Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

Always Coming Home is a remarkable novel, totally unconventional in its narrative presentation, in which Le Guin deals with several social concerns. Set in northern California, the novel deals with people who "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now." In this imaginative "archeology of the future" Le Guin envisions two rival societies, the Kesh, who are the peaceful inhabitants of an idyllic Valley, and the Condor, a warlike society to their north. The Kesh are matriarchal, the Condor patriarchal.

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Ecological consciousness is also a major theme of the novel. The Kesh, who live in a rural and tribal society, are ecology-minded. They live in harmony with nature, in contrast to the Condor, who are urban and national, and who routinely exploit nature. The ambiguously futuristic setting is a California five hundred years from now, which has largely been depopulated by catastrophe and contamination. The Kesh practice rituals based on nature, and respect the birds and beasts with whom they live. Although they have advanced technology, they do not use it aggressively or industrially. There is no pollution in the Valley. Their household animals are not known as "pets," a condescending word, but as "commensal," which means people living together.

The novel is also concerned with the nature of economic justice. The Kesh communities are socialistic rather than capitalistic, a fact reflected in their language and rhetoric. There is, for example, no word for "famine" because in their economy of sharing and their healthy environment such a phenomenon is simply nonexistent. Their proverbs also reflect their attitudes toward wealth, such as "Owning is owing, having is hoarding." In their use of language words function as rhetorical tools of their ideology. The same word means "to give" and "to be rich."

Feminism is a central theme, in part focused on the figure of Stone Telling, a woman whose life story offers the single narrative line within this complexly organized, nonlinear book. Stone Telling, who in her youth is known as North Owl, represents the cultural dialectic in the novel: her mother is of the Kesh and her father of the Condor. She feels an outsider among the Condor, not merely because they are patriarchal but because they scorn and abuse women. Among them she feels humiliated for they believe that women do not even have souls. It therefore becomes her goal to return to the place of her birth and eventually become Woman Coming Home. The feminist theme is also carried by the choral figure of Pandora, who speaks five interpolated sequences in the book. Her ironic asides offer commentary on women's roles.

Always Coming Home is also an antiwar book. Not only are the Condor negatively represented as a society that is aggressive toward other groups, but the absurdity of the act of war is stressed throughout. The concepts of heroism in battle and of glory in conquest are repeatedly devalued, both through the action and by the comments of outsiders like Pandora.


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Sexual Equality

Gender equality has always been an important theme in Le Guin's fiction. She says, in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, that she writes this kind of fiction because it allows her to explore how society would be without sexism and gender discrimination. The Kesh are essentially a nondiscriminatory people. A person's worth is not based on power or social relationships, but on how much he or she contributes to all major areas of society. The Condor society is diametrically opposite of the Kesh. Their society is based on male descent/relationship to the One Condor. This culture segregates women, keeping them ignorant and underground Le Guin sets up these two societies, presenting the Kesh first, so that the shock and horror of the Condor society is more striking. The cultural criticism becomes more biting as Le Guin continually makes comparisons between the Condors and modern American society. The Kesh, with their open and equal attitudes toward sex and gender issues, are a thriving people. The Condors eventually destroy themselves, their sexist discriminatory culture collapsing under its own weight.

Spiritual Renewal

One of the major themes in Always Coming Home is that of renewal or regeneration, especially on the spiritual level. The world of the Kesh revolves around what they call "the hinge" of life. This is the point where the physical and the spiritual intersect, causing all people to examine who and what they are. The idea of spiritual growth and renewal is the common thread that holds not only Stone Telling's narrative together, but also the other narratives, short stories, poems, and songs of the Kesh.

Stone Telling's mother, Willow, and her grandmother, Valiant, both have so many problems finding meaning in their own lives that neither can spare any time to help Stone Telling with her life dilemmas. Willow's life falls apart because she cannot, as Lillian Heldreth suggests in Mythlore, accept or overcome the divide between what she wants (her warrior husband) and what her culture demands (that he give up being a warrior). She returns to her childhood name and eventually reverts to being a child. Willow cannot cope with losing everything that makes up her identity because she has no idea who she really is. Her husband, Abhao, is much the same. He cannot escape the bounds of his culture. When he takes Stone Telling with him to the Condor, he refuses to allow her to be free to become the person whom she would like to be Abhao realizes that the Condor's desire for war and domination will destroy the Condors, but he cannot change the way things are. He tells Stone Telling that she made her choice to come to Sai and so she must remain until her death. However, because of his love for his daughter and granddaughter, Abhao does eventually help them escape the Condor, thus showing that he has grown beyond the rigid man he was at the beginning of the novel.

Environmental Awareness

One of the major differences between the Kesh and the Condors is their relationship with nature. All life is sacred for the Kesh and all living things are considered different kinds of "people." Le Guin goes to extremes to explain how the Kesh live as a part of the Creation, their religion and festivals are celebrations of Coyote's creation and participation in the life process. This attitude makes the Kesh profoundly aware of the environment. They have rejected the destructive technology that modern American society thrives on and work in harmony with nature. They kill only for necessity, asking forgiveness of the animals they kill and sing "heyas," or hymns, as a part of the butchering ritual. Hunting is not an adult sport for the Kesh; it is something only children do, an activity put aside with maturity. Their agriculture, architecture, and even apparel are all focused on making as small an impact on the earth as possible. The Kesh believe that they are part of creation and must work within it, not against it.

The Condors, on the other hand, believe that they are directed by their god to dominate and use nature for their benefit. The One, the Condors' god, made creation, but is not part of it, and so does not care for it. Neither do the Condors; they see everyone and everything, save for Condor men, as animals or dirt (hontik). The lack of connection to the natural environment of the Condors is evident in the location of their city. Sai is built on an ancient lava plain where everything looks like death and nothing ever grows. This location is in perfect contrast to the Na Valley of the Kesh, which, even with toxic waste dumps and radiation poisoning, is green, alive, and inviting. The Condors do not care about scarring the land and are angered when the Kesh refuse to allow them to build a permanent bridge over the river. Nor do they give thanks or ask forgiveness from the animals they slaughter for food, horrifying a fifteen-year-old Stone Telling as she travels with her father. At Sai, the Condor sacrifices the health and well being of his city for the glory of polluting war machines that consume all the available food, causing the city to starve to death.

Utopian Ideology

Le Guin's use of Utopian ideology differs from most of her contemporaries in the way she starts and sustains her Utopia. Generally speaking, Utopias grow out of some cataclysmic event, such as nuclear war, social collapse, or widespread religious persecution. Utopias are then sustained by the dedicated work of all citizens who are equally determined to see the Utopia succeed. However, Le Guin does not create or sustain the Utopian society of the Kesh in these ways. In their society, the people do not seem to care about their origins. They believe that they have always existed with no founders, first presidents, or list of creators of the Kesh culture. Revolting against both political and literary tradition, Le Guin insists that her Utopia is the only rational evolutionary path if humanity is to survive. This view of Utopia as an evolutionary end rather than a reaction to catastrophe makes Always Coming Home unique in modern science fiction.

The other part of Le Guin's unique approach to Utopian ideology is the way she defines and sustains the Utopia of the Kesh. There is no central government in the Na Valley; there is no local government in the individual cities either. The peace and stability of the culture are sustained by the desire of each individual to become the best she or he can be. This forms Le Guin's definition of anarchy, which J. R. Wytenbroek suggests she believes is the only form of government possible in a real Utopia. He also says that Le Guin goes to great lengths to distinguish between armed chaos (terrorism) and the lack of an authority/government (anarchy). The idea of a perfect society without law, dogma, or technology puts Always Coming Home in a position to challenge the conventions of the very genre it claims to represent.

Scientific Objectivity

The structure of Always Coming Home lends itself more toward nonfiction than fiction. There is no real story line, action, or suspense, but rather a collection of artifacts presented to the reader as anthropological evidence. Le Guin is aware of and makes her readers equally aware of the problem of scientific objectivity. She introduces us to the Kesh first and so we see everyone else in the Na Valley and outside it through comparisons to the Kesh. We do not like the Condors because the Kesh do not like the Condors. Because each reader cannot meet the Kesh for him-or herself, Le Guin exposes the hypocrisy of scientific objectivity. No scientist, no matter how hard he or she tries, can ever break out of the bounds of his or her culture. Scientific objectivity cannot exist because every scientist must select the facts he or she is going to present. Reality, as Le Guin writes it, is always subject to interpretation.

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