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Always Coming Home is a 1985 novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. It describes a future. An After the End future.

The civilization we know has collapsed. The world has barely any resources left, the ecology is in shambles, vast parts of the land are polluted and poisonous. People still live there. Very few compared to the current population, and with a good portion of the babies stillborn due to genetic diseases.

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And they are fine with that.

The book is mostly centered around the Kesh People. They live in nine towns in the Valley of River Na; what we nowadays know as the Napa County, California, near Mount Saint Helena (a sacred location to them). A simple, reasonably utopian society with low population, tech limited to the level they can maintain comfortably, and no government in the sense we know it.And there is the Internet. Surviving A.I.s maintain the network for people in exchange for data about them. They also maintain research, space infrastructure, probes launched to study the universe - all to the extent that it doesn’t interfere with the ecosystem.

It is largely an example of worldbuilding, containing descriptions of the Kesh culture, their language, as well as their folklore. The original edition even had a cassette included, with songs and poems in the Kesh language. Currently, these are available for purchase both in digital form and vinyl.

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In 2019, an expanded edition of the book came out, containing both new material (such as the Kesh language syntax in addition to the glossary) and a number of essays explaining the backstory and Le Guin’s lectures on related subjects.

Always Coming Home contains examples of:

  • Adam and Eve Plot: Subverted in one of the creation myths told. One world did rise from a brother and sister who were the only ones left from the previous one, but since it was incest, the new people were mad and destroyed themselves eventually.
  • Adaptation Expansion: In-Universe. A particular genre in the Valley is a type of play where the author has only written some twenty lines around which any troupe can build a play of their own length and to their own taste.
  • After the End: With a good amount of the world poisoned and beaches full of styrofoam.
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  • The Alternet: The Exchange, as it is called. A.I.s maintain it for both themselves and humanity. No proper security, but any data older than 24 hours is automatically archived, and digging it up is problematic due to the lack of a user-friendly search engine.
  • Alternative Calendar: The Kesh People don’t have one in the usual sense, although they keep track of certain multi-year cycles for the sake of things like wine age.
  • Animal Theme Naming: The first names given to girls are often those of birds.
  • Arc Number: The Kesh divide everything into Nine Houses. The Five Houses of Earth represent corporal things like Earth, human beings, domestic animals and plants. The Four Houses of the sky include things like generic groups, the dead, the unborn, and the fictional. All three numbers are therefore frequent in the book.
  • Arc Symbol: Heyiya-if, a hinged spiral reflecting the world view as described above, with the left arm representing Earth and the right Sky. The Kesh include it not only in things like their drawings; their cities are laid according to it, with the left arm containing living houses (in case of the largest town, several arms were needed), the right arm, the heyimas (multifunctional public structures), and the hinge being some sort of spring or waterfall.
  • Armchair Military: The Dayao leader never left his palace, yet everyone was expected to follow his orders without questions, including in military campaigns. It works about as well as it sounds.
  • Author Avatar: While she never appears, Pandora mentions that she got much of her information from a Kesh woman called Little Bear Woman, which is a English translation of the Latin name "Ursula".
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The Dayao attempt to build a few airplanes as a Superweapon Surprise. In the Post-Peak Oil setting, they are forced to resort to biofuel production, and it turns out the whole food production of their city (built in a spot rather bad for agriculture at that) is insufficient to provide enough, even without accounting for, you know, the people’s need to eat.
  • Baby Language: Stone Telling remarks that as they went back home, her toddler daughter communicated with other toddlers in towns along the way far better than she herself did.
  • The Bard: The Kesh have several types of Clown for different social purposes, some of which satire society and those behaving badly in a way that exposes their foolishness. When Terter Abhao claims that Willow belongs to him, a Blood Clown mocks him by twisting his words into complete nonsense.
  • Balancing Death's Books: The Brave Man is the story of a person who offered to die instead of his wife after she had a very difficult miscarriage.
  • Bears Are Bad News: Like the story of Withy, who got clawed by one. Bears are normally in the House of non-game animals and thus cannot be hunted, but a bear that has attacked humans is seen as having submitted to be killed.
  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: One humorous story has a girl impressed when she sees a particular guy peeing.
  • Blame Game: The Dayao attempt to shift the blame upon each other when the war went badly for them.
  • Blaming the Victim: By the standards of Dayao, any woman without a proper escort is fair game who is asking for it.
  • Blinded by the Sun: The story of Junco, who spent a day staring at the sun trying to learn the secrets of the universe. The doctors only managed to restore his peripheral vision.
  • Blind Seer: Cave, the old woman from the story of Stone Telling.
  • Blood for Mortar: Some people in the Valley (and everyone in two of the towns) mixed some of a slaughtered animal's blood with clay, to be used later for making bricks.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Pandora talking to the librarian is the most prominent example.
  • Cain and Abel: The story of the Coyote and the human commander has his sons killing each other.
  • California Collapse: Not quite a collapse, but a lot of today’s structures are visible under the water, and it appears that Northern California has flooded.
  • Cassandra Truth: The Condor leader ignores and even punishes anyone who tries to tell him his armies cannot take on the whole world by themselves. That includes his own son.
  • Child by Rape: Hwette from Dangerous People is revealed to be one, courtesy of her mother’s boyfriend who didn’t take the breakup lightly. Averted by Stone Telling, who claims she did an abortion after her Dayao husband invoked Marital Rape Licence once.
  • Common Tongue: TOK, the language of the City of Mind's databases. Humans all around the world learn it in order to access the City's information, and so they are also able to use it as a common tongue across human groups.
  • Conlang: The language of Kesh has a considerable vocabulary given. The expanded edition also adds the syntax rules.
  • Cosy Catastrophe: Despite all the past and residual damage to Earth, people seem to be quite happy.
  • Country Mouse: Stone Telling describes feeling off to the point of sickness in the Condor city. The Dayao people themselves are, according to her, also an example. They used to be nomadic people, and are still happiest when outside their city.
  • Crazy Cultural Comparison: A lot of the aspects of the Kesh culture are alien to us, most prominently their attitude to property and wealth. When Stone Telling describes the Condor people, with customs closer to a western society (a highly conservative one), she treats them as madmen.
  • Creation Myth: A few are told by people in the book. It is unclear how much of it is tradition and how much is made up on the spot.
  • Defenestrate and Berate: One of the Kesh forms of divorce is a woman taking her husband’s things out of the house.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Kesh attitudes to sex, property and gender are considerably different from ours (wealth, for example, is determined by generosity instead of property).
  • Dirty Old Woman: Marigold, who used to dance the Moon (an annual orgy festival) almost until her death, usually picking some young boy afraid to approach a woman he actually liked.
  • Disappeared Dad: Terter Abhao for North Owl.
  • Disinherited Child: The Condor to his son, to the point of imprisoning and then killing him.
  • Divine Birds: For the Kesh, the birds are intermediaries between the Earth Houses and Sky houses. For the Dayao, a Condor is the sacred bird after which they are named.
  • Dreadful Musician: "A Vaunting" and "A response" are two mock poems, with one side claiming their musicians are wonderful, and the other... it might be an exaggeration.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Stone Telling described a vision she had of her father's corpse. When he shows up later, she believes her vision to be false, but later, when they must part ways as she escapes the Dayao people, she realizes a chance for it to come true will come soon.
  • Driven to Suicide:
    • It is mentioned that a teenaged father in the Valley might be mocked to the point of exile or suicide.
    • In "the Miller", the titular character jumps into his mill’s machinery once he realizes what he did.
  • Facial Horror: Withy walked with a mask ever since her encounter with a bear.
  • Family Extermination: After The Condor executes his son, he also executes his wives, concubines, children and slaves.
  • Fantastic Racism: The Dayao view all other people as non-human, fit only for conquest as per their religion. They are doing their best not to dwell upon cases when their commoner men (who are humans according to said religion) are ordered around by noble women (who aren't)
  • Forever War: The hostility in "Old Women Hating". No one remembers when it started or if there can be a point to it now.
  • From Cataclysm to Myth: The Kesh are aware the world has been damaged by the actions of past humans, but aren’t exactly interested in knowing more.
  • Future Imperfect: The data about the past is actually all there, but no one bothers to dig it up.
  • God-Emperor: How the Dayao view their leader.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: The Dayao nobles would never consider an abortion, but the commoners are stated to have them more often than not. Definitely averted for the Kesh people, who are a complete pro-choice society (except for girls younger than eighteen, who are never allowed to become mothers). Stone Telling mentions having an abortion after a case of Marital Rape License by her Dayao husband.
  • Groin Attack:
    • One poem has a story of a man whose penis was tired of constantly being forced to work, so it cut itself off and ran away.
    • The Coyote cutting off a bear’s balls in one of the stories, and then a human commander doing it to himself.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: For the Kesh, the mere fact that some youngsters have decided to replicate the Dayao idea of warriors and armies was extremely shameful for them.
  • Head Turned Backwards: The most feared bogeyman of the Kesh is a tall humanoid with a head turned backwards. It is actually supposed to represent our current civilization, with its complete craziness which ruined the ecosystem.
  • Hiding Behind the Language Barrier: In "The Trouble with the Cotton People", the traders bringing cotton to the valley claim their captain is the only person capable of speaking the language of the Cotton People, and speaks no other. They are all Cotton People. The "captain" is some mentally challenged guy they found who cannot speak properly at all.
  • Higher Understanding Through Drugs: In "The Visionary", the narrator claims both herself and others attempted to enhance their visions through alcohol and cannabis, but it’s a method considered cheap, and also not very efficient.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: In "Old Women Hating", the woman living upstairs attempts to set fire to the neighbor below by pouring down oil and igniting it. She is the only casualty of the fire.
  • Horny Sailors: "The Trouble with the Cotton People" has the teller claiming he had a lot of problems with that at one point during his journey. Relief was problematic, since the Kesh people tend to be careful about the possibility of STD, which are very rare among them, but not in other places.
  • Humans Are Morons: Our society, to the extent that it is remembered, is viewed as madmen.
  • Humans Are White: Averted. Some people in the Valley do have white skin, and tradition claims them to be of supernatural origin (half-mermaids, basically).
  • I Owe You My Life: Inverted in the Valley, at least with medicine. A doctor who saves a person’s life is considered to be the one in debt, being akin to a parent now. One doctor was forced to swap towns due to all the debts in the old place. In the new one, he concentrated on animals and terminal patients.
  • I Will Find You: One of the Kesh stories in is about a young woman who goes missing. Her boyfriend is desperate to find her again, but it's only a fragment (in the extended edition, it is more, but still misses the ending), so we never learn if he does.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: The teller of the Visionary’s story talks at one point about her sister and her husband making a lot of noise in their lovemaking every night.
  • Intangible Time Travel: In "The Visionary", a vision of some strange people is described by the narrator. A footnote explains these were likely native Californian tribes which were forcibly relocated in the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Interrupted Intimacy: Stone Telling describes how she traveled to another town in her childhood. Her cousins there tended to have fun at night by interrupting amorous teens.
  • "Just So" Story: One explaining why a certain family in one of the towns has white skin.
  • Kindly Vet: Striffen from "The Visionary" is described as one, healing horses and cattle and in some kind of empathic connection with them.
  • Klingon Scientists Get No Respect: The people of the Valley are highly suspicious toward Millers, which includes all people working with advanced machinery and electricity. These people also don’t have a House assigned to them as a group, which means no one protecting them in case of a screw up.
  • La Résistance: The people opposing the Dayao rule, both from conquered territories and commoners of the city.
  • Language Drift: The language of the Kesh is unrecognizable to us nowadays. There are also mentions of differences accumulated over time.
  • Language Equals Thought: Actually averts the common mistakes. When some Kesh people grow fascinated with the Dayao idea of "armies", they have no trouble about having no words: they simply adopt the foreign ones. Likewise, it is entirely possible to say that a person is wealthy in the modern sense of possessing much instead of giving much, it just won't be seen as a positive trait. However, the Kesh grammar allows for no means to express the idea of owning a living being; any attempt to say it will come across as a Russian Reversal-style comedy.
  • Littlest Cancer Patient: "The Visionary" has the narrator marrying a man who has two sons, the younger one being vedet (a terminal illness akin to Alzheimer in symptoms but much more painful).
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: Stone Telling mentions that when she and her Dayao husband decided to have a child, it took them quite a bit of time due to the latter being both older and weary due to his work.
  • Lost in Translation: A lot of aspects in Kesh language are hard to translate to us. Prominently, a double case is Stone Telling complaining that she has to use "reversal words" which sound ridiculous to Kesh speakers in order to properly describe the Dayao culture. However, the differences in question are things like status and wealth being determined by possessions rather than generosity, a difficulty completely lost to modern Western society, which is closer to the Dayao in that respect.
  • Loving a Shadow: That’s how Stone Telling views her mother’s love toward Terter Abhao. She never knew his people’s culture, so how could she know the kind of man he really was?
  • Manly Men Can Hunt: For the Dayao, a man’s rite of passage involves killing a condor or at least a buzzard. Inverted with the Kesh: hunting is for young boys, not adults.
  • The Meaning of Life: Bodo from "The Shouting Man, the Red Woman, and the Bears" asks a lot of questions on the subject.
  • Meaningful Rename: People in the Valley tend to have three names throughout their lives; as children, as adults and as old people. The mother of Stone Telling was Willow as an adult, and once she broke up with Terter, demanded to be called by her childhood name, Towhee. It was considered an extremely wrong action which her daughter never accepted, and upon her death, she was mourned as Ashes. Stone Telling herself also had a fourth (or rather, second) name while living among the Dayao.
  • Missing Episode: In-Universe, the novel "Dangerous People" is missing its ending due to having been damaged in transit.
  • Mistaken for Gay: That was one of the possibilities discussed by the Valley people when they saw the Dayao army - for them, it was unimaginable that such a large group of people would contain no women.
  • Mistaken for Pregnant: In "Dangerous People", Shamsha considers some action by Hwette to be a sign she is pregnant, but Hwette denies any such thing.
  • Monster Clown: The White Clowns are the Bogeymen of the Kesh, appearing around the winter solstice festival.
  • Mood Whiplash: "Chandi", a play which has a man’s fortune reversed like that of Job (a comparison actually made in some editions).
  • Mutual Kill: The evening stories about the Coyote and the humans have the war general’s sons kill each other.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: In "The Miller", the titular character, after raping a woman he was obsessed with (an incestous relationship to boot), jumps into his watermill’s wheel.
  • Naïve Newcomer: Stone Telling has a lot of that when living among the Dayao. Her father, correspondingly, has his moments in the Valley.
  • Never Learned to Read: The Dayao consider the acts of reading and writing to be sacred, parts of the act of Creation, so any commoner attempting to engage in either is punished severely. This causes a lot of confusion for Night Owl: among the Kesh, the only ones illiterate are those physically or mentally incapable of reading.
  • Never My Fault: Among the Dayao, the superiors and their orders are never at fault. Only the ones carrying the orders out are.
  • New Child Left Behind: Stone Telling was such a child, daughter to a military commander passing through the Valley.
  • Noodle Implements: One of the texts given is from a paper scrap titled "A list of things that will be needed four days from now".
  • Not Quite the Right Thing: That's how the people of the Valley viewed four men who spent a month carrying home four corpses of their friends who died in a poisoned land. Nice, but the effort is excessive.
  • Offing the Offspring: The Dayao ruler imprisons and later executes his son for disagreeing with him.
  • One Dialogue, Two Conversations: The conversations between Willow and Terter Abhao often come out as that, due to their different views on both property and behavior (plus Terter’s poor grasp of the Kesh language).
  • Organ Autonomy: One poem has a penis tired of constant activity cutting itself off and running away.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: "Shahugoten" tells the story of a girl who was born part fish and tended to fluctuate in that regard.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: "Dira" describes a creature which used its powers to enter a household under a human guise, where it ate all the food, making the humans starve nearly to death (it was stopped while two of the three people were still alive) while it literally bloated with their blood.
  • Overly-Long Name: The houses in the towns tend to have long names which hardly anyone ever uses.
  • Pastoral Science Fiction: The Kesh have access to technology, but a lot of their food comes from foraging and low-tech agriculture.
  • Perfect Pacifist People: Subverted. The Kesh war, but only the teenagers, and adults consider war to be immature and foolish. They still have incidents of interpersonal violence.
  • Playing Doctor: It is mentioned sexual games are actually encouraged among the Valley kids, so that by the age of ten, they tend to be well knowledgeable about contraceptives.
  • Population Control: The Kesh don't like large families. More than two kids is not appreciated (presumably this might be different in case of a population drop).
  • Post-Apocalyptic Dog: A frequent trouble in the Valley. Ironically, domesticated dogs mainly serve the purpose of protecting against those. No child ever goes into the forest without at least one.
  • Post-Peak Oil: To a degree which causes a lot of problems when the Dayao people try to fuel the bombers they build.
  • Prophetic Fallacy: Stone Telling has a vision at one point of her father's corpse. When he shows up later, she believes her vision to be false, but later, when he helps her escape the Dayao people, she realizes it must have been a vision of the future.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Dayao are that. Causes Terter Abhao a lot of trouble with Willow, for whom all his achievements and heroics are meaningless or childish.
  • Putting on the Reich: The Dayao. Warlike conquerors, with youth parading through the street. An Armchair Military Glorious Leader who is considered infallible and accepts no criticism, punishing anyone disagreeing. Attempts to take on every neighbor in sight instead of concentrating on one at a time. Racist ideology which considers them alone true humans. Obsession with Awesome, but Impractical superweapons at the expense of regular military.
  • Rape as Drama: The Miller raping a woman (a case of incest) is treated as one. Not so much in other cases described: both Stone Telling and Shamsha fell pregnant from a rape, and Shamsha didn’t even see it as something serious enough to tell others, nor saw a reason to abort the child. The Rape, Pillage, and Burn actions of the Dayao, on the other hand, aren’t taken lightly.
  • Rite-of-Passage Name Change: The people of the Warrior Lodge took different names upon joining it. All people in the Valley changed their names over the course of their lives if they lived long enough, but the exact conditions aren’t described.
  • Royal Blood: It is stated that when the Condor’s son was to be executed, no one dared to raise a hand against him. Instead they gave him the chair, and said it was electricity that killed him.
  • Schizo Tech: The Kesh have electricity and solar panels, a single steam train (pulled by horses when the weather is too dry to risk the engine starting a fire), internet access, and yet a lot of their technology and culture are at the level of pre-Columbian natives.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Stone Telling describes how, when the Dayao start suffering defeats and food shortages, a lot of their commoners start running away. She follows soon.
  • Self-Disposing Villain: The Dayao collapse due to inability to maintain their Awesome, but Impractical bomber force.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Common in a Valley genre called the Tabetupah.
  • Show Within a Show: Anything from poems a few lines in length to a novel (a single chapter in the regular edition, almost complete in the expanded version).
  • Significant Wardrobe Shift: A person starts wearing proper clothing (instead of just covering the essentials) at puberty, and dyed clothing upon taking on a sexual partner.
  • Solar Punk: The Kesh are an agrarian and foraging society, but they use quite a few solar panels.
  • Space Amish: The Kesh principle of only using technology on a level they can easily maintain on their own is actually quite close to the Amish views.
  • Starcrossed Lovers:
    • Terter Abhao and Willow, with him being a military commander from a society with very different values.
    • The woman and the Wild Man from "At the Springs of Orlu".
    • The Wedding Night at Chukulmas has the ghosts of two people who died before their wedding.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: The Dayao attitude on noblewomen is for them to be nothing but childbearers (although a noble concubine can be taken for pleasure exclusively) and never leave the house. This is a sharp contrast from the Kesh. There, if anything, women are the ones with the higher status.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Common among the Dayao, but very rare among the Kesh. Abortion is mandatory for them before eighteen, while a teenaged father might be mocked to the point of suicide.
  • Thank Your Prey: It is considered necessary for a person to sing a song after killing an animal on a hunt. A shortened version (a single line) is required even for butchers. A supershort version (one word) is mandatory even when swatting a fly or picking a flower.
  • The Scapegoat: A lot of people among the Dayao once their ruler’s policy of trying to take on the entire continent at once was shown not to go as smoothly as expected. After all, there was no way their divine Glorious Leader was at fault.
  • Those Wily Coyotes: The female coyote is the chief Trickster Archetype in the Kesh folklore.
  • Teeny Weenie: At the end of "A Bay Laurel Song", the person’s penis runs away, so he now grows himself a new one but... isn’t very far along.
  • Together in Death: The Wedding Night at Chukulmas has a wedding ceremonynote  joined by the ghosts of a man and a woman who died before they could get married. In the end, it is agreed the formal ceremony can, in fact, be performed for them.
  • Tragic Stillbirth: Normally averted, since due to the leftover pollution, miscarriages and stillbirths are very common in the Valley. There are, however, poems in the extended edition which are sung in case of a stillbirth, and in "The Brave Man", the main plot is a woman being sick due to a very painful miscarriage.
  • Tricked into Escaping: The imprisoned son of The Condor was killed after trying to escape due to being betrayed by the people who pretended to help him.
  • Unusual Euphemism:
    • "Living on the coast" and "coming inland" are terms for the mandatory post-puberty chastity and taking on a partner, respectively.
    • At the beginning of "Chandi", the people say the titular character is lucky to be marries to such a woman and "To plow and weed and tend and harvest that bit of ground, in the gardens of the night!"
    • The Ginkgo tree is used as a synonym for homosexuality, due to the need to plant male and female trees far apart (the fruit are described by The Other Wiki to smell "like rancid butter or vomit").
  • Utopia: Discussed, especially in the Framing Device when Pandora talks with a Kesh woman and complains about how "utopians" are a bother. The Kesh are at least partially In Harmony with Nature, wealth is determined by generosity, homophobia and sexism are minimized, and there is no need for police or an army, but there's also superstition, violence, and cruelty.
  • Virginity Flag: As a variant, taking on a sexual partner is the stage where a person starts wearing dyed clothing.
  • War Is Hell: For Kesh, war is idiocy, at least on the scale they are familiar with it (a dozen people fighting another tribe over some offense). Stone Telling, however, who had lived with the warlike Dayao, has learned and describes the horrors of war in detail.
  • We Will Have Euthanasia in the Future: It is completely normal in The Valley, subject to proper discussion beforehand.
  • Worldbuilding: A very thorough example. There are maps of both the Na Valley and a good portion of the rest of America, there are songs, poetry, folklore. Even food recipes.
  • You Need to Get Laid: When Stone Telling is sick in the Dayao city, a doctor says it is nothing a husband won't cure, in a matter very similar to old discussions about female hysteria.
  • Younger than They Look: It is mentioned that Terter Abhao appeared to have aged prematurely the last time his daughter saw him.
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