Ursula K. Le Guin:
Housewives in Space

Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin

A cause for celebration:
Always Coming Home is newly available from the University of California (and Amazon.com). I have posted an essay on Le Guin's masterpiece elsewhere on the Dancing Badger site ("Green Thoughts Asleep and the Fury of Dreams").

Ursula Kroeber Le Guin is arguably the most famous member of a family notable for their intellectual accomplishments. Her father, Alfred Kroeber, was one of the founders of American anthropology, author of many essential works on the Indian tribes of California and the northwest coast. Her mother Theodora wrote Ishi, Last of his Tribe and Ishi Between Two Worlds, which tell the story of an Indian man who was one of the last truly indigenous people in America. She also wrote a very good collection of California Indian stories, The Inland Whale. Le Guin's brother, Karl Kroeber, is a respected scholar of American Indian literature.

Legend has it that Le Guin's first major publication was "Nine Lives," a story published in Playboy under the byline 'U. K. Le Guin,' because the editors weren't sure it would sit well to have a female author in their table of contents. Actually, she had been publishing for five years before this happened and in fact had won the Nebula and the Hugo awards in 1969 (the sci-fi equivalent of the triple crown) for her classic science fiction novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. But that's what legends are for....

Dancing Badger

Le Guin has gone on to become one of the finest science fiction writers in America, as well as a thoughtful and articulate critic of literature and culture. She has won more major science fiction awards than perhaps any other science fiction writer (six Nebulas and five Hugos, for starters), plus a slew of non-science fiction awards and citations (the Newberry, the National Book Award, citations by the American Library Association, Pushcart Prize), and her books are always distinguished by a broad intellectual vision far beyond the scientific speculations and fantasies that make up so much of the work in the genre. Her essays have the same deceptive, precise simplicity as Pandora's whimsies in Always Coming Home.

Note: Highlighted book titles are linked to Amazon.com and can be purchased. The "open book" icon [Not this one...] is a link to a review of the neighboring title.

Always Coming Home

Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin's masterpiece is a strange post-modern novel set in the dreamtime of the long gone future, the story of a tribal woman and her tribe, gentle Luddites resisting the return of technology to their Kesh Valley home. Part novel, part anthropological study, accompanied, in its first printing with a cassette of the songs of the Kesh, it is a totally immersive experience. "Post-modern fiction" did not degenerate into abstruse, elitist, onanistic crap; it started there and went nowhere. Nowhere, until a friendly-faced, steely-minded housewife from Portland took it out of the nasty boys' hands and put the principles to good use. This wonderful book had been out-of-print for years, but the University of California has reprinted it, at last, and it is available at Amazon. To find a copy of the original, complete with cassette, try the science fiction shelves of your used book stores, or go to Powell's in Portland. If you are interested in reading about the novel, I have posted my essay on it: "Green Thoughts Asleep and the Fury of Dreams." I will be posting an essay on the Earthsea Cycle (no longer a trilogy) in the coming weeks.

Science Fiction

The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness

Winner of both the Hugo and Nebula in 1969. Le Guin's story of an outsider trying to cope with an alien culture has been much imitated (C. J. Cherryh dominates the genre) but never surpassed. Her story of this ice planet and its bisexed (don't ask) species is generally listed as one of the top ten science fiction novels of all time, even by non-American critics (A French list on the Web gives La Main gauche de la nuit sixth place, after Foundation, Dune, The Martian Chronicles, and two French novels I've never heard of).

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

Also winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula. I think Le Guin was the first to win both awards simultaneously twice, which is like taking both the Golden Globe and the Academy Award for Best Picture. You might say it makes her the Katherine Hepburn of Science Fiction. The Dispossessed is concerned primarily with the politics of a utopian planet. Two planets with precisely opposite political systems are contrasted. A great discussion of anarchy as a political system. You can see some similarities to the Condor/Valley polarity in Always Coming Home.

The Lathe of Heaven

Made into an excellent film (VHS and DVD) some years ago (1980), this story explores the relationship between subjective and objective reality. A man discovers that he can 'dream' things into existence. That power is 'harnessed' by government researchers. Yeah, right. Pretty soon, big trouble.

The Eye of the Heron

Not a well-known Le Guin title. She identified it in an interview as the book that forced her to look at the feminism in her fiction. "the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book. 'Hey' I said, 'you can't do that, you're the hero. Where's my book?' I stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn't know how to write about women."

The Word for the World Is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Word for World Is Forest

Out of print but worth looking for (A first showed up at Powells for about $50). It is, among other things, a vision of the Viet Nam War and our wars with the Indians, imagined as a human presence on a planet of 'little green people.' Le Guin's first exploration of the notion that there are things quite literally stronger than technology. The little green people win (in a sense), and how they win will help us understand why we fled from Viet Nam a year after this novella was first published. Le Guin's approach is a bit heavey-handed in places and thus somewhat dated, but the novella reads quickly and will leave you, after your first reading, thoughtful and troubled. Among the many books indebted to Le Guin's treatment of this theme are C. J. Cherryh's Hestia and the masterpiece that surpasses Le Guin's vision, Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead.

Worlds of Exile and Illusion:
Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions

Three "Hainish" novels in anthology format, interesting if you begin to explore the imagined futurist universe of Le Guin's fiction. "Hainish" refers to the overarching universe in which most of Le&bnsp;'s science fiction set. Fore more information, visit The Hainish Encyclopedia.

The Earthsea Cycle


A Wizard of Earthsea
The Tombs of Atuan
The Farthest Shore
Tales from Earthsea
The Other Wind

The Earthsea Trilogy, which miraculously grew a fourth limb when Le Guin added Tehanu in 1991, then was augmented by a collection of Tales from EarthSea in 2001, and now has yet a fifth limb with publication of The Other Wind, is now officially "The Earthsea Cycle." This is one of those 'books for children' we are fortunate to rediscover when we buy them for our own children. Populated by one of the great dragons of all time (better even than the dragon that John Gardner's Grendel seeks out for lessons in existentialism) and weaving together the anthropology and the literary traditions of magic, the original trilogy is a many-forked coming-of-age story.

Tales from Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin

First, a novel about a boy meant to be a wizard, then a girl meant to be a priestess/queen, then a third that shows the wizard training a secular power (some would say that's an odd summary of The Farthest Shore, which won the National Book Award in 1972). Tehanugives both wizard and priestess again, old and wiser. Folks will tell you the fourth book "ruins it." Take that about as seriously as the sneers of the true believers about the casting of Arnold Schwartznegger as 'Conan' and the grousing of other folks about the fourth voyage of Gulliver. You might point out that this fourth novel got Le Guin her third Nebula.... I will be reviewing the fifth novel, The Other Wind, which picks up where Tehanu left off, soon. This is a set of books to place beside The Lord of the Rings.

For more information about the Earthsea books and the world of the stories, have a look at The Dragon of Soléa's Guide to Earthsea.

Short Stories

The Compass Rose

The Compass Rose
Orsinian Tales
Four Ways to Forgiveness
The Wind's Twelve Quarters
Unlocking the Air and Other Stories
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea
Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences

Four Ways to Forgiveness

Le Guin has been a prolific short story writer as well. Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences picks up some of the environmental concerns in Always Coming Home. {By the way, the best deal around, these days, is the hardcover edition of the lead story Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight, illustrated by Susan Seddon Boulet. If you get there in time, $4.98 for a gorgeous coffeetable book and a fine story.) Four Ways to Forgiveness, a collection of four linked novellas, deals with interpersonal relationships similar to those she explores in Always Coming Home.Top

Other Writing

Tao De Ching

Lao Tzu–Tao Te Ching:
A Book About the Way and the Power of the Way

Le Guin has identified Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching as one of the great permanent influences on her life and work, and it is easy to see, as far back as the wisdom Ged imparts to Arren who will be king, in The Farthest Shore, that this is so. Shambala Publications has now published her redaction (not a translation, since she has no Chinese) of this little masterpiece into a series of poems. In addition to the hardcover book version, there is also an audio cassette of her reading the text with accompaniment by Todd Barton, who provided the music for Always Coming Home. Le Guin's poetry has never grabbed my interest, but I can think of many less painful ways to read Lao Tzu, and Barton's music is intriguing.

Dancing on the Edge of the World

The Language of the Night:
 Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction
Dancing at the Edge of the World:
 Thoughts on Words, Women, Places
Steering the Craft:
 Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing
 for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew

These three collections of essays are some of the most readable and sensible things that have been written on feminism, fantasy, and the craft of fiction. The Language of the Night focuses primarily on fantasy/science fiction, and it includes at least three excellent essays, "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons," "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," and "Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown." The last is the source of my subtitle, "Housewives in Space," I think. Somewhere in the essays Le Guin creates the ultimate put-down label for "heroic fantasy": Bronze Jockstrap books. Dancing contains some of the best non-nonsense writing about writing I've seen anywhere, including Le GUin's essay on "discovering" that she was a feminist; and Steering the Craft is a writer's workshop book complete with exercises.

Other Books like Always Coming Home

Dancing Badger

There aren't any. No, really, in what sense? Other writers have utopian novels; there is even one located in the same geography, Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia, birthed by the hippie/'California feel-good' psychobabble of the sixties. Comparing it to Always Coming Home, a reviewer referred to it as one of the 'Wouldn't it be great if we all...' utopia books. The other utopian flavor, 'We thought it would be great if we all... but boy were we wrong!', doesn't quite fit either.

There are any number of 'after technology collapses' science fiction novels, even some with an environmental and feminist slant, like the novels of Sidney Lanier, Cynthia Felice, George R. Stewart, and Suzy McKee Charnas. It would be interesting to compare Le Guin's book with the only other book of similar stature, Walter Miller's cult classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz. But the comparisons are entirely contrastive; Miller's wild ride into the post-apocalyptic future is hysterically funny and suicidally nihilistic, while Le Guin's gentle positivism is so persuasive that it will bring tears to the back of your eyes.

The only book that comes close to this one is for me Jaime de Angulo's wonderfully eccentric Indian Tales, which no one, possibly not even Le Guin, would find all that similar. De Angulo tells a story of a family of Indians who may or may not be animals living not too long ago in dreamtime. Nobody ever made it work better. But I'm afraid the place to go for books like Ursula Le Guin's is Ursula Le Guin's books.

I have posted a critical essay (i.e., an analysis, not a complaint) on Always Coming Home. Le Guin's own website, newly available (September 2001) is www.ursulaleguin.com. (Prepare to be puzzled a bit by the home page.) An excellent source of information on Le Guin and her work is Le Guin's World, an evolving fan site that includes the Hainish Encyclopedia. Another comprehensive area is The Unofficial Ursula Le Guin Page.

For the Earthsea books, have a look at The Dragon of Solé's Guide to Earthsea.

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