Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514
At the beginning of Always Coming Home, in a section titled “A First Note,” Le Guin alerts her readers to her book’s uniqueness. Its first sentence reads, “The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.” The unusual, conditional verb phrase in this sentence splices together past and future, as Le Guin continues to do throughout the book.
Always Coming Home, richly illustrated by Margaret Chodos and with maps by the author, was marketed originally with an accompanying cassette of Kesh music by Todd Barton. The book generally is called a novel but is so heterodox in structure that it virtually creates a new fictional genre, in the same manner as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966) and Rolando Hinojosa-Smith’s still-incomplete, multivolume work, the Klail City Death Trip, begun in 1973.
Le Guin, daughter of noted anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and novelist Theodora Kracaw Kroeber, applies the techniques of field anthropology, both physical and cultural, to a future rather than past culture. She drifts easily through nonlinear time, creating a philosophical-fictional world that includes artifacts from two cultures, contemporary and future, unified by Pandora’s narration and Stone Telling’s story, the four major parts of which are interspersed throughout the novel. Between Stone Telling segments, Le Guin constructs the Kesh culture that has grown up in California’s Na Valley. The material between such segments advances readers’ perceptions of both the philosophical and the physical constructs that Le Guin concocts in an ascending spiral of elucidating information.
She focuses on feminist, ecological, and mythic concerns. The Kesh’s locale, seemingly, was created by either global warming or some cataclysm (hinted at through allusions to uninhabitable, radioactive regions) that has turned San Francisco Bay into a gigantic inland sea and inundated much of the Pacific Coast, swamping its coastal cities. The coastal mountain range has become a peninsula.
Le Guin divides the world of the Kesh into nine venues or “houses,” five concerned with earth (material things) and four with sky (spiritual things). Computers in City of Mind control the planet, but the Kesh elect to lead simple lives, leaving City of Mind to the Condors. The Kesh favor City of Man, which revolves around humans.
In Always Coming Home, Pandora grapples with the search for answers to existential questions. Le Guin’s writing strains the genre in which much storytelling conventionally occurs, ever testing the limits of human communication. In so doing, however, her Pandora, as a self-declared anthropologist of the future, forces readers to think through the cultural constructs within which human beings live and on which they base their philosophical—especially ethical—systems. Is the structure of storytelling, for example, natural or something writers impose?
Le Guin is not alone in her search for new literary means to transmit complex information. In experimenting with Pandora, Le Guin blurs the lines of time and space. Pandora lives in two distinct contexts. Clearly, Always Coming Home is at the forefront of a unique, experimental fictional genre that simultaneously presents philosophy and fantasy.
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