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ALWAYS COMING HOME by Ursula K. Le Guin Kirkus Star


by Ursula K. Le Guin

Pub Date: March 29th, 2001
ISBN: 0-520-22735-2
Publisher: Univ. of California

LeGuin here focuses her inimitable world-building skills on two conflicting societies of the future--implying, of course, their relevance to the present. Far less preachy than 1974's The Dispossessed, this is equally intelligent and ambitious. It lacks, however, the flawless integration of storyline and interspersed folk-material that characterized 1969's The Left Hand of Darkness. The novel is set in northern California in some far distant future that has been shaped by earthquakes and social upheaval. There are computers and contraceptives, tanks and antibiotics, but this is a world governed by human customs, not by technological "progress." The two societies LeGuin describes are both tribal, though she prevents us from thinking of either as "primitive." As in Shevek's role as mediator between the planets Urres and Anarres in The Dispossessed, the two cultures in conflict here are observed by a narrator not wholly part of either world. "North Owl" (one of LeGuin's rare female protagonists) is a "half-person"--raised by a woman of the matriarchal Valley (a herdsmen/farmer tribe), but fathered by a passing Condor warrior. She grows up without a father in her mother's nature-respecting world; later, in her rebellious adolescence, she joins her father and becomes a woman of the war-seeking Condors, marrying, and bearing a child. Ultimately, assuming the new name of "Woman Coming Home," she travels with her own small daughter back to The Valley, as the precarious, war-centered economy of the Condors begins to collapse, taking tribal solidarity along with it. Because LeGuin is adapting relatively familiar (American Indian) paradigms, there are fewer sheer triumphs of wit and imagination than in such science-fiction novels as Left Hand of Darkness, which have offered the geography, customs and languages of entirely invented worlds. In addition, the bulky apparatus of poems, folk tales, maps, illustrations, glossary--even a taped cassette of "Valley" music (unavailable for review, but not performed, at any rate, by Moon Unit Zappa)--often overwhelms what should be central here: the delicate, beautifully told story of North Owl's education. Still, the heroine's efforts to strike a balance between opposing claims (between mother and father, spirit and mind, husbandry and conquest, peace and war) mark a return by LeGuin to the themes and techniques of her major work. And no one does this type of utopian near-allegory better.