I’ve put off reading Le Guin’s Always Coming Home for years, because I knew I wasn’t ready for it. And then I knew that I was, and I loved it to bits, even though I keep waking up faintly depressed to remember that I don’t in fact live in a world like that. Never mind, one day we shall have our commonwealth by the sea, where we shall gather to talk about books and cook locally-grown produce and evolve effective consensus-based decision-making processes.
I poked around online for reviews, and found this one which had various interesting things to say, but mostly I wanted to respond to the “flaws” which the review identifies in order to clarify some of my own thinking about the book. Basically, I’m going to gratuitously pick out a few choice quotes and then have a grump about them. Screw consensus-making, let’s go with adversarial.
“the ‘machina ex machina’ of the City of Mind, a benevolent collection of machine intelligences which provides the Kesh and other peoples with all the positive benefits of science and technology (weather forecasts, global communication, etc.), while sparing them the need to devote resources to those ends.”
But this seems to me to be a very specific point about inventing or using technology just because we can, or because it’s there (no, thank you, I don’t actually want a mobile phone). If existing technology provides a sufficiency of information to enable the good life… then why churn out more? (*cough*ipods*cough) As for it being a bit of a fiddle – hey, her Utopia, she gets to set the rules.
“the straw-man patriarchal and authoritarian society of the Dayao/Condor [...] is too extreme to be an interesting contrast to the Kesh (except polemically)
Call me easily scared, but I found the internal logic of the Condor all too convincing. Besides, the utopian genre is all about holding up mirror images to reflect back upon either the utopia itself or upon our own world – this is a very common device in the genre (More’s Utopia does it as, indeed, does Le Guin’s own The Dispossessed). Also, the Condor are very carefully constructed into the flow of Always Coming Home. I’m avoiding saying ‘narrative flow’ because the book surely isn’t about linear narrative, and the Condor provide precisely the point of intersection between a holistic, hinging and ahistorical world, and a linear, progress-driven, historical world. The Condor are the means by which History threatens to intrude upon the Kesh (hence the emergence of the Warrior Lodge after the visit from the Condor). Stone Telling’s story is one of the very few bits of straightforward narrative in the book. (We only get one chapter of a single novel.)
“I can’t help thinking that things would be a little different if the Kesh were to face Julius Caesar and a single Roman legion, even with their technological inferiority.”
But don’t the Kesh have guns? I know they frown on hunting and so on, but wouldn’t a couple of well-judged shots over the top of the testudos make a pretty clear point? I’ll admit that this might start up the whole wheel of history again, Riddley Walker fashion, but isn’t part of the idea here that, as with the information which can be retrieved from the Exchanges, the Kesh are selective and pragmatic in their choices about which technologies they’ll use? Consistent with the “little country” in the Tao Te Ching, whose inhabitants also have machines which they choose not to use or be used by. (I’ve just been reading Le Guin’s translation of this.)
Oh well, just some reflections, and surely grossly unfair to the reviewer to pick these out of context and then bounce off them. But then I like the end of Tehanu too (reviewer doesn’t), so you can happily pay no attention to a word I say. My favourite bit in Always Coming Home, for what it’s worth, is the list of “generative metaphors” at the back of the book.