Le Guin’s posthumous reputation gets a boost from filmmaker Arwen Curry, left, and a book re-release.
An expanded and more complete edition of Always Going Home releases as the bio doc Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin makes screening rounds, further elevating her posthumous reputation.
Few novelists have written about the post-apocalypse with as much grace as Berkeley native Ursula K. Le Guin in Always Coming Home. Spotlighted in a documentary a decade in the making, what may be the science fiction author’s overlooked mid-career masterpiece is being published in an expanded edition to be released Feb. 5 that gives a more complete perspective on Le Guin’s vision of a drastically altered Northern California.
When she died at age 88 on Jan. 22, 2018, Le Guin left behind more than 100 short stories and nearly two dozen novels, from the youth-targeted fantasy The Earthsea Cycle to the gender-bending science fiction of The Left Hand of Darkness. Perhaps her most idiosyncratic achievement was 1985’s Always Coming Home, an ambitious mix of story-telling techniques — poetry, music, recipes and autobiography among them.
Set in a distant future, Always Coming Home chronicles the activities of the Kesh, a peaceful people who live in what was once Napa Valley, near an inland sea created by climate change. Margaret Chodos-Irvine provided illustrations and Todd Barton composed the project’s music, which was included on a cassette tape sold with the first edition.
Brian Attebery, editor of the soon-to-be-released Library of American edition, said, “Always Coming Home was a radical experiment: a portrait of a whole society with no single narrative center, written in a whole array of forms. I don’t think any of us quite knew what to make of it, although everyone could find some pieces of it to love.”
Le Guin consulted a geologist to imagine how the topography of the Bay Area might change over time.
“The big cities are submerged, industry is gone, and the remnant population now lives in relatively isolated agricultural communities,” Attebery said. “But it’s a surprisingly positive vision: People are mostly peaceful, they have enough to eat, and they have a rich imaginative life of song, ritual, and a sophisticated philosophy that reflects Le Guin’s own immersion in Taoism and Native American belief.”
With the author’s cooperation and the participation of some of Le Guin’s literary admirers, including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Chabon, San Francisco filmmaker Arwen Curry spent more than 10 years assembling Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, a documentary making the film festival rounds and attracting appreciative audiences.
Commentary about Always Coming Home is an element of the film, emphasizing its connection to the author’s summer family home in Napa Valley.
Curry said, “Always Coming Home was the moment that Le Guin decided to situate one of her imaginary worlds right in a real place, where her heart lies, in Wine Country, in some distant future. It was [written] after her mother died, after her children had left the house, and she decided that it was time to come home somehow. It’s a very profound novel for her own biography.”
Curry said that sense of a return to the familiar became a touchstone for Le Guin. “It’s something you see repeated in her later novels, where she really grasps the pain and the redemption of human experience.”
“This is the book Le Guin envisioned and more,” Attebery said. “Publishing pressures didn’t allow inclusion of all of the material she originally wrote. Now we have additional poems, information about language, a more complete version of the Kesh novel — one chapter was in the book, but she wrote three — and lots of other stuff.”
Le Guin’s posthumous reputation seems likely to continue its upward trajectory. Curry said, “Her fame is not going to diminish anytime soon. In fact, it’s just amplifying month by month.”