Always Coming Home

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Always Coming Home
First edition cover
AuthorUrsula K. Le Guin
IllustratorMargaret Chodos
CountryUnited States
GenreScience fiction
Published1985 (Harper and Row)
Media typePrint (hardcover and paperback)
813/.54 19
LC ClassPS3562.E42 A79 1985
Submerged California, the setting of the book. The Old Straight Road is the SR 29, the Grandmother Mountain (Ama Kulkun) is Mount Saint Helena.
Heyiya-if, a holy symbol for the Kesh.
The Kesh aiha alphabet

Always Coming Home is a 1985 science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is written in parts narrative, pseudo-textbook and pseudo-anthropologist's record. It describes the life and society of the Kesh people, a cultural group who live in the distant future long after modern society has collapsed.[1]


The book is divided into two parts: The first part is a personal history, narrated by a woman called Stone Telling. The second part is an account of the Kesh people of the Valley of the Na River, collected by someone using the pen name "Pandora". Stone Telling's autobiography fills less than a third of the book, interspersed throughout it with large gaps; the rest is a field-journal edited by Pandora, who seems to be an anthropologist or ethnographer from the readers' contemporary culture, or a culture very close to it.

The setting[edit]

The book's setting is a time so post-apocalyptic that no cultural source can remember the apocalypse, though a few folk tales refer to our time. The only signs of our civilization that have lasted into their time are indestructible artefacts such as styrofoam and a self-manufacturing, self-maintaining, solar-system-wide computer network. There has been a great sea level rise since our time, flooding much of northern California, where the story takes place.

The Kesh use technological inventions of civilization such as writing, steel, guns, electricity, trains, and a computer network (see below). However, unlike the neighboring societies – like the Dayao – they reject governance, disallow any non-laboring caste, do not expand their population or territory, consider disbelief in what we consider “supernatural” absurd, and deplore human domination of the natural environment. Their culture blends millennia of human economic culture by combining aspects of hunter-gatherer, agricultural, and industrial societies, but rejects cities (literal “civilization”). In fact, what they call “towns” would count as villages for the reader – a dozen or a few-dozen multi-family or large family homes. What they call “war” is a minor skirmish over hunting territories, and is considered a ridiculous pastime for youngsters, since an adult person should not throw his life away.

Pandora observes that a key difference between the Kesh and the readers' [her?] society is the size of their population: "There are not too many of them.".[2] Their low population density means that they can feed themselves from their land. The Kesh maintain this low population without coercion, which would be antithetical to their loosely organized society. They carry a large accumulation of genetic damage, which leads to fewer successful pregnancies and higher infant mortality. They also have social taboos against multiple siblings and early pregnancies; a third child is considered shameful, and the Dayao's practice of large families is referred to as "incontinence".

Narrative part[edit]

The first part of the book weaves around the story of Stone Telling, who spent her childhood with her mother's people in The Valley, and as a very young woman lived several years with her father's people in The City. The two societies are contrasted through her narrative: the Kesh are tolerant, peaceable, and self-organized, whereas the Dayao or Condor people of The City are rigid, patriarchal, hierarchical, militaristic, and expansionist.

Ethnographic part[edit]

The second part of the book presents cultural lore, with the format and attributions or annotations that an ethnographic fieldworker might make. It includes Kesh cultural lore, essays on Kesh culture, and the musings of a different narrator, Pandora, who is the fictional editor of that section. Pandora describes the book as a protest against contemporary civilization, which the Kesh call "the Sickness of Man".

The cultural lore includes history and legends, mythos, village layout and landscaping, family and professional guilds, recipes, customary celebrations, rituals, spiritual groups, and song lyrics and poetry.[a] Some editions of the book were accompanied by a tape of Kesh music and poetry.

A number of these are attributed by Pandora to a Kesh woman named Little Bear Woman;[b][3] these are:

  • Shahugoten. As told by Little Bear Woman of Sinshan to the Editor pp. 57–59 [a legend]
  • Coming Home to Up the Hill House. By Little Bear Woman p. 258 [a poem]
  • The Writer to the Morning in Up the Hill House in Sinshan. By Little Bear Woman p. 258 [a poem]
  • A Song to Up the Hill House in Sinshan. By Little Bear Woman p. 259 [a poem]
  • Some of the paths around Sinshan Creek. A Kesh map of the watershed of Sinshan Creek, given to the Editor by Little Bear Woman of Sinshan.


The novel received the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and was a runner up for the National Book Awards.[4][5]

Literary significance and criticism[edit]

It has been noted that Always Coming Home underscores Le Guin's long-standing anthropological interests. The Valley of the Na [River] is modeled on the landscape of California's Napa Valley, where Le Guin spent her childhood when her family was not in Berkeley.[6]

Like much of Le Guin's work, Always Coming Home follows Native American themes. According to Richard Erlich,[7] "Always Coming Home is a fictional retelling of much in A. L. Kroeber's [Ursula's father] monumental Handbook of the Indians of California." There are also some elements retrieved from her mother's The Inland Whale (Traditional narratives of Native California), such as the importance of the number nine, and the map of the Na Valley which looks like the Ancient Yurok World.[8] There are also Taoist themes: the heyiya-if looks like the taijitu, and its hollow center (the "hinge") is like the hub of the wheel as described in the Tao Te Ching. Le Guin had described herself "as an unconsistent Taoist and a consistent un-Christian".[9]

One of its earliest reviews, by Samuel R. Delany in the New York Times, called it "a slow, rich read... [Le Guin's] most satisfying text among a set of texts that have provided much imaginative pleasure"[10]

Box set and soundtrack[edit]

A box set edition of the book (ISBN 0-06-015456-X), comes with an audiocassette entitled Music and Poetry of the Kesh, featuring 10 musical pieces and 3 poetry performances by Todd Barton. The book contains 100 original illustrations by Margaret Chodos. As of 2017, the soundtrack can be purchased separately in MP3 format (ISBN 978-1-61138-209-9). A vinyl record was also released, together with a digital album for streaming and download in several formats. That combination sold out, but the digital album by itself remains available, and a second pressing of the vinyl, plus the digital, was scheduled to ship "on or around 25 May 2018".[11]

Stage performance[edit]

A stage version of Always Coming Home was mounted at Naropa University in 1993 (with Le Guin's approval) by Ruth Davis-Fyer. Music for the production was composed and directed by Brian Mac Ian, although it was original music and not directly influenced by Todd Barton's work.

Publication history[edit]


  • Italian: "Sempre la valle", Mondadori, 1986
  • Spanish: "El eterno regreso a casa", Edhasa, 1989.
  • Danish: "Altid hjem", Klim, 1990
  • Serbian: "Stalno se vraćajući kući", Polaris, 1992
  • Polish: "Wracać wciąż do domu", Prószyński, 1996
  • Russian: "Всегда возвращаясь домой", Polaris, 1997; Eksmo, 2005
  • French: "La Vallée de l'éternel retour", Actes Sud, 1994, Mnémos, 2012


John Scalzi, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, wrote, in his introduction to the 2016 edition, that he discovered the book as a teenager, and calls it "a formative book...sunk deep in [his] bones", one to endlessly return to, always coming home.[12]


  1. ^ Le Guin also separately published a Kesh-like spiritual poem "Totem", relating to the Mole Society (a cult), in her poetry collection Hard Words.
  2. ^ The name "Little Bear Woman" is a fair equivalent of Ursula, the author's first name, which is Latin for "little she-bear": ursa "a she-bear" + -ula fem. form of -ulus "diminutive"


  1. ^ Bernardo, Susan M.; Murphy, Graham J. (2006). Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. pp. 19–20.
  2. ^ Le Guin, Ursula K. (1986). Always Coming Home. Bantam Spectra. p. 509. ISBN 0-553-26280-7.
  3. ^ "Always Coming Home" (2001 ed.) – via Google Books.
  4. ^ "National Book Awards list". National Book Foundation. 1985.
  5. ^ "Kafka Recipients".
  6. ^ Bernardo, Susan M.; Murphy, Graham J. (2006). Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood. p. 19. ISBN 9780313332258.
  7. ^ Erlich, Richard D. (1997). "Always Coming Home". Coyote's Song: The Teaching Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin. The Milford Series Popular Writers of Today. Wildside Press. p. 247. ISBN 978-1-4344-5775-2. ISSN 0163-2469. Archived from the original on 2012-03-18. Retrieved 2013-02-20.
  8. ^ Kroeber, Theodora (1963). The Inland Whale. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 10.
  9. ^ letter responding to the chapter about The Left Hand of Darkness in David Ketterer's book, New Worlds For Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature, see Le Guin, Ursula K. (July 1975). "Ketterer on The Left Hand Of Darkness". Science Fiction Studies. SF-TH. 2 (6): 139.
  10. ^ Delany, Samuel R. "PAPERBACKS; THE KESH IN SONG AND STORY". Retrieved 17 July 2018.
  11. ^ "Music and Poetry of the Kesh by Ursula K. Le Guin & Todd Barton". Bandcamp. Archived from the original on 2018-04-05. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  12. ^ Le Guin, Ursula K. (2016). Always Coming Home. ISBN 9781473205802.
  • Bernardo, Susan M.; Murphy, Graham J. (2006). Ursula K. Le Guin: A Critical Companion (1st ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-33225-8.
  • Cadden, Mike (2005). Ursula K. Le Guin Beyond Genre: Fiction for Children and Adults (1st ed.). New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-99527-2.

External links[edit]