“The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.” -Ursula K. Le Guin
I only have one criterion for judging a book or movie/TV show: does it offer an emotionally honest, thoughtful, and nuanced perspective of human relationships that allows us to imagine new possibilities for our lives? For having only one box to check, far too few works actually meet this criterion. Most present life and its interactions/miscommunications in a predictable, unproductive trajectory and allow us to go on living how we always have, sometimes even offering ways of doing it worse than we have. As the opening quote would suggest, this might not be an accident– certainly, there are people who profit from keeping things as they are, from bombarding us with mindlessness, and from perpetuating the myth that what we see is human nature, leading us to believe that ‘we can’t change our nature‘. But I don’t believe that myth, and I’m longing for better ways to live; I think we all need our imaginations to be challenged to come up with some. That is why Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home impressed me so much: it offered an entirely different mode of life in such a comprehensive and thorough manner that I came away feeling like so much more was possible, that we don’t have to follow the same old script.
With Always Coming Home, I took a long time to figure out what I was even reading. I thought I had picked up a novel, so I was quite confused when the novel-like portion of the book stopped all of the sudden with a note that it would pick up 150 or so pages later. What could possibly take that long to get back to the story? I wondered. Eventually, I realized that I had picked up a fictionalized archive, anthropological and literary in nature, making it feel like both a study of a civilization and also a library of that civilization. The more I read, the more in awe of Le Guin I became– she created an entire language for this book! It was incredible.
Once I realized that this was a collection of pieces of a civilization– one that supposedly exists years in the future after we all mostly die from the toxic poisons we pump into ourselves and our earth– I was able to start grasping what that civilization valued and how it worked. This is what made the book pass my test. The characteristics most valued were generosity, mindfulness, and equanimity; those least valued were violence (war), power, and greed. Wealth was measured by how much a household gave to others; keeping things for oneself was looked down upon. Hunting was for adolescents and viewed as something to grow out of. Poems and songs were almost always written to be given away. Animals and nature were respected and were even called people in the book’s language; humans were seen as part of nature, not separate from it and certainly not above it. Family lines were matrilineal: men married into women’s homes, rather than women marrying into men’s, and children traced their family lines through their mothers, not their fathers. Everyone had their role in their towns, and that role helped the town meet their people’s needs. Whatever they in the town couldn’t make by themselves, they traded for with other towns. Their lives didn’t sound easy, but they did sound meaningful. They lived with purpose.**
What brought it all together for me and made me see more clearly this strange new world was its juxtaposition with a group of people who lived very differently than the one the book was about. This group built a city of cement, made its women stay indoors and cover their faces, hoarded their possessions rather than shared them, and spent their energy on conquering all the land and people they could. I may be slow to pick up on symbols, but I did recognize which of these two groups’ values most resembled those of the society I have grown up in. And the reflection was not a pretty one. It made the other way of living that much more appealing, that much more profound. (It was suggested that this conquering group of people self-sabotaged themselves somehow to the point of disintegration– their hunger for power was not sustainable; their source of power not true.)
Still, many things that seem self-evident to me are debated by others. I read this book and tried to hear the voices that would argue that this alternative way of life would actually be better. I feel very strongly about using my singular question to guide my book and movie preferences, though I understand that judging someone for not doing something they didn’t intend to do in the first place isn’t very fair. But I want to have more hopeful, more imaginative conversations sparked by more hopeful, more imaginative inventions. I am not interested in the same old methods and same old lines we are familiar with. Even if someone doesn’t like an invention such as Always Coming Home and can articulate where they disagree, we can nevertheless have a worthwhile conversation about that. We just have to keep looking for better alternatives until we’ve created it ourselves. Le Guin wrote it best in her book:
“We have to learn what we can, but remain mindful that our knowledge not close the circle, closing out the void, so that we forget that what we do not know remains boundless, without limit or bottom, and that what we know may have to share the quality of being known with what denies it. What is seen with one eye has no depth.”
We can’t stop looking.
**I wouldn’t read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz until later, where I learned that such practices were not invented by Le Guin but rather by the indigenous peoples of the United States before there was ever such a thing as the ‘United States’. There is an uncanny resemblance particularly between the Haudenosaunee people and those described in Always Coming Home. This adds a whole other layer to the book, creating an ironic yet profound circle of sorts by having society return, through its own destruction, to what it was before society destroyed it.