Always Coming Home is not a novel: it is a glimpse into a possible future, in its rich, complex entirety.
It is built around the story of Stone Telling, an old woman of the Valley, who is sitting like a stone telling what has happened in her life. But the three pieces of her story are short, and around them are: poems and songs written by the people of the Valley, romantic tales and histories and dramatic works and other people’s life stories and an excerpt from a novel, all written by people of the Valley, nonfictional information about the lives and deaths of the people of the Valley, as well as a few metafictional remarks about chronicling the life of these people. It is a brilliant array of voices, each speaking in their own way.
It is definitely the kind of book you have to be in the mood for. Several times I had to put it down to read more conventional narratives – but I always came back to it, I always wanted to learn more about this world and its people, and I was always rewarded for doing so.
With references to flooded cities, lingering chemical/radiation poisoning in the land (which shortens lives and leads to a widespread terminal disease) and the existence of an AI network that provides information to humans but otherwise ignores them, it is clear that Always Coming Home is in the future of our world, specifically of our California. It is a future in which small groups of people have organised themselves in new ways and live far closer to the land than a lot of people do today, and Le Guin is that rare author who makes things like the Valley people seeing animals as people not feel trite.
The patterns of the Valley people’s lives are like none I have encountered in SFF.
It is not always easy to understand – it is, I find myself saying again and again, real. This is worldbuilding. Le Guin has better worldbuilding in her little toe than most SFF writers do in their whole bodies.
Living – from the important milestones of a person’s life to the layout of towns – is built around the idea of a hinge-point, which serves as a metaphor for turning, balance, bridging and contrast. Then there is the naming: a person often takes 3 names in their life, one as a child, one as an adult and one as an older person. Others take just 2. The names come to a person at important points in their lives. A person goes to certain Lodges to learn skills, although there are also skills learnt at home. Family is not always defined by blood/marital relationships. There are several patterns of kinship, complete with incest taboos that would frustrate and confuse many of us today – and they frustrate some of the young people dealing with them. Spiritually, a person may go on walks into the hills – into the animals’ Houses – or may experience visions, or may have very little interest in spirituality. Throughout the year there are celebrations and dances. The people are not entirely disinterested in technology – they go to the Exchange, where they can gain information from the AI network and talk between communities – but they are primarily concerned with their lives, which do not need most technology.
What makes it work so well is that there’s a lot of detail. The culture is not defined by one or two important elements: it is lived differently in each town or village, it changes (eg: the foundation and dispersal of the Warrior lodge), and individuals interact with it differently. Some embrace every convention, some struggle with convention, many problems come from individuals’ personalities and decisions rather than the society, some people elsewhere to solve their problems, most stay and grapple and live.
The Valley is, every now and then, pointed out to be matriarchical and female-focused, which – I don’t actually support the dominance of women, just as I don’t support the dominance of men. Duh? But sometimes, as a woman who reads in a genre that seems to delight in keeping women in their place for the sake of “historical accuracy” (we can imagine dragons and mages, but not egalitarian societies?), it is fun and calming to have the tables turned in our direction for a change.
Fish were supposed to be prejudiced against men: ‘For her I rise, from him I hide.’ A good deal of the fishing in the Na and its tributaries was done, with hook and line and handnet, by old women.
Always Coming Home is also not without Le Guin’s pointed wit, as in this excerpt, which really ought to be required reading for large swathes of the internet:
Ethical counsel from the Under White Mountain people, far down the eastern coast of the Inland Sea, was not very well received. They advised: ‘Do not fight these sick people, cure them with human behavior,’ to which Rekwit responded tersely, ‘You come up north here and do that.’
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So what of Stone Telling’s story, around which this work is built?
It is a story of belonging – or not belonging. Stone Telling is the child of a Valley woman and a Condor man. Raised in the Valley by her mother and grandmother – as her father left long ago – she is often told that she is only half a person. With the hindsight that her latter-life narration affords her, she is aware that as a child – then called North Owl – she failed to connect with the education and spirituality of the Valley. When her father suddenly returns, she finally feels whole.
When I came up to bed I took my bedding out on the balcony so that my mother and father could have the rooms to themselves. I was happy thinking about that as I went to sleep, and the noise around town did not bother me at all. Other children slept on the balcony or in another household when their parents wanted to be by themselves, and now I was like those children.
Then, only months later, her father leaves again, because the Condor people are at war – but he promises North Owl that he will return. Confused and upset by this quick upheavel in her family, she clings to this promise. So it is not surprising that when he does return again, she – an adolescent, recently thwarted in happiness by a relationship that failed before it could truly begin – declares that she will go with him. To the reader it is obvious that she won’t be happy – her father even tells her this, knowing the difference between his people and the Valley people – but she has the foolish determination of an adolescent and her father has about as much spine as an invertebrate. To the Condor city she goes.
The Condor people are a fairly typical fictional sexist society: women are kept indoors unless chaperoned, their marriages are decided by their fathers, they must be virginal upon marriage, they must veil themselves in the company of men. Only men are in charge – and their thirst for making war is undoing them. It is certainly not Le Guin’s most nuanced society. I’ve seen it described as a strawman society, which it is, but I like some of the things Le Guin does with it, although the fact that it seems to evoke Muslim tropes – especially with the veiling – is problematic. I appreciated the fact that their terrible ways are having real consequences for them. I also appreciated that such a society is not considered the default for this future world, or at least this part of the future world. In a genre that defaults to women-hating societies, it is refreshing to find a book that treats one as an abhorrent absurdity.
Raised with every freedom, she clearly does not belong here, although she survives – as women have done in such societies for millennia – by forming close relationships with other women and, later, her infant daughter. Her survival in the city is far more interesting than the city itself – unlike many other writers, Le Guin doesn’t assume that women in such societies lead silent, uninteresting lives. The women are important to one another. They are worthy of the narrative’s attention, far more so than the men.
After a number of years, she finds a way to leave and returns to the Valley, where she remains for the rest of her life: more at home than in the Condor city, but still struggling to belong.
I love this story, even though some of the details could be improved, but I wish it had been longer. As I said earlier, Stone Telling’s story is only a very small portion of this quite hefty book, and while it’s a beautiful story of boundary-crossing and belonging, it’s so brief – it’s more of a sketch than a deeply imagined story. It is pleasantly true to the idea that a person is narrating it (although, of course, there’s dialogue), but in this case I found that a loss. I could have read a whole book about Stone Telling alone.
I also had a problem with the depiction of her mother. While I understood North Owl’s reaction to her father’s appearances and disappearances, the way that her mother is upset by them – broken, really – bothered me. Women can be made deeply unhappy by a failed relationship, but there is a disappointing lack of nuance in her mother’s characterisation, especially considering that this is Le Guin. The presence of many other women’s stories – which show that most women do not act this way – lessens the blow of this considerably, but I can’t go without mentioning it.
I would also have liked to see an exploration of homosexual relationships in this world, but I suspect the book’s age is the telling detail here: it was originally published in 1985. Nonetheless, it manages not to be 100% heternormative, which is more than I can say for a good number of books being published today. In one or two places it is quietly mentioned that same-sex couples exist and are able to live together. But aside from that, the stories and cultural details emphasise male-female relationships and gender division (and I didn’t see any mention of genderqueer people). I wanted more, but, 1985.
But I’m willing to forgive Always Coming Home its few issues because, oh, the worldbuilding of the Valley. I am such a sucker for a well-built world. And it’s so full of women! And the Valley is a place where women are safe. It’s such a delight to learn about it and read the women’s stories.