A people who might endure: a people who might find their way back to living lightly, living innocently…
… who would they be? How might it work? How might we get there?
Sometimes, you have to take a few steps back in order to see ahead. In 1986, Ursula Le Guin published Always Coming Home. One of the few women to thrive in the fast-moving and competitive world of 20th century sci-fi and fantasy, Le Guin famously used the ‘what if’s of sci-fi to test theory after theory of how humans are, how they might be, if things were different.
Perhaps most famously, she tried out being free of acquisitiveness in The Dispossessed, neatly demonstrating some of the consequences of our obsession with possession by exploring a society largely bereft of possessions, or of the desire for them. It was criticised for demonstrating that such a society couldn’t work – it existed only because it was on a harsh, bleak world – a satellite of a world in fact – that no-one much wanted. It was praised too, for what it tells us about us.
But Always Coming Home, at over 500 pages, is a different animal entirely. More of an extended portrait than a novel, it explores another people living in a flawed environment – but it is the environment we left behind. The people in this book, Le Guin says, might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.
Their birth rate is low, they endure genetic diseases, a legacy of a previous age, an age that left vast tracts of land poisoned, the land and the climate unstable but they live in a new way. Something, somewhere way back when, was learned and built in. An aggressive, colonising society grows up among them – and is contained, and collapses on itself, and the containment and collapse are explained. Where there are doubts, the author steps in, to argue with and question a character – at one point, accusing a woman of being a ‘smart arse Utopian’, and finds the work written off as ‘a glass of milk for the soul ulcered by acid rain, a piece of pacifist jeanjacquerie…’ and yet the questions do get answered, the possibilities offered. Le Guin did not intend Always Coming Home to be shot down as unworkable.
Discussions between communities about how to deal with the aggressor that rose above them demonstrate that the jeanjacquerie got put in its place. “Do not fight these sick people, cure them with human behaviour,” advises a messenger at a safe distance. “You come up north here and do that,” replies a messenger from a community on the front line, with dour realism, before a better answer is sought.
The ancient people – the people who did not endure are mentioned in stories and histories, as a people ‘with their heads on backwards’. The question of why the problem society in this era do not thrive has, if you have your head on the right way round, a hundred answers. One is about the failure of their attempt to mass manufacture the engines of war:
After all, the cost of maintaining, fuelling, and operating such machine s at the very height of the Industrial Age was incalculable, impoverishing the planet’s substance forever and requiring the great majority of humankind to live in servitude and poverty.
More exercising, once you get into the mind set of the peoples of this book is why on earth did anyone try to – and there is a hint or two and a theory or three about answers – one is the strange religion of the aggressors – in fact, One is their religion – which makes every other person, human or animal, a mere other, to them.
But it’s really worth taking a reflective stroll through the whole of the 500 pages, and the ideas they taste, and it’s pleasant a pleasant read, rambling on the mountainsides of California, picking up the feel of this weave of ideas, and a useful one, now that (unlike when I was young) a large proportion of us really are expending energy on trying to work out how our children and grandchildren might survive.
Ursula Le Guin
Always Coming Home
Ursula Le Guin
The editions I have are out of print but go do a search. I bet you can find them somewhere about the place. Better still, ask your local bookshop to have a go.
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