Anthropology of the Future

Readers should note that this is a literary analysis of Ursula K Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, not a review. This essay will contain plot spoilers.

All of Ursula K Le Guin’s works push up against genre boundaries, often breaking through them entirely. Even her early novels, which are the most sedate in this regard, offer up elements of generic complexity. Later novels, such as The Lathe of Heaven and The Beginning Place are difficult to place generically at all. Always Coming Home surpasses in this regard all of the other of Le Guin’s novels I have read by a very large margin.

Always Coming Home is structurally one of the most unique experiences a reader will ever have. The conceit is that an anthropologist from our time has traveled into the distant future and has researched a people living in what is now the Napa Valley of Northern California. The novel consists of stories, poems, plays, and other societal information, essentially all of the time traveling researcher’s field notes. The conceit mostly works, although it is perhaps a bit transparent that Le Guin has carefully arranged each section of stories, poems, and cultural observations so that they build upon one another to form a coherent narrative.

Central to the experience is a story told to the researcher by a young woman named Stone Telling, a story she tells often to the people of the valley, as the decisions made by the leaders at its conclusion are central to their self-conception as a people. The story is split up into four parts with the poems, plays and other material inserted between them.

What makes Stone Telling unique is that, unlike most of the valley’s inhabitants, her father is not a of the valley, but from people who live far to the north (perhaps, if I’ve intuited the hinted volcano correctly, somewhere near Mt. Saint Helens) called the Condor. Stone Telling is nearly able to fit into valley society despite her unique lineage until her father shows up with his army. We see at once that the Condor people operate very differently from the people of the valley. Mom and dad immediately proceed to engage in a kind of “marital” conflict based upon different societal expectations. The Condor are hierarchically organized and male-dominated, and so dad expects to do what he wants and mom can deal. But mom comes from a matriarchal, community-centered society, and she will have none of that. By the end of the first section of Stone Telling, mom has summarily ejected dad’s stuff from her home.

Stone Telling takes her father’s side and proceeds to defect from the valley and travel north with him back to the land of the Condor. It is from her description of this time that the reader is able to glean the sharp distinctions between the Valley people and Condor people. While the interstitial sections illuminate the details of a Valley culture rich with artistic output, the Condor people are presented as aesthetically depressed and oppressed. Men are made either to work in factories where they build engines of war, or to become conscripts in the military. Women are made to stay at home all day, tend to housework, and rear children whenever their husbands desire to have them. All are obligated to attend regular religious services held in honor of a deity called “the One.”

All of this contrasts sharply with the Valley people, where individuals are free to choose a vocation of their choosing, where artistic expression is cherished, and where religion is organized as a series of community rituals around such things as natural phenomena, like the solstices and equinoxes, and activities, like harvesting, planting, animal husbandry, and even intercourse (carefully designed to make certain it is consensual, of course).

We watch as Stone Telling’s anger with her mother fades and realization dawns on her life in the Valley was much better than her life as a Condor. Much of the latter part of her story involves her escape from the Condor and her return trip to the Valley.

In as much as the novel contrasts the aforementioned unhealthy and healthy societal configurations, I am largely on board with its depiction. I definitely agree with Le Guin that healthy societies make artistic expression a priority and devote actual resources, rather than lip service, to it. I also agree that much damage can be wrought by belief systems which unquestioningly entrench power in the hands of a few, whose words and deeds are immune to interrogation. Le Guin has adeptly identified two of the elements that separate a healthy culture from a toxic one.

It is with her depiction of militarism that I find I disagree. During Stone Telling’s father’s first visit to the Valley, a number of Valley men and women form a kind of “warrior’s guild” and adopt a number of Condor-esque rules for themselves. Their members refrain from all sex, and habitually enact war games upon one another.

As Stone Telling travels to the Condor’s land with her father, it is noted that the people they are passing along the way have all recently been conquered and enslaved by the Condor, but as Stone Telling returns home, it comes to light that the Condor’s hold on those lands has been fraying. The Condor, it is rumored, have spent so much of their energy on building and operating the machines of war that their own people are starving—they are literally using their food as fuel for their war machines. The Condor, we are told, far from expanding their vast empire, are actually collapsing inwards. In essence, the Condor play out a Roman empire rise and fall, which apparently takes only about Stone Telling’s lifespan to work itself out. In the end, the Valley warriors are disbanded on the grounds that their presence will bring about the same collapse upon Valley society.

I find these societal details unconvincing. All human societies need to think about how they will defend themselves from bad actors, both internal and external. We will never occupy a world where all other human societies, nor even all members of own society, can be trusted to play fairly and not exploit a neighbor’s weakness the moment they can. Si vis pacem, para bellum. The question I would ask of Valley society: “How much of a defense force do you reasonably need in order to defend yourself from the likes of the Condor?” “How can you keep that defense force at its minimum viable size and prevent it from metastasizing into the unhealthy culture presented by the Condor people (elements of which are obviously drawn from Le Guin’s observation of United States militarism)?” “Also, do think about apportioning people food before fueling war machines.” Solving that last one should not be very hard at all. That particular detail appears to me a bit of a straw man.

Yes, history gives us many examples of military empires having fallen—Rome, Byzantium, and Ottoman, just to name a few. But history also gives us myriad examples of defenseless or inadequately defended societies being overrun by more powerful neighbors. I would argue that an ethics that cannot provide for people’s basic protection from hostile invaders is a bad ethics.

This is Le Guin after all, so my gripes with the ethics and all are merely footnotes to what is otherwise the remarkable, enjoyable, and laudably unique reading experience that is Always Coming Home.

Categories: Literary Analysis

Tags: Ursula K Le Guin Always Coming Home