Always Coming Home

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Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home is a major work of the imagination from one of America's most respected writers of science fiction. More than five years in the making, it is a novel unlike any other. A rich and complex interweaving of story and fable, poem, artwork, and music, it totally immerses the reader in the culture of the Kesh, a peaceful people of the far future who inhabit a place called the Valley on the Northern Pacific Coast.

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Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home is a major work of the imagination from one of America's most respected writers of science fiction. More than five years in the making, it is a novel unlike any other. A rich and complex interweaving of story and fable, poem, artwork, and music, it totally immerses the reader in the culture of the Kesh, a peaceful people of the far future who inhabit a place called the Valley on the Northern Pacific Coast.

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Editorial Reviews

Globe and Mail
Adds up to a gorgeously complex portrayal of a yet-to-exist society.
Kirkus Reviews
Set in a northern California of the still-distant future, this 1985 novel by the popular Le Guin qualifies for inclusion in the Press's "California Fiction" series, though it's easy to imagine that commercial reprinters avoided the massive narrative because of its bulky blend of poetry, folk tales, maps, drawings, glossary, and music (tape available by mail). On its first appearance, Kirkus admired Le Guin's "inimitable world-building skills," but felt this utopian novel didn't measure up to her masterpiece, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Le Guin compares two future societies in conflict, but she's "adapting relatively familiar (American Indian) paradigms." So, said Kirkus, "there are fewer sheer triumphs of wit and imagination" than in her other work. Le Guin, we thought, lost focus amidst the weighty supplementary material. At the same time, "no one does this type of utopian near-allegory better."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520227354
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 2/27/2001
  • Series: California Fiction Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 534
  • Sales rank: 638,208
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Ursula K.  Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is the author of novels, children's books, short stories, critical writings, and poetry. She is the winner of the National Book Award and the Nebula and Hugo awards for science fiction. She grew up in Berkeley and the Napa Valley and now lives in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent book is The Telling (2000).


Speculative fiction, magic realism, "slipstream" fiction -- all these terms could apply to the works of Ursula K. Le Guin. Unfortunately, none was in common use when she started writing in the early 1960s. As a young writer, Le Guin weathered seven years of rejections from editors who praised her novels' elegant prose but were puzzled by their content. At a time when the only literary fiction was realistic fiction, as Le Guin later told an interviewer for The Register-Guard in Portland, Oregon, "There just wasn't a pigeonhole for what I write."

At long last, two of her stories were accepted for publication, one at a literary journal and one at a science-fiction magazine. The literary journal paid her in copies of the journal; the science-fiction magazine paid $30. She told The Register-Guard, "I thought: 'Oooohhh! They'll call what I write science fiction, will they? And they'll pay me for it? Well, here we go!' "

Le Guin continued to write and publish stories, but her breakthrough success came with the publication of The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. The novel, which tells of a human ambassador's encounters with the gender-changing inhabitants of a distant planet, was unusual for science fiction in that it owed more to anthropology and sociology than to the hard sciences of physics or biology. The book was lauded for its intellectual and psychological depth, as well as for its fascinating premise. "What got to me was the quality of the story-telling," wrote Frank Herbert, the author of Dune. "She's taken the mythology, psychology -- the entire creative surround -- and woven it into a jewel of a story."

Since then, Le Guin has published many novels, several volumes of short stories, and numerous poems, essays, translations, and children's books. She's won an arm's-length list of awards, including both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and a National Book Award for The Farthest Shore. Over the years, she has created and sustained two fictional universes, populating each with dozens of characters and stories. The first universe, Ekumen, more or less fits into the science-fiction mode, with its aliens and interplanetary travel; the second, Earthsea, is a fantasy world, complete with wizards and dragons. As Margaret Atwood wrote in The New York Review of Books, "Either one would have been sufficient to establish Le Guin's reputation as a mistress of its genre; both together make one suspect that the writer has the benefit of arcane drugs or creative double-jointedness or ambidexterity."

More impressive still is the way Le Guin's books have garnered such tremendous crossover appeal. Unlike many writers of science fiction, she is regularly reviewed in mainstream publications, where her work has been praised by the likes of John Updike and Harold Bloom. But then, Le Guin has never fit comfortably into a single genre. As she said in a Science Fiction Weekly interview, "I know that I'm always called 'the sci-fi writer.' Everybody wants to stick me into that one box, while I really live in several boxes. It's probably hurt the sales of my realistic books like Searoad, because it tended to get stuck into science fiction, where browsing readers that didn't read science fiction would never see it."

Le Guin has also published a translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, a book that has influenced her life and writing since she was a teenager; she has translated fiction by Angelica Gorodischer and a volume of poems by Gabriela Mistral; and, perhaps most gratifyingly for her fans, she has returned to the imaginary realm of Earthsea. Tehanu, which appeared in 1990, was subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea," but Le Guin found she had more to tell, and she continued with Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind. "I thought after 'Tehanu' the story was finished, but I was wrong," she told Salon interviewer Faith L. Justice. "I've learned never to say 'never.' "

Good To Know

The "K" in Ursula K. Le Guin stands for Le Guin's maiden name, Kroeber. Her father was the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber; her mother, the writer Theodora Kroeber, is best known for the biography Ishi in Two Worlds.

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    1. Hometown:
      Portland, Oregon
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 21, 1929
    2. Place of Birth:
      Berkeley, California
    1. Education:
      B.A., Radcliffe College; M.A., Columbia University, 1952
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

Stone Telling

Part I

Stone Telling is my last name. It has come to me of my own choosing, because I have a story to tell of where I went when I was young; but now I go nowhere, sitting like a stone in this place, in this ground, in this Valley. I have come where I was going.

My house is the Blue Clay, my household the High Porch of Sinshan.

My mother was named Towhee, Willow, and Ashes. My father's name, Abhao, in the Valley means Kills.

In Sinshan babies' names often come from birds, since they are messengers. In the month before my mother bore me, an owl came every night to the oak trees called Gairga outside the windows of High Porch House, on the north side, and sang the owl's song there; so my first name was North Owl.

High Porch is an old house, well-built, with large rooms; the beams and frame are redwood, the walls of adobe brick and plaster, the flooring oak, the windows of clear glass in small square panes/ The balconies of High Porch are deep and beautiful. The great-grandmother of my grandmother was the first to live in our rooms, on the first floor, under the roof; when the family was big they needed the whole floor, but my grandmother was the only one of her generation, and so we lived in the two west rooms only. We could not give much. We had the use of ten wild olives and several other gathering trees on Sinshan Ridge and a seed-clearing on the east side of Wakyahum, and planted potatoes and corn and vegetables in one of the plots on the creek southeast of Adobe Hill, but we took much more corn and beans from the storehouses than we gave. My grandmother Valiant was a weaver. When I was a small child she had no sheep in the family, and so we gave most of what she wove for wool to weave more. The first thing I remember of being alive is that my grandmother's fingers moved across the warp of the loom, forth and back, a silver crescent bracelet shining on her wrist below the red sleeve.

The second thing I remember is that I went up to the spring of our creek in the fog in early morning in the winter. It was my first time as a Blue Clay child to dip up water for the new-moon wakwa. I was so cold I cried. The older children laughed at me and said I had spoiled the water. My grandmother was officiating, and she told me the water was all right, and let me carry the moon-jar all the way back to town; but I bawled and snivelled all the way, because I was cold and heavy. I can feel that cold and wet and weight now in old age, and see the dead arms of the manzanita black in the fog, and hear the voices laughing and talking before and behind me on the steep path beside the creek.

I go there, I go there.
I go where I went
Crying beside the water.
It goes there, it goes there,
The fog along the water.

I did not spend much time crying; maybe not enough. My mother's father said, "Laugh first, cry later; cry first, laugh later." He was a Serpentine man from Chumo, and had gone back to that town to live said once, "Living with my husband is like eating unleached acorns." But she went down to visit him from time to time in Chumo, and he would come and stay with us in the hills in summer, when Chumon was baking like a biscuit down on the Valley floor. His sister Green Drum was a famous Summer dancer, but his family never gave anything. He said they were poor because his mother and grandmother had given everything in past years putting on the Summer dances in Chumo. My grandmother said they were poor because they didn't like working. They may both have been right.

The only other human people directly in my family lived in Madininou. My grandmother's sister had gone there to live, and her son had married a Red Adobe woman there. We often visited, and I played with my second cousins, a girl and a boy called Pelican and Hops.

Our family animals when I was a small child were himpi, poultry, and a cat. Our cat was black without a white hair, handsome, mannerly, and a great hunter. We traded her kittens for himpi, so that for a while we had a big pen of himpi. I looked after them and the chickens, and kept cats out of the runs and pens down under the lower balconies. When I began staying with the animals I was still so small that the green-tailed cock frightened me. He knew it, and would come at me jerking his neck and swearing, and I would scramble over the divider into the himpi run to escape him. The himpi would come and sit up and whistle at me. They were a comfort to me, even more than kittens. I learned not to name them, and not to trade them alive for eating, but to kill quickly those I traded, since some people kill animals without care or skill, causing fear and pain. I cried enough to suit even my grandfather, after the night a sheepdog went amok and got into the run and slaughtered every himpi but a few nestlings. I could not speak to a dog for months after that. But it turned out well for my family, since the sheepdog's people gave us a ewe in lamb to make up for the loss of our himpi. The ewe bore twin ewe lambs, and so my mother was a shepherd again, and my grandmother had family wool to spin and weave.

I do not remember learning to read and dance; my grandmother was teaching me from before the time I began to speak and walk. When I was five I began going to the heyimas with the other Blue Clay children, mornings, and later studied with teachers in the heyimas and in the Blood, Oak, and Mole Lodges; I learned the Salt Journey; I studied a little with the poet Ire, and a long time with the potter Clay Sun. I was not quick to learn, and never considered going to a school in one of the great towns, though several children of Sinshan did so. I liked learning in the heyimas, taking part in a structure larger than my own knowledge, in which I could find relief from feelings of fear and anger which unaided I could not understand or get past. Yet I did not learn as much as I might have done, but always hung back, and said, "I can't do that."

Some of the children, illmeaning or ignorant, called me Hwikmas, "half-House." I had also heard people say of me, "She is half a person." I understood this in my own way, badly, since it was not explained to me at home. I had not the courage to ask questions at the heyimas, or to go where I might have learned about matters outside the little town of Sinshan, and begun to see the Valley as a part of a whole as well as a whole. Since neither my mother nor her mother spoke of him, in the first years of my life all I knew of my father was that he had come from outside the Valley and had gone away again. This meant to me only that I had no father's mother, no father's House, and therefore was a half-person. I had not even heard of the Condor people. I had lived eight years before we went to the hot springs in Kastoha-na to treat my grandmother's rheumatism, and in the common place there saw men of the Condor.

I will tell that journey. It was a small journey many years ago. It is a journey of the still air.

Copyright © 1985 by Ursula K. Le Guin
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2014

    Tired of shattered, dystopian visions of a future in which our d

    Tired of shattered, dystopian visions of a future in which our dehumanized descendants live under brutal oppression ? Then READ THIS BOOK!!!!  It's about a complex, rich culture that might exist thousands of years down the line in what is now Northern California. Step into that world. Read about the Kesh people's customs, dances, and rituals. Sample their stories, plays,  and recipes. You may even start thinking of ways that you can experience the Kesh people's sense of connectedness with nature and others into your own life. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2007

    A reviewer

    This was a great book. It is tattered now b/c I read it so many times. I like the edition with the yellow grass in the foreground. This reminds me of my yearly trips to Ohio. I like it

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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