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
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
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
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
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.