Always Coming Home
Always Coming Home is one of the books everyone assumes I’ve read.
Nope. I hadn’t. So, to prepare for Potlatch 18 and come up with
some programming ideas, I sat down to read its Books of Honor, "Always
Coming Home" and "Growing Up Weightless."
On reading "Always Coming Home," my initial reaction was that
I had to struggle to suspend my initial reaction, which was something
like, “Why not just go read Jerome Rothenberg, or go to some original
sources? Isn’t this just more cultural appropriation, a ripoff of
a few Pacific NW Native American cultures, set vaguely in a post-apocalyptic
future?” Also, while I like a nonlinear narrative and I like poetry
and specifically Le Guin’s poetry (and translations) I felt like
I was missing the point of the book. Despite that, I read on: because
I was curious; because it’s the Potlatch book of honor; because
Ursula Le Guin and therefore likely to be awesome (and capable of being
way over my head); last but not least, because so many people I respect,
like Cynthia1960, Alexis/heyiya,
and Laura Quilter, have praised
it so highly. It was disconcerting to have enormous doubts while reading
a book I expected to love. “Do I even like this book?” I kept
asking myself. I was not sure, even days later. I have settled now on
liking it and wanting to talk about it.
There is a linear narrative, told by a woman named Stone Telling, of herself
as a young girl, when she was named North Owl. On page 41 the story is
interrupted and there are extensive footnotes. If you want to read the
linear narrative, you can follow the “Turn to page 173” and
continue on. If you don’t skip, there are chunks of poetry, a play,
folktales, maps, histories, and all sorts of stuff. But it’s not
like reading the appendix of LOTR; it’s like reading "Technicians
of the Sacred" or "American Indian Myths and Legends" or
some book like that, that tries to present many different kinds of story,
many literary forms of a primarily oral tradition, mixing them up and
giving a variety of perspectives. If you have read anthropologists’
writings from before 1900, or often, translations of stories into English
from many other cultures, oral histories or not, they are re-told in Western
European style as folktales or fables. I’m no expert in anthropology,
but methods of trying to represent one culture to another have definitely
changed. Whether these methods succeed in being less colonialist or imperialist
is debatable. But by being “difficult”, literature presented
in a non-linear way can definitely kick my mind into a new frame of reference
as I try to understand a new context.
So, as readers of science fiction, what if we approach stories of future
people like we might a culture we aren’t a part of, whose context
we don’t understand, who don’t speak or tell stories in our
ways of narrating? The practical advice I give you-the-reader is twofold.
Either plow through like I did, trying to keep your mind very open, and
let it cook a while before you judge the story. This requires patience.
If you don’t have that kind of patience, or you can’t stand
poetry, I totally respect that. I recommend you skip around, read the
linear narrative of Stone Telling, and dip into the other bits of stories
and histories as you please.
That story of North Owl is a good one, about a girl, her town, her family
background, and her desire to experience new things and to prove herself.
In the fine tradition of Feminist & Utopian SF, she comes out of a
somewhat free (though not perfect) existence and enters a horrible patriarchal
dystopia, where she is oppressed, imprisoned, and enslaved. We should
list off a whole bunch of those “descent into being controlled by
patriarchy” and perhaps think of them as political descriptions
of what happens when a relatively free girl child hits puberty and crashes
into a wall. (And, often, returns or recovers or escapes.) If that is
your experience surely you know what I’m talking about! So, North
Owl visits the horrible Warlike patriarchy who view women as property
and have a patrilineal aristocracy. I won’t spoil the rest of it.
Anyway, I’m still thinking about "Always Coming Home"
and letting it wash over me. I raised the idea of cultural appropriation
and of the Kesh people of the Valley. The book presents a future heavily
influenced by western Native American cultures, which did not necessarily
“evolve” straight from Native American sources but which may
have been adopted by whoever happened to survived the the Fall of Civilization.
That is completely unclear. So there is an implied cultural appropriation
in the very setting of this future history. It’s not rewriting a
past where Native Americans remained predominant, more powerful, or in
control of the area. And I don’t think it posits a survival of specific
people or races; more like whoever avoids the fatal mutations. The presentation
of a new culture with roots in older ones looks quite interesting, and
makes me think about the role of written records, histories, computers,
Another thing left quite unclear on purpose is who is telling or receiving
the story; it is not “for” the people it is about. None of
this is, well I’m not saying it’s not problematic. But I don’t
find it to be the ripoff I halfway feared. It succeeded for me in making
the immersive experience of the book very complicated. What does, or would,
or could, the future of culture in this place look like? Making the future
be in this place, on this world, identifiably in future California, instead
of in space on some other planet, with some other “race” of
humans or aliens? I still feel uncomfortable and uncertain about what
the book is doing, considering how people read anthropological works,
or the literature of other cultures; the way white people in the U.S.
fetishize Native American cultures, etc.
What do you think? Does it succeed, does it offend you? I’d like
to talk more about cultural appropriation issues. I enjoyed the book and
continue to enjoy thinking about it especially in the context of utopian
& feminist SF. I’d like to talk more about war & utopia,
and what are the conflicts in a utopia. Also, what makes the Kesh culture
seem utopian at all? I think the key is war and violence, consent and
autonomy. In the war scenes, it is made very clear that particular people
on both sides of the conflict between the valley people and the others
is a personal choice – not always made for the best of reasons but
all the warriors decide to become warriors and to go risk death &
to kill others. Then… they stop. Fabulous, much better than the
total lack of war and killing in some utopian fiction (Herland, I’m
looking at YOU.) I liked the discussion of the aftermath of the war in
the Valley, very much. The larger war with the Condors, I’m still
thinking about, and it’s a bit hard to discuss without spoilers.
I also liked the plays very much, and the ways that the poetry feels imprecise,
like struggled-over translations (I’m a translator of poetry, so
notice that stuff.) Here is a link to the Wikipedia
entry on Always Coming Home.
Thanks to yonmei, Prentiss Riddle, Marguerite Reed, heyiya, Rosa, Coraa,
Heather W, therem, Bene, Fuschia, and Frowner for a great discussion and
many long, thoughtful comments where this post was first published on
FeministSF: The Blog!
Middle of the Night Reaction
to Growing Up Weightless
Growing Up Weightless is good – dense – circular –
I mean it seems best to read circularly in order to get the depth of it.
Really unusual & haunting. The scene with Avakian the old designer,
as good or better as any similar weirding propheticism from Gene Wolfe
– evocative of Hathor’s damaged speeches about the sails –
The larping teenagers and their raw naive gestalt (reminding me of that
story of the children raised in the floating sargasso sea-cities ) Aware
of each other but not knowing how to talk to each other’s depths
other than in game space and not even then. The idea – so floaty
& soap bubble – of kids raised in the sort of way I imagined
as the utopian future, kids bopping around, running as a team, learning
stuff, doing projects, joining a theater company, inventing a microchip
– from the outside, an incomprehensible cluster of age-mates, like
twin-speech – And their utopian angst at being always watched, always
eluding their cleverer parents – What would they do? What would
they learn? What is the plot in that sort of micro-utopia even if it’s
just the utopian ideal of a sensible education system and children with
a decent set of human rights? The failed delicacy of the parents and of
their own relationship – all very weightless itself – the
composing scenes and the composer sleeping and waking as if full of music
or light and noticing a hair from his busy partner’s head on the
pillow. I enjoyed the poetry. The light & shadow – and the dragons.
The girls of the bunch, the kid’s mom too, significant and with
their own agency clear – their own thoughts, dreams, burn with ambitions,
on the cusp of decisions, thinking things they hardly dare hope, no one
is overdetermined; beautifully.
It’s a plot that achieves being poetic. I am extremely unbored.
Will reread while taking notes for the linear thinking bits of us all,
because it does need notes and lines and character lists and some explaining.
Potlatch ought to be interesting if anyone will get their hands dirty
More Thoughts on Always Coming Home
Some editions of Always Coming Home identify it as a novel, but it’s
better to think of the book not as a story, but as a still portrait of
a civilization with a specific location in time and space. The space is
here in Northern California, and Le Guin is as good at portraying the
feel of the landscape in words as
any writer. The time is the far future, “a long, long time from
Are the Kesh quaint devolved primitives chanting “Quant Suff!”?
Well, they may seem that way at first, but look carefully: they’ll
surprise you. Technology is not just high tech, electronics and rockets
that zap and whoosh. To anthropologists, technology is a society’s
entire relationship to its environment through tools and knowledge. The
Kesh contain multitudes. They have access to something very like
the Web: they call it “The City of Mind.” But they also love
handcrafted tools, including their handcrafted railroad. They are homelovers,
but also travelers. They live in an almost idealized peace with their
landscape. But they are also materially poor, suffer from genetic disease,
and quarrel with each other and their neighbors.
This is not utopia. It’s a miscellany of life stories, poetry and
drama, cultural outlines and calendars, maps, and music. It’s Le
Guin’s largest single book and, I think, her masterpiece so far.