But then Earth was a tamed planet and New Tahiti wasn’t. That’s what he was here for: to tame it. If Dump Island was just rocks and gullies now, then scratch it; start over on a new island and do better. Can’t keep us down, we’re Men. You’ll learn what that means pretty soon, you godforsaken damn planet, Davidson thought, and he grinned a little in the darkness of the hut, for he liked challenges.
Even though their plots rarely intersect, many of Ursula Le Guin’s novels fit into her Hainish Cycle, a kind of alternate future-history sharing the same set-up and technology. Having the shared setting allows each novel to start with some baseline assumptions for technological development and alien species, and it helps to have some understanding of it to see what it adds to each of her novels. In this setting, humans ventured out of Terra to find many alien species, which are actually batches of genetic humans seeded by one of the oldest races, the peaceful Hain; each branch of humanity has evolved to fit its respective world, leading to many divergent human species. The Hain are beginning to band these together under the League of All Worlds banner, though time dilation does hinder intergalactic communications and travel. Spaceships travel at NAFAL (Nearly As Fast As Light) speeds, communication is impossible without a device that can communicate in real-time across the galaxy—luckily, such devices exist, called Ansibles.
The Terran colony of New Tahiti was sent out with the mission to harvest lumber for a deforested earth; due to that time dilation, communication between the colony and Earth takes some 27 years, though it has continued its duty over the years. In an effort to bolster the colony’s productivity, the Terrans have conscripted laborers from the native Athsheans—a half-sized, green-furred human sub-species that exists at a primitive hunter-gatherer level, whose notable feature is its practice of lucid dreaming. The Terrans aren’t too sure what to think about these passive and pacifistic forest-dwellers, believing them to be an animal alien species and calling them “creechies.” The arrival of 212 Terran women from 27 light-years away brings some promise to the colony, hoping to establish roots and continue its development, but before the starship can deposit its cargo and cast off, shocking news rocks the colony—the destruction of a logging camp, and deaths of its 200 inhabitants, at the hands of the Athsheans.
The story rotates between several point-of-view characters, all of them well-drawn with distinct voices, though not all of them have depth; between them you see the storm developing that will shatter New Tahiti and change the Athsheans forever. Captain Davidson is a dominant soldier, more than ready to push the Athsheans back by force in retaliation for their attack; disagreeing with the colony’s leaders, he forms his own guerrilla force to enact vengeance. Lyubov is with the colony’s science staff, one of the few people who has some comprehension of the Athshean culture and society. Selver is one of the Athsheans; when his wife dies after Davidson rapes her, Selver does what the Terrans considered unthinkable and fights. He continues that fight against the destructive Terrans, who continue to plunder the forests—and as the title points out, the Athshean word for “world” and “forest” is the same.
Many works of science fiction are better at examining their contemporary society than they are at predicting the future; I think that’s especially true for Le Guin, who used science fiction as a setting to discuss and dissect elements of the human condition, thanks to her focus on anthropological and social issues. The Word for World is Forest has some clear connotations with 1972 society: Le Guin pulled no punches and made it clear that the work was in part influenced by the Vietnam War and related militarization, and the Terrans’ Vietnamese base commander even compares his ancestors’ guerilla war and the one he finds himself in. The feminist and ecological themes entwine themselves with the Terrans’ military colonialism by way of Captain Davidson, raw male machismo personified. Davidson sees every other living creature as an object—women are sex objects, Athsheans are tools or draft animals, other men are inferiors there to follow him. As he puts it so succinctly:
The fact is, the only time a man is really and entirely a man is when he’s just had a woman or just killed another man. That wasn’t original, he’d read it in some old books; but it was true. That was why he liked to imagine scenes like that. Even if the creechies weren’t actually men.
The novel—a slim 190 pages, tops—doesn’t have enough to fully go over its themes, and Le Guin steamrolls you with her point from page one. That said, it isn’t as didactic as you may expect; despite the obvious parallels with Native American tropes, things are a bit more complex than “humans bad, aliens good.” The Athsheans’ reprisals are just as uncalled for and uncivilized as the Terrans’; due to their maternal society, they do what is unthinkable to the Terrans, targeting the women to prevent them from breeding. Le Guin manages to get inside the heads of the natives and make them into some of the most alien humans you can read. Really, The Word for World is a kind of morality tale—the Athsheans’ are rudely awakened in their forested Eden, with Captain Davidson like a malevolent Prometheus, descending to gift Athshean society with the knowledge of murder. Most of these themes are well-worn by now, just transferred to a SFnal world, especially after Avatar mined these Dances With Wolves/Ferngully tropes for all they’re worth.
I left The Word for the World is Forest thinking that a bit more development and polishing would have mitigated its flaws, turning a strong novel into a great one. But aside from the brevity and clichés, Le Guin’s prose still shines, and the execution is quite good… the rotating-PoV in particular is well done, allowing the reader to learn quite a bit of information, and see both sides of the story, in a natural way that precludes exposition. Her parable hits you with all the subtlety of a Mack truck—it’s not the nuanced, layered novel that Left Hand of Darkness or The Disposessed are—but it’s a surprisingly entertaining novel, and well worth the few hours it’ll take to read through its 190 pages.
Title: The Word for World is Forest
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: 2010
What I Read: ebook (Kindle)
Price I Paid: an egregious $9.93
ISBN/ASIN: 0765324644 / B003U2TR6I
First published: 1972