.” Earlier she wrote that for the Kesh, “the idea of dying and being buried in foreign lands is black despair,” and that they would sometimes trek far abroad to bring back the bodies of valley people so they could be interred at home. But a sentence later Le Guin undercut the idea when she wrote how “the feat was spoken of with sympathy, but not with admiration; it was a bit excessive, a bit too heroic, for Valley approbation.” Before watching the bleak existential drama Chandi in which the main character will suffer the trials of Job and then some, the entirely unselfserious audience ironically yells, “May the day go well for you, Chandi!” As Flicker the visionary writes, “I had to live awhile before I understood that a lot of things can only be said joking and not joking.”

The self-awareness extended from Pandora the narrator to Le Guin the author and how she constructed her book. Pandora hasn’t come through a dimensional portal, and she isn’t a distant descendant of Le Guin. It’s just the author, regularly interrogating herself and her made-up world in dialogues with fictional characters and addresses to the reader—Always Coming Home is outward and inward facing, as befits a book whose central image is the two-armed “heyiya-if.” The book is not a found text, it doesn’t pretend it’s not what it is, “mere dream dreamed in a bad time,” as the Archivist says to Pandora, “an Up Yours to the people who ride snowmobiles, make nuclear weapons, and run prisons camps by a middle-aged housewife, a critique of civilisation possible only to the civilised, 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.” Via Pandora, the book shruggingly admits its artifice.

The multi-textual comprehensiveness of the book, its ethnography conceit, then, are not in the cause of realism: Le Guin organised the material in a different way than she would have if her goal had been to mimic a real ethnographic study. Nor is it meant as a book as the Kesh would’ve written one (they find many of the ethnographer/author’s interests and questions odd; as odd as we find the extract from a Kesh novel called Dangerous People). Nor is it just a mishmash, a fix-up compendium, even if much of the material appeared in magazines before the publication of the book. Its lay-out is specific: a poem about time leads to the philosophical “Time and the City” chapter; and Le Guin saved the bigger mind-dumps for the Back of the Book. So, as one behaviourist actress said to another, “What’s her motivation?”

The Way

Le Guin admitted that her pseudotopia was relatively stable only because of the artificial strictures she chose to place on it: she made the modern era poison the biosphere so epochally that even after the Kesh have by-and-large forgotten us, our residue survives us, in the forms of “fumo” balls of pollution, causing a high incident of stillbirths, infertility, mutation, with a related disapproval of large families; strictures which, however, give everyone more time and space. Le Guin proudly explained, “There are not too many of them,” making her Tao-anarchist society also an example of the covert Malthusianism of the pastorally and solitary-minded.

Once she’d fixed the parameters of time and space, and the possibilities this allowed the Kesh and herself, the easiest part of Always Coming Home for Le Guin was in describing or dramatising ways of life that seem to the reader eminently sensible. She made the Valley neither a place of earnest eco-asceticism nor a magical Land o’ Cakes: “heavy eating was considered embarrassing and gorging shameful, but greed could be satisfied more or less invisibly by casual but persistent snacking… the Kesh were not a thin people.” They are, though, a people with traditional-seeming gender-roles and family units; but Le Guin, as much as she could, made the family more horizontal: new children make a couple their parents rather than the other way round; along with a matter-of-fact presence of “women-living men,” there is marriage between the same; “goetsun” or “kinship by choice” is just as important a part of a person’s family life, meaning mutually adoptive, foster, step, or “side-parents.” Families are matrilocal: husbands move in with their wives—but the association is looser, with partners often living separately for years, for practical, emotional or simply neutral reasons.

Le Guin explained her method through the Valley preference for middling or “ubbu”—a pervasive, Buddhist-style moderateness. (While describing the Kesh view of time, their lack of doctrinal Creation or End-Time myths, she wrote, “It is all middle.”) Hidden away in the glossary she added that “a closer parallel might be found in Chinese taoist practices.” (Although Taoism is mentioned by name in the glossary, and once more in the opening note of the book, Always Coming Home depicts no unbroken connection with the actual tradition in history. It’s more like the Kesh discovered the same Way their Chinese predecessors did multiple millennia ago, then combined it with the cultures of the Native Americans of California.)

It was always a gamble for Le Guin to build Taoism into Always Coming Home, even obliquely, not least because the Kesh would see such atomised concepts as “religion” or “philosophy” as silly or childish. A lot of the Tao Te Ching works on what Daniel Dennett once dismissed as “deepities”: gnomic contradictions, buh statements, “fond paradoxes to suckle fools in the alehouse.” But like Zen koans, the verses don’t inform, they demonstrate. A Taoist phrase like “to know is to not know” can be taken as obscurantist, in favour of ignorance, Orwellian—as bullshit. Or maybe it means that “to know, be knowledgeable, as society and ideology define it—is an obstacle to knowing: those frames of the debate that cordon off the knowable; those questions that are themselves part of the mystification; hence to not know in that way, to turn from that kind of knowing, would be to know better, to know the being that lies beyond our “but of course” and “everyone knows.”

But “beyond” is not maya-ripped transcendence either. For the Kesh, mindfulness is not something stupendous. (They disapprove of spiritual athletics.) It’s just a rootedness in time, place, body and one’s relation to people and the world around us. The Kesh are more interested in the refreshed perception beyond the confident chattering of what Buddhists call “monkey-mind.” Or to put it in literary terms, life once it’s defamliarised by art.

With their “ubbu” mindset, the Kesh practice a way of being that’s opposed to essentialism, discontinuity, and the categories that block and warp our relation to the world, but also one made out of multifarious systems—see the complicated House and lodge chart structures in the book. What’s more difficult to explain is how the Way has a part in the structure of Always Coming Home as much as it does in the content. Le Guin followed the way of the Kesh in making her work of handmind open-ended and incomplete by design. We can see this once we recognise that the “heyiya-if” is leitmotif, philosophical symbol but also a literary device.


The“ heyiya-if” of the Kesh

Flip reverse it

The heyiya-if recurs throughout the book, in illustrations, in imagery within stories, as a section break symbol. It features in Kesh rituals and beliefs and is embodied in everything from the structure of their lodges to the form of their poems: the book closes with the “Stammersong,” which winds inwards towards the image of water, then inverts. (Note that the type of spiral galaxy the Milky Way is the Kesh would call a heyiya-if.)

Like the “taijitu” Yin Yang symbol, with its depicted meaning of two central aspects of existence but each giving way to the other rather than both squarely facing off, and each dialectically containing the seed of the other, the heyiya-if’s double-arm spiral around an empty space is dense with meaning and purpose. In Kesh towns, all of which are loosely patterned on the heyiya-if, the hinge, where the two arms of the spiral are closest but don’t meet, is often the site of running water or a well, water being the quintessentially Taoist element: accommodating, yielding, easy, in flux. Symbolically, the hinge of the heyiya-if is less an abyss or the void, though Le Guin used these terms—it’s like a well, too, the well of the unnamed. This well is where artists draw their imagination and inspiration from. More widely speaking, it’s where Kesh culture draws its vitality. The hinge of the spiral connotes the ever-present possibility of reversal, both positively and negatively understood.

In a horrifying vision and trip back in time described in the story “A Hole in the Air,” the humans of our civilisation are depicted as literally having their heads screwed on back to front. When Stone Telling’s mother Willow mocks her Condor lover’s wrongheadedness, she imitates his way of speaking: “‘But she belongs to me—the child belongs to me,’ she began to do the Blood Clown turkey-gobble around him, shouting, “The hammer menstruates to me! They pleat the courage to her!” and a string of reversal words like that.” But reversal can also be the potential gestalt-shift out of circular, furrowing, solidifying ways of thinking, acting, and being. A technique that Le Guin always used well, and that is one of the core elements of science fiction and fantasy, is less the portrayal of the prima facie attractive ways other people live, and more the flips of our expectations. While often used for satirical or otherworldly effect, with Le Guin reversals had a deeper purpose: to clear our heads by turning things upside down or as it were inside-out.

It’s almost as if she were working down a checklist of reversals. Truth is not seen as an intrinsic good by the Kesh. Instead, William James’s pragmatism returns to far-future California in the form of the delicate, face-saving mediations and white-lie peace-brokerage we read about in the “Trouble with the Cotton People.” Sex is neither flippant nor taboo (their society builds outwards from sex, rather than keeps feverishly returning to it—in Benjamin Kunkel’s phrase, it’s genitofugal, not genitopetal). The usually moderate Kesh have the libidinal outlet of the Moon, a sort of formal dance for swingers: “sex without anything that belongs to sex—responsibility, marriage, children.” But Le Guin herself pointed out the complications with this arrangement: though women hold the power of consent, they’re outnumbered since older men keep on gladly coming to the dance while women over fifty (i.e. post-menopausal) women tend not to. Death is a part of the Kesh way of life, but very differently to the way our civilisation sublimates the death drive into so much else. Although they have “a most amazing complexity, and imperturbably self-contradictory” set of beliefs about the soul, afterlife, and reincarnation, nothing is certain apart from the simple material fact that death re-involves you in being (part of the reason why the Kesh personalise the “inanimate”); re-involved literally, too: they cremate their dead then sow plough-fields with the ashes. “Death is life when you think holistically.” (Meanwhile the Condor sing: “There is no death!”) But as zen about death as they can be, they’re aggrieved by it, too. And yet the book incorporates this ambivalence into their customs: describing a communal ceremony at the World dance, in which all the dead of that year are remembered and mourned in a sort of Two Minutes Grieve before having their names thrown in a pyre, Le Guin wrote that it was “dreaded by many of the participants, people trained to value serenity and honor equanimity, and required on this one night to share without shame or reserve the pent-up grief, terror, and anger that death leaves the living to endure. It was a more intensely participatory and abreactive ceremony even than the Moon and the Wine, with all their emotional license and reversals.” Many characters die in Always Coming Home, and so we read about the Going Westward to the Sunrise songs, sung together by the dying and their carers, to emphasise “the emotional and social interdependence of the community, their profound sense of living and dying with one another”; songs as well that acknowledge that the pain and drama of death is as great as that of childbirth (“You must go back in”), but that “help the dying to die and the living to live.” This is neither a gooey walk into the light nor Jonestownian eager annihilation. Grief, pain, mystery, loss, all still there: but faced head-on together.

The Kesh Archivist had warned Pandora and us, “I have no answers and this isn’t utopia, aunt!” Le Guin didn’t build her world as some Wellsian wonderland where illness and death have been scienced away. Anyway, such a goal would seem inappropriate to the Kesh. The section on their way of dealing with illness reads so strangely compared to our way as to be reminiscent of the clowns in the Kesh dances who speak in topsy-turvy. (Although perhaps Le Guin had the Chinese concept of De in mind when she wrote: “the closest I could come to translating our word health into Kesh would be the word óya—ease or grace—or the word gestanai—living well, doing well, with a combination of inborn talent, luck or skill.”) Disease “was not something that happened to a person, but something a person did … The sick person is not a patient but an agent, not merely suffering an invasion from outside the body, but doing or being ill/ness. Curiously enough I think this view of illness involves less sense of guilt than does our image of a body being victimised by malevolent forces from without.” We read about Kesh doctors who save lives, but instead of the saved person being in debt to the doctor, it’s the reverse: the doctor has as much responsibility for a life they save as a parent does for a child they make. We read about doctors’ “bringing in” ceremonies to heal the sick through medicine, therapy, trance, exercise, diet, meditation, all processes that involve the community and not just doctors, and which might seem to the reader like hippy woo till you turn your dogmaticism inside out and they seem intelligently comprehensive, and therefore realistic and concrete. “The practices of the Doctors Lodge … tried only to ensure that living wasn’t any harder than it had to be.”

What about elephants?

This depiction of disease links to one of the biggest reversals of the book: the relationship between humans and the rest of the world. It’s wrong to say we have cut ourselves off from nature. If anything, the opposite is true, there’s little on this planet that humans haven’t touched, perishingly few unknown unknowns left in life. The moderate Kesh would say our human urges to control and consume are in excess. This doesn’t sound wrong when you look at everything from the model collapse of Rapa Nui civilisation on Easter Island, to the way the yew tree almost went extinct in Europe to provide armies with arrows, to the prophetic plagues of wild pigs and rats hammering South America’s ecosystems as the conquistadors would do its civilisations, to the glazed-over world reaction to the twelve-year countdown to irreversible catastrophic climate change.

It might take ecological catastrophe and the end of the known world for all life to be equalised in the way Le Guin described, for humans to be dethroned from their millennia of Cartesian and Judeo-Christian domination of nature, resulting in her Kesh who think of all life as people: human people, animal people, insect people. “Come hunt, it is yourself you hunt,” goes one of their poems. “Come gather yourself from the grass, the branch, the earth.” Even what we would call inanimate, they personalise: “To address a half-acre field of dirt plowed for corn as 'my brother' is behaviour easily dismissed as primitive, or as symbolic. To the Kesh, it was the person who could not understand or admit such relationship whose intelligence was in a primitive condition and whose thinking was unrealistic.” Le Guin drew up a complicated-seeming chart of these relationships, to illustrate how the Kesh have harmonised the family and the commune, by putting kinship side-by-side with membership of one of the “Five Houses of the Earth,” a sort of cross between trade guild, caste, and spiritual-biological taxonomy, since animals, plants, natural features, and elements related to society’s upkeep belong to these houses alongside humans. Facing these houses, the “Five Houses of the Sky,” which incorporate wild animals and plants, wilderness, dream, death and eternity, the ocean, the sun, and the stars.

But the Kesh aren’t vegetarian lion+lamb pantheists either, nor even pacifist absolutists. Their hunters and prey the book describes as “both accomplice and sacrifice in a truly mysterious act.” Yet hunting is seen as appropriate only for the young. And “if a hunter killed excessively, or without a pretty good excuse of wanting food, hide, or furs, he would be in danger of getting a reputation as a psychotic, a ‘crazy’ man, a ‘lost’ man, like a dangerous bear.” With due caution for the dangers inherent to any act of violence, the female-only Blood Lodge ensures, “No animal was killed for use unless a woman was present to speak the death words”—words of permission and gratitude. (Le Guin here stayed realistic and ironic: “The formula was gabbled, without the least feeling or understanding often.”) But the Kesh also understand the difference between all the various peoples of life. While meditating on a shrub the author/ethnographer wrote that it “is not beautiful, nor even if I were ten feet high on hashish would it be mystical”—take that The Doors of Perception—“nor is it nauseating; if a philosopher found it so, that would be his problem”—take that Sartre—“but nothing to do with the scrub oak. This thing is nothing to do with us. This thing is wilderness. The civilised human mind’s relation to it is imprecise, fortuitous, and full of risk. There are no shortcuts. All the analogies run one direction, our direction.”

But neither do the Kesh practice a paleo-style natural rights philosophy. (“More than is needed is life,” they say.) They’ll intervene in nature where they feel necessary. They vivisect animals, practice abortion, “which was considered neither a minor nor reprehensible operation,” and euthanise babies born severely deformed. Although proponents of an easy living that runs along the grain of ‘how humans should be’, they engage in such reversals as “living on the coast” and “going inland,” meaning that Kesh adolescents are expected to be chaste, which to secular modern eyes might seem prudish. But Le Guin explained the concept, as with many Kesh customs, via the concept of the heyiya-if and the hinge in its middle, what the hinge offers. “When I finally saw the period of celibacy as a reversal I began to see it as fully characteristic of the Valley … Children were going towards sexual potency. Adolescents, as they attained it, turned from it. At the time they became able to ‘work’ as sexual beings they ceased to do so—consciously, by choice.” You start to see these reversals, and reversals of reversals, these qualifiers and disclaimers, these “yes and but also” as part of a dialectic way of thinking through the whole book, the flipping of seeming opposites to tease out their relatedness: material and spiritual, life and death, human and wild, society and nature. Not opposites but two arms of a spiral, but joined by an empty hinge.

How else, then, could such a radically egalitarian and holistic book be formed than with a multitude of voices and points of view, and but also a multitude of genres and forms? Le Guin needed a new way to write a book: more than just a novel, more than just novelised ethnography, more than a postmodern self-aware text, more than deeply earnest meditation. As a single story, or even as a book made of multiple stories, it would not have achieved the same fruitful matching of form and content. Le Guin recognised that not all life is narrative, no matter what the Gaimanesque arch-fabulists would have us believe; there are so many other aspects of being worth writing about. But nor is the book meant as an encyclopaedia of them. After all, the Kesh conduct a book-burning ceremony once a year: “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.” This intellectual anti-hoarding clear-out returns choice and usefulness to culture (or as Borges wrote in the foreword to Marcel Schwob’s The Children’s Crusade, poetry consists of imagination and choice). Nor is Always Coming Home meant as an analogue of the City of Mind: a valueless warehouse of all information:

“‘The City’s freedom is our freedom reversed,’ said the Archivist of Wakwaka, discussing these matters. ‘The City keeps. It keeps the dead. When we need what’s dead, we go to the Memory. The dead is bodiless, occupying no space or time. In the Libraries we keep heavy, time-consuming, roomy things. When they die we take them out. If the City wants them it takes them in. It always takes them. It’s an excellent arrangement.’”

Maybe Le Guin was referring to the structure of her book too, when during the meditation on the scrub oak mentioned above she wrote, “It is not accidentally but essentially messy.” Messy, yet intelligible. For the most part, Le Guin’s desire to accommodate the reader, to write hospitably, as suits a book about home, ensures that language is not the formal plane on which the book experiments. The conceit is that Le Guin was also the book’s translator into modern English; she explained that she purposefully left the accents off Kesh names until the Back of the Book, not wanting to be haughtily obtuse or off-putting. (Compare this with the apostrophe forest in the “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.) She did quote examples of the Kesh language throughout the book but waited till one of the final chapters to reveal how the Kesh names for people and places are much longer than initially shown, “shortened in translation, through cowardice.” As she pointed out: “the unfamiliar also risks contempt.”

At most, Le Guin used the Kesh language as commentary to flesh out their society, how their “grammar makes no provision for a relation of ownership between living beings. A language in which the verb, ‘to have’ is an intransitive and in which ‘to be rich’ is the same word as ‘to give’ is likely to turn its foreign speaker, and translator, into a clown all too often.” She also wrote that their writing has “no capital letters; punctuation and spacing separated sentences. Vowels were usually written larger than consonants.” Again: equality, flow, middle, connections, relatedness. Meanwhile, the number system of the anti-hoarding Kesh builds productively and not cumulatively. Even the recipes in the book refer to ingredients tolerantly cooperating or “getting used to one another.” Le Guin embodied the books ethos in the macroscale of its composition down to the microscale of its most trivial details. When Flicker had a vision of the cosmos, perhaps she saw the nature of the book she was in: “all interconnected, every part part of another and the whole part of each part, and so comprehensible to itself only as a whole, boundless and unclosed.”

Take it easy, Dude. I know that you will.

Is a film about circles that loops its ending into its beginning more than a gimmick? Is a story about boredom that’s intentionally boring a big deal? Is a sprawling book about the sprawl of existence doing anything interesting? By its nature, Always Coming Home contains a kind of resistance that other books by Le Guin did not, though maybe resistance is the wrong word. It’s more like the description she gave of material things: “[They] are very obstinate and stubborn, but also there is a sweet willingness in them; they offer what they meet,” or later, when she wrote how “the hand that shapes the mind into clay or written word slows thought to the gait of things and lets it be subject to accident and time.” Just as Le Guin gave the Kesh the gift of time, her open-ended, ruminative, circumambulatory book is a gift: “Take your time, now. Take your time. Here, take it please. I give it to you, it’s yours.” For her book to be effective, it had to succeed in getting you to match its pace, to cooperate with it, to reverse your expectations of how such a book is meant to be written, rather than you be dazzled by it or it slip down so fast you don’t notice it was even made out of language. To get you to read and think more deliberately.

Or maybe more mindfully. Le Guin described an object the Kesh would carve, called a hehóle, an object that calms and centres, what a literal touchstone is. Always Coming Home is a kind of hehóle, too, a symbol of a symbol, an expression of the heyiya-if two-armed spiral. But it’s also a product of handmind rooted in a time and place, a physical object, mortal, made by another, mortal person, that can be “used as an adjunct to meditation or ‘sitting easily.’” For a book in which the “ease” of the Kesh way is repeatedly contrasted with other, unhealthily “stretched” ways of life, any strain in reading it comes as much from within you as without. “It’s easy being here,” says Esiryu, a handmaiden Stone Telling rescues and brings back with her from the Condor. “The work here is hard,” she adds. “Animals live softly. They don’t make it hard to live. Here people are animals.” (Just like ever-thoughtful Le Guin to give this observation to Esiryu and her outsider wisdom, not make it Stone Telling’s epiphany.) Esiryu is realising that there’s no binary of soft and hard. There are just different types of soft and hard, different ways to get to the seemingly same end: different dialectically. As Stone Telling asks, “Soft like jellied eels … or soft like pumas walking?”

The Kesh say that a vision isn’t something you have, it’s something given to you, and that you then give on. Art too throughout the book they describe as a gift, as only existing when shared: “The identity of owning and giving is perhaps easier to see when what is involved is a poem, or a drawing, or a piece of music, or a prayer.” Perhaps the vision and the gift of Always Coming Home is what Ursula K. Le Guin meant to describe through the voice of Stone Telling: for all its complexity, mystery, and humanity, “it may have been the best thing I have done.”

Mazin Saleem is the author of The Prick, out now with Open Pen. He is a writer of fiction and nonfiction at Tabulit, Open Pen, Litro Magazine, The Literateur, Big Other, Little Atoms, and Pornokitsch, where he has written stories about Eddie Murphy, teeth, and islands, and articles on 2001, the merits of Veep, the sins of Jurassic World, and what Lost has in common with The Tree of Life. His website is
Current Issue
22 Apr 2024

We’d been on holiday at the Shoon Sea only three days when the incident occurred. Dr. Gar had been staying there a few months for medical research and had urged me and my friend Shooshooey to visit.
For a long time now you’ve put on the shirt of the walls,/just as others might put on a shroud.
Tu enfiles longuement la chemise des murs,/ tout comme d’autres le font avec la chemise de la mort.
The little monster was not born like a human child, yelling with cold and terror as he left his mother’s womb. He had come to life little by little, on the high, three-legged bench. When his eyes had opened, they met the eyes of the broad-shouldered sculptor, watching them tenderly.
Le petit monstre n’était pas né comme un enfant des hommes, criant de froid et de terreur au sortir du ventre maternel. Il avait pris vie peu à peu, sur la haute selle à trois pieds, et quand ses yeux s’étaient ouverts, ils avaient rencontré ceux du sculpteur aux larges épaules, qui le regardaient tendrement.
We're delighted to welcome Nat Paterson to the blog, to tell us more about his translation of Léopold Chauveau's story 'The Little Monster'/ 'Le Petit Monstre', which appears in our April 2024 issue.
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