"The mare taught me how to ride that day."
Flicker, Always Coming Home
Perhaps it was inevitable that Ursula Kroeber Le Guin's fiction and personal philosophy would be heavily influenced by American Indian themes and ideas. She is, after all, the daughter of Alfred Kroeber, one of the giants of American anthropology, and Theodora Kroeber, folklorist and author herself of three key works for the student of American Indian literature, The Inland Whale, Almost Ancestors, and Ishi: Between Two Worlds. However, Le Guin is narrowly stereotyped in most readers' eyes as a science-fiction writer, and science fiction and American Indians might seem ungainly harness-mates to haul the sledge of an artist's themes.
An article in Western American Literature, Charles R. Crow's "Homecoming in the California Visionary Romance", (May 1989), offers a stimulating discussion of Le Guin's most "Indian" novel, Always Coming Home. Crow's treatment of what he calls the "Visionary Romance" catalogues the resources that Le Guin used to create her "Indian" novel. However, his interpretation of Always Coming Home is marred by a thesis; it demonstrates the very "Euclidean" mindset he recognizes as one of Le Guin's primary targets in the novel.
Crow's thesis requires that the "home place can only be discovered or recognized after a radical reformation, a transformation of self," a theme he claims "reaches perfect fruition" in Le Guin's novel (3). Perhaps because no such reformation occurs to Le Guin's protagonist, he proposes that Always Coming Home represents Le Guin's own return to some abandoned roots of her life, imposing his assumptions on a rather neutral statement she made in an interview at Stanford. In that interview Le Guin described the evolution of a usable past in her work, contrasting her explorations of "outside" worlds"Chinese philosophy, European historywith her understanding that her personal past is also important.
By introducing his paraphrase of this observation with the phrase, "Recently, however, she had realized that . . . ," Crow suggests that her endorsement of her own personal and geographical roots is some sort of turning from a lesser truth to a greater. She makes no such distinction. In fact, the phrase he takes as a key in the interview is almost certainly a misquotation.
The passage in question is rendered "My world, my California, it still isn't me." Crow reads this statement as an admission that she had allowed herself to be led away from home and to deny her roots in the land of California. Such an interpretation is reasonable, given the statement and read without the context of Le Guin's novels, poetry, or essays. In fact, what Le Guin probably said was, "My world, my California, it still isn't made." In "World-Making" (Dancing 48), she gives this version: "My world, my California, still needs to be made." In the full context of the interview, the difference is crucial. She meant she needed to write a certain book (Always Coming Home, which she was working on at the time), not that she had found some "right path" distinct from the "wrong way" she had been going in her work.
I. Sioux Spacemen
"Truth is a matter of the imagination."
Genly Ai, The Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula Le Guin once responded to the question, Why do you write science fiction? thus: "I write science fiction because that is what my publishers call my books. Left to myself, I should call them novels" (Language 16). Elsewhere, perhaps in a more serious mood, she reflected that adopting science fiction as her genre has given her complete freedom of invention and "an inexhaustible supply of absolutely beautiful and complex metaphors for our present situation" (Interviews 73), coupling her own interest in science fiction with that of science fiction writers Doris Lessing and Angus Wilson.
For many people, "science fiction" means ray guns, light sabers, fusion drives, and hi-tech gobbledygook; while "fantasy" is Tolkien, elves, magic stones and "eldritch" critters. Somehow, if the author achieves greatly, this achievement divorces the work from the genre, so that Paradise Lost, The Tempest, and The Faerie Queen are literature rather than fantasy, but Ossian, to name a historical example, is not. Similarly, Brave New World, Giles Goat-Boy, and A Maggot do not count, for many people, as science-fiction.
This leaves the historian of science fiction with a conundrum: since good literature, which is what "survives," is not science fiction, how can science fiction have origins, except in the trivial hackwork of previous centuries? No doubt Always Coming Home, as Crow suggests, isn't really science fiction at all. After enumerating the various tips Le Guin offers to let us know we are in some distant future rather than an idyllic past, he dismisses them: "this science fiction element plays a small part in the book and in the lives of the Kesh." (13) Le Guin would find the gesture familiar; when her Malafrena appeared, the publicity blurbs reassured readers that this was a "mainstream" novel (set in an alternate universe, however, a "Europe of the Imagination"), and the reviewers offered as a compliment that she was not "just a science fiction writer." The reviewer who thinks that The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Word for the World Is Forest are for "sci-fi" fans, that the Earthsea Trilogy, The Beginning Place, and The Eye of the Heron are for "younger readers," and that Malafrena is for "the rest of us" is either undereducated or excessively absorbed in self-importance.
Science fiction titles like Andre Norton's The Sioux Spaceman have not helped those critics who would like to suggest that science fiction can be respectable literature, its writers serious literary artists, and Indian materials a valuable resource for the science fiction writer. American Indian elements have appeared as superficial "local color" in some science fiction; but they function significantly in books such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Frank Herbert's The Soul Catcher, Robert Silverberg's The Book of Skulls, Sidney Lanier's Hiero's Journey and The Unforsaken Hiero, Roger Zelazny's Eye of the Cat, and some of Norton's novels (The Beast Master and Lord of Thunder). British novelist Ian Watson's The Martian Inca and The Embedding use South American Indian materials to serious and central purpose. C. J. Cherryh's Faded Sun novels feature a nomadic people clearly modeled on the Apache. And most recently, in Orson Scott Card's Hatrack River novels, European witchcraft is the predominant science and the Indian peoples of the Ohio Valley, presented with well-researched and fully-imagined ethical and spiritual values, are the alien culture that white immigrants must adapt to.
I have struggled to find a discursive model for what I wish to say about Le Guin's work. That she was influenced by American Indian materials is a biographical commonplace and the details not of any particular interest. Influences described as causal connections ("She wrote this because she read that") are hopeless guesswork and, ultimately, not of much more than biographical interest either. I am endebted for my model, the concept of the novel as conversation, to Wayne C. Booth's The Company We Keep. Booth's presentation of this idea, in the context of fiction as an ethical transaction, revivified the metaphor for me. Serious science fiction writersCard, Herbert, Watson, and Cherryh, Philip K. Dick, Theodore Sturgeon, Gene Wolfeare profoundly ethical in their aims. In Always Coming Home, Le Guin herself points to ethics as a key to good fiction, in Pandora's explanation of the Kesh attitude toward narrative. Unlike us, struggling to distinguish "fact" from "fiction," the imagined Kesh do not distinguish "what happened" from "like what happened." Instead, they draw a hard line between truth and falsehood, on the grounds that the significant "distinction is one of intent" (500).
When we confront the interplay of Science Fiction, American Indians, and Ursula Le Guin, we face a wealth of potential conversations. What does a knowledge of American Indian values bring to reading and understanding Le Guin? What does her science fiction give the reader to take back to the study of American Indian fiction? I do not intend to address any of these questions directly, however, nor to move purposefully through my argument. Linear models are inappropriate for the transactions that matter here, just as "the taxonomic fallacy" described below is inappropriate to discussions of science fiction. Through an examination of an early work and the more recent Always Coming Home, I hope to suggest how to read Le Guin's fiction.
"You can't take it back."
Leslie Silko, Ceremony
Ursula Le Guin revolutionized interplanetary communication by inventing the ansible, a device that allows information to be sent at faster-than-light speeds. So valuable is this device that when Orson Scott Card, in Ender's Game, re-invented it, he gave Le Guin credit for the initial design. The unified theory of time, which made the ansible possible, is articulated by the Cetian physicist Shevek, whose research Le Guin described in The Dispossessed. At a cocktail party on Urras (179), Shevek himself explains the Simultaneity Theory and the significance of unifying it with the Sequential Theory.
Briefly, the Simultaneity Theory holds that the "passing" of time is a subjective phenomenon: "What if it is we who move forward, from past to future?" Our relationship to Time, he says, may be "a little like reading a book, you see. The book is all there, all at once." The process of reading is linear, but that fact is imposed by our experiential limitations, not inherent to the nature of the book. We must read it as a linear process to understand it.
Dream-time, Shevek points out, is non-linear. Its nature suggests that we are not bound to experience time successively. If we can unify successivityour perception of Timewith simultaneity, then ideas can be communicated without the intervention of relativity-bound devices. The ansible gives us not faster-than-light travel, but faster-than-light communication. Sound, radio waves, and light are all bound by the linear, successivist concept of time. But ideas are not. Ideas can be expressed in linear processes or, as we dream, in synchronous, cyclic, simultaneous processes.
The discussion of simultaneity and interplanetary walkie-talkies may seem far afield from American Indian elements in Le Guin's fiction, unless we are reminded that the Kesh of Always Coming Home are a people who "might be going to have lived a long, long time from now." The phrase strikes us, if we have read Jaime de Angulo's retellings of California Indian tales or Frank Waters' attempts to explain Hopi and Navajo concepts of time, as oddly appropriate to the temporal placing of a people so clearly Indian. But what does it mean? They are a people of the future? Not necessarily. "From now" doesn't imply "in the future"; we infer it. The phrase simply makes successivist time irrelevant. We learn little about the anthropologist Pandora (the putative author), but her concept of time would be familiar to both Shevek and the Hopi elders.
Stone Telling, the woman whose biography is the largest piece of the novel, ends her story with what might seem, outside this context, a rather odd distinction. "There is no more history in my life after that . . . the rest has been lived and will be lived again" (376). As Shevek explained, linear time is contained in cyclic time. For Stone Telling, only the uniquely personal part of her story is "history." The rest is simply what happens to people. Similarly, the key to Flicker's life (282-304) is her great vision and the energy she devoted to communicating it. Her biography, like Stone Telling's, is focused rather than exhaustive.
The meaning and power of the dream, the commonest equivalent of dream-time, has been a continuing interest of Le Guin's work. In The Dispossessed she explores dreaming as the manifestation of simultaneous time, and in The Lathe of Heaven she takes the dreamer as maker to its literal foundation, creating a person whose dreams change the way things are, shaping the present, reshaping the past, hurtling us forward into a selectively imagined future. In Always Coming Home, she acknowledges that as author of a science fiction, she herself has similar powers (147).
The dreamer is the key to Le Guin's The Word for the World Is Forest, a parable of the conflict between native and technocratic cultures, with resonances of both Vietnam and the Indian Wars. Here, dreaming is the reality that governs "world-time" and the dreamer is the cutting edge of tribal evolution. The indigenous race of the planet Athshe are small, furry, gibbon-like creatures who regard the "yumens" colonizing the planet as "insane" because they believe that "world-time" is "real" and "dream-time" is not (125). However, they accept the "yumen" invaders as their "fellow-man" (62). The yumens are rather less flexible: the Athsheans, whom they call "creechies," are human enough to enslave and copulate with, though the females "don't seem to feel anything" (10).
The surface tale in The Word for the World Is Forest is little more than a variation of the racial confict central to our national history since Merry Mount and the Pequot War. Precipitated by a trivial incident, a native uprising nearly destroys the human colony on a new planet. The charismatic leader of the uprising is a little green man, a creechie named Selver; he frees his people at a terrible price, making this novel Le Guin's only tragedy.
The main yumen character, Don Davidson, who sees himself explicitly as a "Conquistador" (6) making the new planet in his own image, is a caricature of the xenophobic jock-adjusting chauvinist. For him, women are "buxom beddable breasty little figures" (1) he can't wait to get his hands on; "creechie-lovers" are "effeminate, like a lot of intellectuals"; and the way to handle creechies is to talk loud, "be tough with 'em, and stay tough with 'em" (12). As he explains to his foreman, a black man named Oknanawi Nabo:
"They're going to get wiped out sooner or later, and it might as well be sooner. It's just how things happen to be. Primitive races always have to give way to civilized ones. Or be assimilated. But we sure as hell can't assimilate a lot of green monkeys. And like you say, they're just bright enough that they'll never be quite trustworthy. Like those big monkeys used to live in Africa, what were they called?" (12)
"Gorillas," the Afro-American Oknanawi Nabo replies, perhaps wondering as we might if the gorilla is the particular bright, untrustworthy "big monkey" from Africa that Davidson has in mind.
If this parable was the whole of the novel, then Le Guin's story would be of passing interest, like Jerry Pournelle's John Ford space operas. But the creechies themselves are the real point of the story, and their world-view the key to the action. Le Guin takes us into their culture, retelling key events from their point of view, helping us see the values and motivations that drive the novel forward. Their culture is structured around the manifestation of simultaneous time we call "dreaming." To the yumens, both the ansible (which also figures in this novella) and dreaming are "unreal." Athshean dreaming is perceived as a proof of their innate laziness, lack of ambition, inability to appreciate the importance of promptness, deadlines or other necessities. In The Word for the World Is Forest, the ansible links the hard science of interstellar communications to the literal fact of Athshean dreaming.
When a Cetian diplomat explains to the colonists that the ansible will allow the yumen colonists to communicate instantly with Earth, twenty-seven light-years away, the military governor for the planet asks, "Are we to take allall this simply on your word, sir?" (67) He is assured that the colonists can verify the functionality of the ansible by calling Earth. Davidson's first reaction is that if it works, then the ansible was surely "stolen" from Earth scientists rather than invented by Cetians (75). Then he realizes, during the demonstration, that the offered "proof" is no proof at all: "the ansible messages were phonies. They might be planted right in the machine." Or perhaps the machine did communicate with another planet, "But that world wasn't Earth" (77). The messages, he believes, were being faked by alien Cetian and Hainish to "tie the humans' hands with a lot of fake 'ansible' directives" (78). The yumens on Athshe are too sophisticated to comprehend dreaming and too primitive to understand the ansible.
One of Davidson's favorite phrases is "That's just the way it is." His willingness to endorse the inevitability of the status quo is ironic in the context of his characterization of the creechieslazy, lacking gumption, unimaginative. When we look through his eyes we see little Stepin Fetchits who must always be told "Hurry-up-quick" if you expect to get work out of them. When Le Guin takes us inside the creechie culture things seem quite different.
Dreaming is the key to the culture. All healthy people dream and use dreaming. A full-time dreamer is a man who shapes and controls his imaginative life. The function of dreaming is not very clear, although we hear the Athsheans discuss it and we are given the planetary xenobiologist's analysis. The closest thing to an explanation is offered by the headwoman of a creechie village, who consults the dreamers as another culture might consult priests, psychiatrists, or academicians. They are responsible for being "right in their judgment"; the headwoman's responsibility is to "take that judgment and act upon it" (35).
The creechie hero Selver begins as a dreamer but becomes "a god." A god is the ultimate dreamer: he brings a new vision, a new way of seeing, to the culture. He is the genetic sport that offers change, evolution, to the Athsheans. Selver's wife died after being raped by Davidson, and Selver responded in what a creechie psychologist would call a "psychotic" way: he attempted to kill Davidson with his bare hands. As the xenobiologist Lyubov explains, Athsheans have no rape, violent assault, or murder (61) because they have developed aggression-displacement mechanisms powerful enough that the xenobiologist thinks they may be innate and the colonists are under the impression that Athsheans are "peaceful and non-aggressive" (73).
The creechies themselves have different words for it. Selver explains the attack on the human outpost, saying, "We killed them as if they were not men" and adds, "Do men kill men, except in madness?" (33). Of the yumens he says, "There is a wish to kill in them, and therefore I saw fit to put them to death." A god is a translator (106); his task is to find meaning, to make connections, to translate experience into understanding. Selver has watched the yumens dehumanize his people; he has learned, from Lyubov, that the yumens kill each other in quarrels. He is a god, and the new understanding he brings his culture is this: that people can kill each other.
The Athsheans learn this new truth and home is changed forever. This terrible truth saves them, because it frees them from the cultural restraints that allowed the yumens to enslave, kill, rape, and disperse them. The truth may destroy them, because it frees them to kill men, including each other. Selver's psychosis becomes the new way the world works. As the Lord Dreamer of the village says to Selver, "I shall never walk again that path I came with you yesterday. It is changed. You have walked on it and it is utterly changed. Before this day the thing we had to do was the right thing to do; the way we had to go was the right way and it led us home. Where is our home now?"
His portentous words are echoed in the novel's end. The yumens are defeated, the interplanetary council has withdrawn the colony and quarantined the planet for one hundred years. Selver meets, as the invaders depart, with the Hainish emissary Lepennon. Lepennon, whose people are the oldest civilized humanoids, is filled with "pure excitement" at the idea that the Athsheans were a "human society with an effective war barrier" (61). Now he probes gently, asking Selver to tell him that there have been no more killings, "Athsheans killing Athsheans," he means, since they defeated the colonists. He points out that soon the humans will all be gone, "forever," and then "the forests of Athshe will be as they were before."
The Hainishman does not understand that what you can imagine, what you dream, is real. It is here, now. Selver sees the dead Lyubov sitting beside him, not in mind's eye but there, invisible to the half-blind eye that can't see past world-time. Like the Lord Dreamer, Selver knows that home is changed forever, but he speaks some cold comfort to the representative of civilization: "Lyubov will be here. Davidson will be here. Both of them. Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will" (169). The Athsheans were threatened with extinction; unlike the Costanos, the Yahi, the Yuroks, and the Miwoks of California, they chose to gamble all to buy time. Selver knows what it may have cost to win.
Almost every Le Guin novel ends with a return home, and in each case the one returning brings new understanding to the gyre of his or her life. In no other book is the returning gift so grim as here. Le Guin's novel has no Indians in it, but it is the paradigm for something science fiction can provide to anyone looking for a way to help her students "embrace the Other." Were her green men Washoes and the colonists Franciscans come to save them, little below the surface of the novel would change.
Shelf-loads of science fiction novels invite us to examine our anthrocentricity, to consider the absolute Other. There are the insectlike Buggers of Ender's Game, who destroy humans because they do not understand "that they are men" and whom we annihilate because we cannot understand them. There are the stone-manipulating lizards of C. J. Cherryh's Gehenna; the creature trapped in Le Guin's "Mazes" (Buffalo Gals 61) who dies at last because its captor cannot understand that the patterns it traces in the maze are a dancelike language of actions; Le Guin's Ant Author who writes on acacia seeds the enigmatic "Eat the eggs! Up with the Queen (Buffalo Gals 168); Stanislaus Lem's living planet Solaris; Orson Scott Card's piggies, who do their human friends the highest imaginable honor by disemboweling them and are shamed beyond despair when they learn that humans "really die." Of course, the American Indian is, after all, man or woman, "one of us," not an alien creature. But "why can't they get off the reservations and get real jobs?" The culturally complete aliens of science fiction bring an answer home to the ethnocentered reader.
"I will touch things, and things, and no more thoughts."
It would be encouraging to arrive here, facing the topic novel, with a bolt of proof that the fabric of Le Guin's fiction is a seamless blend, that the latter-day Indians of Always Coming Home are not a new direction in her vision but the children of all her fictive children. Always Coming Home and The Word for the World Is Forest balance each other nicely. In the earlier book, Le Guin goes out to tell us a truth about here, making a "primitive culture" on another planet for us to examine, to understand as we can never understand the Indians long gone or their children, so we can bring home a new dream of who we are. That new dream is Always Coming Home, set in the distant future of California's Napa Valley, among a people no more alien to the Euro-American than the Iroquois, Yahi, Hopi, or Athshe: our own imagined children, scores of generations away.
The Kesh of the Na Valley are a fully imagined people, presented to us by the contemporary anthropologist Pandora. Anthropologists have played an important role in previous novelsThe Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for the World Is Forestand folklore and folk culture have offered keys to understanding many of Le Guin's books. Here, in a collage of data gathered by "Pandora," we are given simultaneous content and context, the biography of a typical woman of an imaginary culture tangled with commentary that illuminates that biography and interspersed with brief moments when Pandora addresses us directly. Fully a third of the book is an appendix, still more context, part of "the book proper," as much as the "notes" to Nabokov's Pale Fire are. To regard the appendix as Le Guin's afterthought is to miss the point. The cassette of Kesh poetry and music included in the trade paperback edition, the cover, the glossary: all are integral to her purpose.
Without the pyrotechnics of a Barth, Borges, or Joyce, Le Guin offers us a truly non-linear fiction, a book that cannot be read effectively unless it is available as its own context. You must read it twice. You must skip around. You must have the whole book simultaneously. And once you do, you can read it in any pattern, and you do not "finish" it at all. You can read the long narratives by Stone Telling without skipping forward and backward to explanations of the culture. Pandora provides a parable for our reading experience when she imagines walking with us through the Na Valley. "Are we there yet?" she imagines us saying three times in sequence. Each time her answer is No. We are never there; we are always coming there. To speak of getting there as "succeeding" (Crow 15) is, again, to impose goal-seeking on a process whose "goal" is the going, not the getting there. Always coming home does not imply getting there. There is no there there, after all. All that is, is here.
To braid the strands of this fiction into something to depend upon, look first at stones. Stones can only tell us what we've learned to hear. To the geologist, they say gneiss, basalt; they say, plates moved here. They say, I lived once there, high on that cliff face, before I came to this valley. They speak of age and cycles of growth and dissolution. To the archeologist they offer tracks and photographs, records of the coming and going of seas and creatures. To the chemist they say acid etches me. Dissolved in water I am poison, bicarbonate, nourishing sulfates. To the sculptor they say things we cannot hear until meaning is discovered, invented, midwifed from the body of rock, scoured free of irrelevancies and accretion. To the woman of Kesh gyring on the hinge of a landmark as familiar as the topography of home, hearth, love and desire, they anchor here in now.
Myself, I have little to show for my three passages through Le Guin's Na Valley, little more than Pandora's shards of pottery, the tracing of a scrub oak's shadow: particulars so utterly not the whole. The scholar and critic mediates, and Always Coming Home requires no mediation. As Pandora tells us (502), the text itself is the mediator, between the writer and readerthe critic is superfluous, redundant. Le Guin is the dreamer and maker of the Na. She apologizes, in Pandora's voice, for "killing our children," which she did by dreaming the nuclear holocaust and environmental disaster that reduces human population enough to make the Kesh and their valley possible (147). And she has told us what the valley meansstones, and stones, and a new way to see. Selver did not say you can't go home again. He said, what is, is. We are no more captains of our fate's ship than we are kelp driven by the tides of particulate determinism. We cannot be the Kesh, but having met them we cannot, ever, walk the old path again: passing through the Na Valley, our home is renewed.
The truth belongs to the imagination, which makes the fact in the style of the telling. Scholars can identify references in the novel to Yurok dancing and Yana visions of man's place in the natural order; they can connect Miwok shamanism to the life story of Flicker of the Serpentine of Telina, the Na woman who tries to become "a doctor." The literary detective could read the whole of Kroeber's Handbook and his World Renewal: A Cult System of Native Northwest California, The Inland Whale, Black Elk Speaks, and the anthology That's What She Said (so much on Le Guin's mind as she wrote this book). Those sources and their facts will bring us new words to read in the stones. Finally we will know no more, and no less, than the geomancer whose frolic shaped the hills (507), the Le Guin family dog.
"You've got to free your mind instead."
Simon J. Ortiz once wrote a poem for Gary Snyder about making good chili stew in Hesperus, Colorado: the only really necessary ingredient was feeling good. An acquaintance once asked me, in a completely different context, how I could call something or other Mexican food when it obviously didn't contain cilantro. I've come, by a winding trail, home to Simon's camp. The genricist's language is heavy with what the Kesh call "reversal words"phrases that, like deconstructionist principles, are nonsense to those of us unbaptized in the critical dogma (or apostates). To say "This is Le Guin's Indian novel," "These are Le Guin's Indian themes," is simply inappropriate. One is tempted to mock such phrases, mimicking the characters of Always Coming Home who mock a foreigner when he says angrily that his wife belongs to him by chanting "The hammer menstruates to him! They pleat the courage to her" (40).
An interest in ethnic or generic literature seduces critics and scholars into a fallacious extended analogy. In spite of all the evidence of literary history, we try to build Linnaean taxonomies for our special interests. What makes literature "Western"? Indian? Science Fiction? What is real science fiction? Did Swift, Voltaire, Apulieus, de Bergerac, or Wells write the first science fiction? Can white people write "Indian" literature? Can mixed-bloods? Can full-bloods who grew up in New York City? Having pursued these questions, I offer my sympathy to those scholars still running after them. On another day, I might argue that there is merit in the naming of parts, the sorting of sheep from goat. Today, I doubt it.
It is true, surely, that people sit down to write westerns, science fiction, mysteries. While we may admire their versatility or disparage their lack of commitment to their field, it is true that there are successful writersElmore Leonard, for instancewho can compartmentalize their work into the genres. There are even good writers (Loren Estleman comes to mind) who genre-hop, and very good authorsFrank Waters, for examplewho have at least tried to. But it is not true that some genetic trait makes the work itself a western, in the same sense that certain genes determine that your pet is a dachshund rather than an iguana or a ferret.
Books, John Barth has observed, may not even be things, much less things divisible into families, moieties, clans, and phyla. What does it mean to say that Always Coming Home is influenced by American Indian thought, culture, folklorewhatever we select, on whatever level of detail we choose to make our point? Is it a surprise, if we read the entire book, to hit upon the closing acknowledgements of Clara Pearson, Jarold Ramsey, and Melville Jacobs (506)? Surely not.
When Hainish diplomat Genly Ai tells us that "Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling," then we are in the universe where Black Elk has said "I do not know if it happened that way or not, but if you think about it, you can see that it is true." But whose fact is that correspondence? Is it my mind's, as I precipitate connections like crystals in some literary supersaturate? Is it Le Guin's, as she calls up some reference that even she might be at pains to net and pin? How neatly Ai's remark about Truth reflects across my question itself.
The old people on the island in Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea are certainly Ishi's hidden relatives and related to the lost woman of San Nicolas Island. Do we gain new understanding of Ishi or of Earthsea, knowing this? Surely there is more causality and less meaning in that correspondence than in the fact that on the same day this summer I read Wayne Booth's and Ursula Le Guin's congruent discussions of the need to internalize the Other (Booth 69, Language 97-101).
The ansible manifests Hopi time-concepts. Is it, for Le Guin, chicken or egg, Science or Indian? When we decide, what more do we understand about Le Guin's work? Here is a sheaf of paper. Examine the black marks. We confront the book; it teaches us to read. We need no one hovering nearby to translate. To reduce the book to its ideas is like tracing the scrub oak shadow on a hill of the Na Valley. The shadow won't be in our notebooks, just the tracing.
It might be argued that this essay is either a shell game or a paradox. If mediation is unnecessary, why write this essay? Its purpose is to get you to read a book, not to help you understand it. If you haven't read Always Coming Home, you should. If you have read it, you should read it again, because you didn't get it the first time, any more than I or any other reader did. It isn't there to "get" at all. The ideas are not the book, and they are certainly not a substitute for the book. I am not merely proposing that Always Coming Home is too hard to "get" in one reading, any more than a rich meadow is hard to "get" on a single excursion. I am guaranteeing that another visit will make the book, and the meadow, more whole.
Le Guin should have the last word. Responding to a collection of essays on her work, she distinguished between her novels and their "ideas" thus:
It's as if one should discuss the ideas expressed by St. Paul's Cathedral without ever observing what the walls are made of or how the dome is supported. What makes a novel a novel . . . involves ideas, of course, and ideas issue from it, the splendid affirmation of the dome rising above the terror and the rubble and the smoke. . . . . But all the thinking in the world won't hold that dome up. There must be stones. (Language 15)