However believable you find Ursula K. Le Guin’s imagined worlds, you cannot visit the planet Gethen and cross its frozen plains, nor can you join the commune on Anarres or sail the archipelagos of Earthsea. The town of Klatsand, from Searoad, has an address in Oregon, but you can’t drive or fly there. You may, however visit where the Kesh people “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now.” They’ll perhaps live in Northern California, in the Napa Valley, and one of their towns might sit where the Le Guin family had a summer house. In Always Coming Home, her longest and strangest novel, just reissued by the Library of America, Ursula K. Le Guin built a utopia in her backyard.
A warning: If you read solely for plot, Always Coming Home might seem an exercise in Never Reaching the Point, and I’d encourage you to read The Lathe of Heaven or a volume of Earthsea in its stead. This novel represents a culmination of the anthropological or societal bent in Le Guin’s fiction. Le Guin’s first three novels were republished as Worlds of Exile and Illusion—worlds, not tales or stories. The Left Hand of Darkness alternates plot chapters with bits of Winter’s lore and excerpts of its stories; while The Dispossessed, “An Ambiguous Utopia,” announces its social interests in its very subtitle. Always Coming Home doesn’t abandon narrative, but it comes close: This is a book that aspires to placehood.
The table of contents for this book is several pages long; the sundry “scholarly” materials, notes on culture, and excerpts from literature that might comprise the Appendices to unusually detailed doorstop fantasy novels are here the core of the text. In an introduction to Gollancz’s UK edition (which does not include the expanded material in the Library of America edition), John Scalzi describes his initial immersion into Kesh life and how he didn’t read the book straight through, but read snippets at random. Plodding stickler that I am, I read the book cover to cover, but I’m not sure that was the right decision. This is a book, after all, that announces on page 59 that an interrupted story will resume on page 208; a book in which the author announces on the first page that some of the more “explanatory, descriptive pieces” have been relegated to “The Back of the Book, where those who want narrative can ignore them and those who enjoy explanations can find them.” Then again, there’s something to be said for reading straight through to appreciate the novelist’s art. Take the segment “Time and the City” as an example: Read at its appointed place a third of the way through the book, it left this reader reeling.
The interrupted story which resumes 150 pages later—the autobiography of a woman named Stone Telling—provides most of the incident and a third of the length of Always Coming Home. “Stone Telling” is the most novelistic portion of the book, and therefore perhaps the least characteristic. The novel’s remainder is an anthropologist’s “carrier bag”: creation myths, campfire stories, a portion of a Kesh novel, oral histories, dirty jokes, transcripts of plays, a few dozen plays, maps of the Na Valley and environs, reports of travels, brief life stories, a dictionary, and more. An unlikely form supports an unusual function: The Kesh structure their towns as hinges and gyres, and a straightforward narrative would hinder the reader’s understanding of this society. Cycles and continua matter more than beginnings and endings; Le Guin’s mode is ethnography, not epic.
Le Guin didn’t write about Kesh culture; she created it and presents it to her readers, with the relevant glosses, much as her anthropologist parents presented the Native American cultures they studied. Indeed, though they’re inhabitants of a post-post-apocalyptic future, some Kesh beliefs and traditions resemble those of various Native American nations. In essays included in this expanded edition, Le Guin writes of the pains she took to make the Kesh their own culture—she had no intention of transplanting an existing society into The Future, changing a few names, blurring a few details, and announcing her great invention—and of the scrupulousness with which she avoided what, thirty-odd years after the book’s initial publication, we’d label cultural appropriation. Anyone with dreams of worldbuilding should read these essays.
Not only does she avoid rote duplication of real cultures, Le Guin pulls off the trick of making the Kesh believable even as she reminds the reader of their artificiality. The novel opens with the author, who refers to herself as Pandora, reflecting on the challenges of imagining the people who “might be going to have lived” in her backyard. Pandora pops up at intervals throughout the book, flitting between here-and-now and then-and-there: She sits in on a Kesh dance/play; she tape records an interview; she reflects on nature and time; she doubts, worries, and wonders just what she’s writing.
Few novels resemble Le Guin’s survey of the Kesh, though a few comparisons come to mind. In the early 2000s, Le Guin translated Argentinian writer Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, polyphonic stories of a fabulous empire. In the mid-eighties historian and travel writer Jan Morris published Last Letters from Hav, her only novel, which presents itself as reportage; only the book’s shelving under “fiction” gives the game away. When, three decades on, Morris re-released the book with more material and a shorter title, Le Guin provided the introduction. Jean d’Ormesson’s The Glory of the Empire, first published in the US in 1974, is a magisterial, scrupulous, and utterly false account of a great empire that might have dominated Europe. Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars didn’t appear until Always Coming Home was a few years old, but it may be the book’s closest relation. Pavic presented his tale, about a vanished tribe in medieval Transylvania, as a dictionary; since lexicographers don’t expect front-to-back reading of their labors, reading Pavic’s novel page by consecutive page was optional.
Always Coming Home hasn’t quite been out of print, but for two decades it’s only been available in a University of California Press paperback. That the academy should publish Le Guin’s hypothetical anthropology is appropriate, as is the Press’s California address, but the limited distribution and the $31.95 sticker price for the softcover have kept it off most bookstore shelves. Printed on the LOA’s standard bible-thin paper, this Author’s Expanded Edition runs two or three hundred pages longer than the novel’s previous publications. Just as their Hainish set came bursting with essays, reflections, and annotation and added a whole fifth Way to the novella collection Four Ways to Forgiveness, the Library of America’s Always Coming Home includes significant new material. For most readers, the highlight will be the full text of Dangerous People, the Kesh novel excerpted in the main body of Always Coming Home. It would be dishonest to call Dangerous People, which runs under fifty pages, “a brand-new novel” by Le Guin, but its inclusion is a welcome surprise. Also included are several essays by Le Guin, the transcript of a panel at a long-ago science fiction convention, endnotes by the volume’s editor, and a detailed chronology of Le Guin’s life. As best I can tell, there’s only one thing not included: Music and Poetry of the Kesh, the album which Le Guin recorded and composed with Todd Barton. Always Coming Home’s original hardback included a cassette; in the streaming era, we get a link to Barton’s Bandcamp.
I don’t think Always Coming Home is Le Guin’s best novel; it is, however, her most novel. I mean that in two senses: It’s her most “novel” for the risks it runs and the demands it makes, and it’s her “most” novel for the number of its pages and the depth of its imagination. Many good books feel like journeys; many bad books, particularly in science fiction, feel like sightseeing tours. This is a good book, but it doesn’t feel like a tour or a journey. It feels like living, like setting down roots, like knowing your neighbors and loving your home. It’s a remarkable book, and there’s been nothing quite like it in the last thirty-five years.
Always Coming Home is available from Library of America.
Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.