Tor recently re-released the Hugo winner The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin in a lovely paperback edition, so I thought it finally was time to check out this famous short novel, originally published in the seventies.
The novel is part of Le Guin’s famous HAINISH CYCLE (see also, among others, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed) but can be read completely separately, although being familiar with the larger story will give you a better understanding of the broader context and some of the technologies, such as NAFAL and the famous ansible. Earth-based humans have established a logging colony on the world of New Tahiti and are actively exploiting the pristine world and the indigenous humanoid population, called “creechies” by their human slave-masters but originally called Athsheans. They are a mystical and peaceful-seeming species that lives in harmony with its forest-covered world and practices lucid dreaming, but when the vastly outnumbered humans push them too far, a surprisingly strong and occasionally brutal resistance begins…
Ursula K. Le Guin packs a lot of depth into this short, elegant novel. The contrast between the two opposing world views couldn’t be more clear, but there are also nuances within each culture, most noticeably on the human side with some characters that are more aware of the Athsheans’ cultural identity, and others who treat them as little more than animals or slaves. Selver, the Athshean protagonist, is a complex, fascinating character who I’d love to have seen in a longer novel. By contrast, the human Davidson is so predictable and flat that he barely rises above the level of a caricature; other human characters luckily show more complexity.
Much has been made of the parallels that can be drawn between the James Cameron movie Avatar and this novel, and it’s true that there are some notable plot similarities — which may also explain the timing of this re-release. It’s probably no coincidence that humans are on New Tahiti to gather wood (now Unobtain-, sorry, unavailable on Earth). On the other hand, the whole Noble Savage theme and stories of cruelty by colonizers to indigenous people were really nothing new even in the Seventies. Still, The Word for World is Forest is maybe the most famous example of this type of Romantic Primitivism in science fiction, so it’s easy to see why there were comparisons with Avatar.
Thematically, The World for World is Forest is a child of its time. Just compare the treatment and place of women in the Athshean and human cultures for Ursula K. Le Guin’s subtle feminist message. The colonization/oppressor theme was also highly relevant for the period. In case you’re not familiar with the HAINISH CYCLE, there are layers upon layers of colonization in The Word for World is Forest, because in the overall history of this SF universe, the inhabitants of the planet Hain originally colonized many planets hundreds of thousands of years ago, including the planet Earth, and it’s indicated that the Athsheans themselves may be derived from this original stock, too. Who is a colonizer, who is an oppressor, and who has the right to tell whom what to do, are all questions that come up again and again, but have no easy answers in this novel. These are themes that have been done many times, but rarely so succinctly and elegantly.
If you’re not familiar with Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction yet, The Word for World is Forest is probably not the ideal place to start, but on the other hand, its relatively short length makes it a good opportunity to get your feet wet and try one of the genre’s most talented authors. This subtle, short novel is deceptively simple, but sure to keep you pondering it long after you’ve turned the final page.
I know this is a classic and I agree with its message, but gee, I feel like Le Guin was wielding a bludgeon here. Ouch!
In The Word for World is Forest, Ursula Le Guin’s 1972 Hugo Award-winning novella, she works out her frustrations with the Vietnam War, colonialism, and ecologically insensitive societies. The human colonists on the world Athshe have enslaved the 3-foot tall, furry green native people and have created ecological disaster everywhere they go. They’re stripping the forests for logging purposes, as timber is worth more than gold back on Earth, to the point that (unlikely as it may seem) it’s a profitable venture to ship logs back to Earth at sub-light speeds.
When Captain Don Davidson ― a perfectly loathsome man who spews racist, crude, and ignorant thoughts and words at every turn; the scenes from his point of view are like wallowing in a cesspool ― rapes one of native women, who he doesn’t really view as human, it proves to be the turning point in the relationship between the human colonists and the formerly peaceful natives.
Le Guin writes a powerful, somewhat allegorical tale; it’s just too bad she uses such a scenery-chewing, one-dimensional villain to make her point. The Word for World is Forest is a very moralizing, preachy story, but there are parts that are subtler, and as a whole it will stick with me. It was written in 1968, and there are some definite resemblances to the later movies Return of the Jedi (Ewoks, anyone?) and Avatar; the inspiration seems fairly clear. The connection has raised enough discussion that Le Guin expressly distances herself from the latter film in the Introduction to the recently published two-volume Library of America collection, Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels and Stories (“Since the film completely reverses the book’s moral premise, presenting the central and unsolved problem of the book, mass violence, as a solution, I’m glad I had nothing to do with it.”). Le Guin’s ending confronts that “unresolved problem,” in one of the stronger scenes in the story, making it clear that a society’s adoption of violence as a means to an end, while it may win the immediate battle, is a Pandora’s Box.
I first read The Word for World is Forest about twenty years ago, and I have to say that I definitely appreciated it more this time around, in large part because I’ve been reading Le Guin’s other Hainish Cycle novels and stories in the LOA collection. Familiarity with her other Hainish works enhances the background setting and grounds the subplot relating to ansible communications from Earth and visiting personnel from other worlds. This time around the real meaning of the title also dawned on me: humans call their world “Earth,” and we are primarily tied to the land and ground, but for the Athsheans, it is the interconnected, living trees and forests that define their world. Hence, in the Athshean language the word for “world” and “forest” is the same. That intriguing concept and the importance of lucid dreaming in the Athshean culture, and their relevance to the plot, added some much-needed depth to this novella.
The Hainish Cycle — (1966-2000) From Wikipedia: The Hainish Cycle consists of a number of science fiction novels and stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. It is set in an alternate history/future history in which civilizations of human beings on a number of nearby stars, including Terra (Earth), are contacting each other for the first time and establishing diplomatic relations, setting up a confederacy under the guidance of the oldest of the human worlds, peaceful Hain. In this history, human beings did not evolve on Earth but were the result of interstellar colonies planted by Hain long ago, which was followed by a long period when interstellar travel ceased. Some of the races have new genetic traits, a result of ancient Hainish experiments in genetic engineering, including a people who can dream while awake, and a world of androgynous people who only come into active sexuality once a month, and can choose their gender. In keeping with Le Guin’s soft science fiction style, the setting is used primarily to explore anthropological and sociological ideas. The Hainish novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed have won literary awards, as have the novella The Word for World Is Forest and the short story The Day Before the Revolution. Le Guin herself has discounted the idea of a “Hainish Cycle”, writing on her website that “The thing is, they aren’t a cycle or a saga. They do not form a coherent history. There are some clear connections among them, yes, but also some extremely murky ones.”