The Utopias of Ursula K. Le Guin

January 29, 2018 | 5 books mentioned 1 8 min read

The revolutionary science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, who passed away January 22, understood something important about ideal worlds and societies: Utopia is not perfection. Utopia is process. It is reflection and adjustment, learning and growth. It is communication and respect, self-awareness and honesty. This concept echoes throughout her body of work, but she explores utopia-as-process fully in one of her most radical novels, Always Coming Home, published in 1985.

This novel, more accurately described as a fictional anthropological study, has no singular narrative and no main character. Certainly, we hear life stories from individuals in the Kesh society depicted in the book, but traditional narrative isn’t the only means by which Le Guin tells this story—she includes poems, plays, illustrations, musical notation, and other ephemera as part of the tale. This nonlinear narrative structure, along with the stories included therein, synthesizes Le Guin’s beliefs on the unavoidable, destructive outcomes of a patriarchal, capitalist society by rejecting them whole cloth.

In a 2015 essay for Motherboard, Le Guin wrote, “Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.” Much of her fiction concerns itself with finding a better way, a way mutually beneficial to humans and the earth.

Indeed, in Always Coming Home’s utopic society, the Kesh live in a reclaimed post-apocalyptic California. Although some land remains arable, much of what was formerly the United States is inhospitable to human life. The text implies that the conquest-driven, consumptive culture of the 20th century directly led to the continent’s ruination. Despite the harshness of their environment, the Kesh thrive. But how do you build utopia from destruction and ruin?

Here’s where the book becomes difficult, radical, and complex. The hinge spiral, a two-armed spiral circling out from a single center point, is the key to understanding both the novel and Le Guin’s vision of utopia. Not only does the spiral form the central motif for the Kesh, but the narrative structure itself echoes the spiral.

Always Coming Home is a study in what a complete and utter rejection of capitalism and patriarchy might look like—for society and for the art of storytelling. For the Kesh, poverty is non-existent because the society supports all of its members. Artists, artisans, and other creative types are valued as highly as hunters and farmers. The people work with the land, not against it, and certainly not in dominion over it. Greed is unnecessary because every person has what they need to be happy and healthy. Crime is so minimal as to be nonexistent.

covercoverAlthough many of Le Guin’s other novels contain utopias, her most well-read novels are not quite as grand in vision as Always Coming Home. The Left Hand of Darkness, published in 1969, chiefly addresses the singular topic of gender/sex and the consequences of favoring one biological sex over the other. The Dispossessed, a 1974 novel written in response to the Vietnam War, explores an anarchist utopia and what a world without capitalism might look like. But it, too, stops short of completely re-envisioning society. In addition, these novels—along with the majority of Le Guin’s books and short stories—follow a semi-traditional narrative structure. They have a beginning, middle, and end. They have protagonists and antagonists. They use the language of patriarchy, albeit subversively.

By avoiding a linear narrative in Always Coming Home, Le Guin escapes the trap inherent in all would-be subversive texts: the use of language, which is controlled by patriarchy. Always Coming Home avoids the patriarchal conventions of storytelling by first eschewing a traditional narrative arc detailing a protagonist triumphing over an antagonist. Instead of one arc, Always Coming Home consists of many smaller arcs. The text’s longest section, “Stone Telling”—the life story of a woman of the same name—takes up only slightly more than 100 of the text’s 525 pages. The inclusion of other life stores aside from Stone Telling’s, such as those in the “Eight Life Stories” section, shows that no one narrative should represent an entire group of people or a place. Rather, diverse voices should be given a space in which to share their experiences and stories, whatever form those stories might take.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, we are privy only to Genly Ai’s reactions to the ambisexual Gethenians. In The Dispossessed, we follow Shevek in his studies and experiences with anarchism and capitalism. In Always Coming Home, Le Guin presents an entire world of stories and perspectives. (This is not, of course, to say that Le Guin’s other novels don’t have value and meaning—they absolutely do, and are great in their own ways.)

Always Coming Home also escapes the patriarchal convention of linear storytelling by situating the creative and autobiographical works of the text, which constitute its bulk, within a socio-historical context. Pandora’s commentary and informational sections lend weight to those creative works by giving them extra layers of symbolic and historic meaning, and more importantly, by revealing the processes through which Kesh society maintains its utopia (this is also a subversion of the concept of “utopia,” which by patriarchal storytelling tradition cannot exist and always ends badly).

The novel’s arrangement is not, however, without shape, and its shape allows the text to communicate with itself. The “Stone Telling” section, broken into three parts, is the hinge around which Le Guin spirals the historical, societal, literary, and biographical sections of the text, many of which are also broken into multiple parts. These sections do not exist independently of each other, although they can be read separately. Instead, they wrap around each other and reflect upon each other, building meaning as they go.

At the very end of “Time and the City,” the Archivist at the city of Wakwaha tells Pandora, “Tell about the Condor. Let Stone Telling tell her story.” Linearly speaking, though, Stone Telling’s story began on page seven, and part two begins on page 173, immediately after this exchange between Pandora and the Archivist. The narrator’s introduction to “Stone Telling,” the hinge, comes one-third of the way through Stone Telling’s tale, effectively cycling back to that section rather than simply providing a preface for it.

coverBecause there are many stories, readers can enter the text at multiple points, unlike a traditional novel. The lack of a dominant narrative voice gives the reader freedom to choose her entry point and makes her an active participant in the text. Not only do multiple entry points undercut the idea that there is one “right” story—that of the hero—but create a text in which exist nearly infinite possibilities for the interpretation of meaning. “Readers, after all,” Le Guin said in an interview included in the collection At the Field’s End, “are making the world with you. You give them the materials, but it’s the readers who build that world in their own minds.”

Regardless of where a reader starts reading and what choices she makes, she is in effect swirled back into the text and into communication with it at the end of each section, not marched out of it as in a traditional point A to point B narrative.

Capitalism and patriarchy embrace a binary: rich/poor, right/wrong, male/female, etc. “Success” refers only to vocational and financial success, never the successful raising of children or creation of art (whether or not anyone sees or appreciates said art). Le Guin cracks these binaries open, from the way the Kesh keep records (anyone can give anything to the library, and it is kept as long as people are interested in keeping it) to the way she structured the book as a spiral.

Le Guin takes the idea of multiple entry points to another level entirely by including non-lingual aspects in the book, thereby further evading the problem of language and dominant discourse. Scholar Robin Roberts points out that the novel itself is a collaborative work, since others composed the music, drew the pictures, and helped Le Guin with the maps, further avoiding the problem of “univocality,” as she calls it. Roberts says—and I agree—that, “Through her amalgamation of diverse materials, Le Guin emphasizes the act of interpretation.”

In Always Coming Home, even the arrangement of sections provides a clear critique of patriarchy by juxtaposing Kesh society with that of the Dayao, or Condor, people. The Dayao people believe in an immortal god called One. One created the world, and will eventually unmake it. On page 190, Stone Telling says, “Human men are imitations of him. One is not the universe; he made it, and gives orders. Things are not a part of him nor is he part of them, so you must not praise things, but only One.” Instead of the Valley’s animistic beliefs that hold all things sacred, the Dayao worship one god and follow a strict hierarchy of power and authority.

coverThe above passage from page 190 brings to mind two particular passages from The Bible. The first is John 1 verses 1-3, which states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”  The second passage is Genesis 1:7, which states, “So God created man in his own image.” The Bible teaches, like the One, that a supreme being created the world, and that humans were made in his image, and exist to glorify him. Since a supreme being created the world for human use, they do not need to respect or show honor to the more-then-human world, let alone communicate with it. By echoing the language of The Bible, the text makes the parallel between the Dayao society and our own clear.

The Kesh, in contrast, call all living things people, and differentiate between species. There are human people, and cow people, and coyote people. By calling these species the same word used for humans, the Valley people show that they hold animals in equal regard to themselves. They do not kill mercilessly or without cause. Only wild animals who, according to “The Back of the Book,” “allowed themselves to be hunted, who responded to the hunter’s singing and came to meet the arrow or enter the snare, had consented to come into the Second of the Earth Houses, the Blue Clay, in order to die. They had taken on mortality sacrificially and sacramentally.”

The ways the hinge motif can be applied to Always Coming Home would fill volumes. The novel’s content and structure echo one other so closely that they, too, become arms on the spiral. Even the physical book acts as a hinge, connecting reader to author, and reader to content, and author to content. Without the others, the existence of one becomes meaningless. It is not the final product that matters, but the process by which author and reader give the story life.

Le Guin understood that if we seek a limited version of success defined by the values of capitalism and patriarchy, we will never progress beyond these self-destructive ideals. Instead, we should revel in the cyclical nature of things, in self-reflection and growth, in living with the natural world instead of against it. We should embrace the interconnectedness of life and reject the idea that if one person is rich, another must be poor.

It is only by engaging in the never-ending process of reflection and growth that we can achieve utopia, or some version of it. That is Le Guin’s final, and greatest, gift to all those who dream of a better way to live.

reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, Penn. Her fiction has appeared in Permafrost, Sou’wester, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and was nominated for 2017 Pushcart. Kelly received her MFA from Chatham University, is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars, and can always be found with a large mug of tea. Read more at kellylynnthomas.com.

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