Books: History of an Imagined World Always Coming Home

by Ursula K. Le Guin Harper & Row; 525 pages; $50 hardcover, $25 paperback

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Prophetic literature is intrinsically political, since it is either a reaction against or an extension of known conditions of life. And Le Guin, who has moved gradually from straight science fiction toward visionary narrative, makes no secret of her polemical intentions. The Condor people manifest all the darker impulses of contemporary superpower states. The Kesh are what humans could become if they would stop trying to impose their wills and designs on the earth. The enormous swatches of pseudoanthropological material in Always Coming Home amount to a blueprint for an allegedly better world.

No one can fault Le Guin for a lack of ambition. But her book erects several serious hurdles. Readers are likely to respond to its argument along partisan lines. Those who believe that man began stumbling toward destruction when he stopped being a noble savage will find their fondest dreams fulfilled. Watch for a Kesh cult to spring up on college campuses. Others, who think primitive societies formed a nasty, brutish and short phase in the evolution toward civility, will be unmoved by the serene monotony of Kesh life.

The Condors are far more interesting, perhaps because narrative quickens in the presence of evil and strife. John Milton faced such a problem when he portrayed Satan in Paradise Lost, and Le Guin, working on a different level, explicitly acknowledges the dilemma. One of the chorus of voices in the book belongs to Pandora, who seems to represent both the character from Greek mythology and contemporary Western consciousness. Through the magic of time travel, Pandora converses with a Kesh woman librarian. These enlightened people routinely throw away books and documents. As the dialogue continues, Pandora grows frustrated. "I never did like smartass utopians," she says. "People who have the answers are boring, niece. Boring, boring, boring." She has a point. But Stone Telling's story, with Le Guin's inspired assistance, is enchanting enough to rise above it.

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