May 06 2016

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Left Hand of Darkness takes place on a world nearly frozen, with people constantly contending against the natural forces that will kill them, given half a chance or just a little too much inattention. The Word for World is Forest takes place on a warm and pleasant planet, where plentiful rains and abundant sunshine ensure that all available space is covered by plant life, lush, dense forests alive with every kind of life. Yet The Word for World is Forest is by far the bleaker work.

Both books are set within Le Guin’s group of Hainish stories, a series of tales concerning humanity as a starfaring species, but one that has been distributed among numerous planets in the distant past, allowing evolution to take its course, and then reconnected in a future where faster-than-light travel is not possible, but superluminal communication is. The Word for World is Forest takes place just as instant communication across the stars has been mastered, and the network for it is being set up. Previously, communication had been limited by the speed of travel, meaning that colonies in other star systems had often had no feedback from the mother planet within the course of a regular human lifetime.

Athshe is just such a world. Twenty-seven light years from Earth, recently colonized for purposes of, well, an essential piece of story set-up that unfortunately makes no sense whatsoever. Le Guin posits an Earth so far gone in environmental catastrophe that it has to import wood from 27 light years away, and yet still capable of maintaining a starfaring civilization. In the story, wood is valuable enough to be worth expending the energy to send it across interstellar distances, and no. My suspension of disbelief took a great long dive, and was considering doing a belly flop in the middle of the pool. Fortunately the rest of the story is compelling enough that I could just look away from this gaping economic hole.

Le Guin first shows Athshe, or New Tahiti as the colonists from Earth call the world, through the eyes of Capt. Don Davidson, who quickly shows himself the very model of toxic white masculinity. As the book begins, he is recalling the near total loss of soil on an island that has been clear cut, and looking forward to sex with one of “the second batch of breeding females for the New Tahiti Colony, all sound and clean, 212 head of prime human stock. Or prime enough, anyhow.” (p. 9) Davidson has responsibility for logging operations in some territories. He has to meet his quotas and prepare the land for later farming. He hadn’t seen why the land might need to retain some trees, and so he had gone ahead and ordered them all cut down. And there went the soil, much to his exasperation. Why couldn’t this planet be like Ohio?

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. Thinking Men, he thought Women, and again the line of little figures began to sway through his mind, smiling, jiggling. (p. 10)

Soon he is roaring at his native servant, for Athshe is home to an intelligent indigenous species, humanoid but smaller than the humans from Earth, called “creechies” by men like Davidson. They are mostly covered in green fur, appear indolent to the military men from Earth, and seem to have no forms of interpersonal violence. Le Guin wastes no time in showing the exploitation that combination would give rise to: native loggers and personal servants under the command of the humans, a system of slave labor as vicious as it is new.

At the end of the first chapter, though, things change. Davidson returns from his outing to Central to find “the charred jet, the wrecked hoppers, the burned-out hangar. … The rest was gone, mill, furnace, lumberyards, HQ, huts, barracks, creechie compound, everything. Black hulks and wrecks, still smoking.” (p. 25)

The second chapter follows Selver, one of the humanoids of Athshe, depicting how he came to show his people a new thing, to overcome their aversion to violence, and thus to lead them into revolt. Le Guin takes readers into an alien but humanesque society, deploying her anthropological background and drawing on concepts such as the dream-time of some Australian Aboriginal groups. The story of their struggle to resist is not so much a physical problem—they outnumber the “yumens” from Earth by thousands to one—but a moral one. Are the yumens people? May they be killed, even if they are?

The third perspective in the book comes from Capt. Raj Lyubov. He holds the same rank as Davidson, but is a researcher rather than a commander. Through Lyubov’s recollections, readers learn how he befriended Selver, how the two of them translated words and concepts between the languages and thought processes of the two worlds. Lyubov even learned some of the dreaming that is so important to the local humanoids; they think the Earth yumens somewhere between primitive and insane for lacking these skills. This chapter also brings a wild card: the arrival of an interstellar ship, one that brings not only humans from the worlds of Ceti and Hain, but also news that the nature of interstellar relations have changed. Instant communications mean that colonial outposts are no longer out of touch for decades at a time.

With those elements in place, the conflict proceeds as it must, in just under 200 pages. For all that it is a slender book, The Word for World is Forest touches on numerous themes. Strongest is the violence and exploitation inherent in setting up and running colonies. Le Guin shows the kinds of people most likely to rise to power in such situations: those who care the least for others. She also shows the strongly gendered roles in the colonial setup. Indeed, no woman from Earth speaks a word in the story. Men are also harmed; those who do not want to be like Davidson are nevertheless cowed by him and the other men who are like him. Nearly all of them die because of it. Published in 1972, The Word for World is Forest is also very much a Vietnam book. While the American engagement in Vietnam was not aimed at resource extraction like the Terran colonization of Athshe, many of the other details of the story clearly echo American actions there, particularly the importance of napalm in the colonists’ arsenal. One of the Terran characters even describes the futility of trying to fight all of the local humanoids by referencing Vietnam’s ability to hold off external powers for decades at a time.

Because it is a novella, The Word for World is Forest sometimes functions better as a parable. Is Davidson an archetype or a caricature? It depends on the reader’s perspective, I suppose; he’s certainly not nuanced. Are the Athsheans idealized, and is that itself problematic in the portrayal of a colonized people? I think the answer there lies in both the length of the work, and in the forty-plus years of additional discussion on those topics that has come about since it was published. It was surely groundbreaking at the time, and well worth reading even now.

About the author

Doug Merrill

Writer, editor, translator, project manager, reformed bookseller. Currently based in Berlin, following stints in Moscow, Tbilisi, Munich, Washington, Warsaw, Budapest and Atlanta. Also blogs at A Fistful of Euros, though less frequently than here these days.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/05/06/the-word-for-world-is-forest-by-ursula-k-le-guin/


  1. Al Singh

    Your objection to the logic of such an advanced civilization not having access to wood, or even needing wood, reminds me a bit of a problem I have with Dune. “Thou shalt not make a machine in the image of man’s mind.” Could the interstellar civilization of Dune really have evolved without computers?

  2. Doug Merrill

    No, I don’t think it could. But I accept the premise in Dune for the sake of the rest of the story.

    To be fair to Herbert, it’s almost plausible that the computing he knew from 1965 could be done by trained and adapted humans, or that other functions could be done mechanically, whereas we look at digitalization from 50 years on and say, “No way.”

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