Ursula K Le Guin’s 1985 novel
Always Coming Home is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale centered around the Kesh, a people she describes as “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California”. The peace-loving Kesh are juxtaposed against the violent, patriarchal Condor people. It’s a typical parable about the dangers of patriarchal capitalist lifestyles and about what form of lifestyle and morality might be delineated as an alternative. But, ever the over-achiever, Le Guin departs from the typical novelistic form and embarks on a momentous achievement of imaginative world-building: the book deploys use the form of anthropological field notes to observe and analyze the Kesh. Le Guin includes poetry, recipes, essays, language notes, and more to render Kesh culture immediate and believable. The result has been described as “a fictional anthropological study”.
She also used music. She collaborated with composer and musician Todd Barton to produce an entire album showcasing
Music and Poetry of the Kesh, which was included with some early editions of the book. The album has been re-released this year; a year which also saw the death of the much-lauded and much-loved author.
Musically, the album presents elements of Indigenous musical traditions as well as New Age mystique. There’s chanting; vocal harmonies; birds chirping and other nature sounds; bone flutes, horns, synths, and more. A voice (Le Guin’s own, manipulated in various ways) sings and recites poetry in an imagined yet wholly believable language.
But perhaps more interesting than the music itself is the conceptual element of the album. It brings speculative fiction world-building to a whole new level, in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien’s expansive Middle Earth mythos, or Harry Harrison’s brilliant
West of Eden trilogy (which employed the use of linguistic, cultural and biological experts to invent an entire parallel universe of evolved dinosaurs, complete with scientific appendices in each book). Such expansive world-building is common in certain science-fiction realms – the universes of Star Trek or Star Wars come readily to mind – but less common in one-off pieces of literature.
Of course, Le Guin’s Kesh world-building wasn’t just designed as a fun bit of add-on trivia but was key to the book’s purpose, which was to interpellate an understanding of the present and past through the use of a speculative future rendered from the standpoint of its own contemporaries. The point of the book is to locate the reader in this future as though it were the present, to bring it to life and thereby impact our understanding of our own dangerous, destructive present. Le Guin’s fascinating effort wasn’t only grounded in the literary but sought to use the reader’s other senses – audio, for instance – to bring this possible future to life. The effort combines the imaginative effects of audio and literary, not in the sense of an audio-book but in such a way as to generate a believable cultural ambience which impacts the subconscious while the reader’s conscious brain works on the text (the alternating use of empirical and novelistic elements in the text also shows the author at work trying to generate a cognitive break on the part of the reader, tapping into multiple epistemic registers).
It will be interesting to see how the work – and the Kesh world in its entirety – stands the test of time. As Mick McAllister observes
in his fascinating article on her work, “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?” These questions hold true equally for the musical component of this work, with its powerful Indigenous influences, which provokes similar conversations, particularly for an era in which identity politics have a very different valence from the ’80s when Le Guin first published the book.
Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists, and as many critics have noted her novels bear the imprint of a childhood raised amid cultural studies. This novel, in particular, has been compared to her father’s
Handbook of the Indians of California. Insofar as the work was designed to interrogate the present through a speculative future, it’s worth reflecting on the contemporary and historical Indigenous influences that shape that speculative future, as expressed in both text and sound. It’s not necessarily a critique; whatever influences she drew from Le Guin always wrote against power, oppression, and colonialism. But it is worth observing that the combination of an audio soundtrack with text renders those influences more readily identifiable; more affective.
It’s a potent reminder that text functions by operating on the affective cues that authors tap into among their readers; when visual text is coupled with sound (music, poetry, song) the immersive experience becomes more all-encompassing at the same time as its roots and influences become more transparent (it’s perhaps worth noting here that when Barton first tried to copyright the album it was rejected because the Library of Congress mistakenly assumed they were actual Indigenous recordings). The Lord of the Rings films are beautifully immersive experiences, but unless one reads the books, they fail to grip one’s imagination with the same power: the runes and poetry and literary techniques deployed by the text act on fully different registers. Likewise Music and Poetry of the Kesh: pleasant on its own, but functional and immersive – more creatively potent – when coupled with the textbook-like entries of the novel.
LeGuin, as ever, was a pioneer.
Music and Poetry of the Kesh is a fun album, and enjoyable on its own. Coupled with her book, however, it remains a potent reminder of the creative power of speculative world-building.