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The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin - Sci-Fi Classic Review

The Word for World is Forest
The classic cover

The subgenre of eco-fiction that rose to prominence in the early seventies was practically made for Ursula K. Le Guin, the Taoist science-fiction master who'd exploded onto the scene in the late sixties with The Left Hand of Darkness. Le Guin frequently explored themes of ecological balance and non-violence, and these ideas are at the forefront of her Hugo Award-winning novella The Word for World is Forest, often cited as one of the quintessential works of seventies eco-fiction. Written primarily as a response to the Vietnam War, The Word for World is Forest is one of those stories that is so influential, you probably already know it, even if you've never heard of it. For example, the James Cameron mega-hit Avatar, which until very recently was the highest grossing film of all time, is largely a retelling.

Set on the forest world of Athshe, The Word for World is Forest is about a small military group from Earth who have settled down on the planet to exploit its natural resources, while subjugating the native population of humanoid creatures in the process. These creatures, the Athsheans, are a peaceful, egrarian race of short, furry, green primates who are outwardly slow and primitive, but conceal great intelligence and a more fluid form of consciousness. One of them, Selver, enraged over the rape and murder of his wife, learns the ways of violence and brings them to his people so that they may save themselves and their environment from humanity's enslavement. After the killing starts, most of the humans try to make peace, but one man, Captain Davidson, is determined to burn the forests and slaughter the Athsheans out of spite.

Le Guin would, late in life, refer to The Word for World is Forest as her "most overt political statement." Though it earns my respect for its powerful narrative, adept writing, and cultural resonance, I have to admit it's one of my least favorites from her, precisely because its so overtly political. The character of Captain Davidson is cartoonishly evil and unlikable--one massive head scar away from Avatar's Colonel Quaritch--and the rest of the human characters, even the obviously sympathetic scientist Raj Lyubov, are similarly one-dimensional. The humans are also deeply patriarchical, with a large group of women newly arrived to the colony being thought of as little more than cattle to be bred and not a single female human actually appearing in the story.

The Word for World is Forest
The coolest cover

The whole thing, then, comes across as painfully preachy and judgmental, a far cry from Le Guin's more nuanced politics in other works. I have little patience for writers who are content to condemn all of humanity, and Le Guin comes a bit too close to doing that for my tastes. Sure, she has redeemable human characters in there, but she paints a picture of humanity that is driven almost entirely by the whims of its most psychopathic figures. No matter how rational some of us try to be, the story tells us, the actions of the worst of us are all that will ultimately matter. In the end, the Athsheans are permanently ruined by violence and parts of their world have been irreparably destroyed, and the blame for that lies not just on the shoulders of Davidson--who doesn't even get a satisfying death, by the way--but on all of humanity, even the ninety-nine percent of it that tries to end the slaughter once it becomes known what is really going on. There is no redemption, only judgment.

But this is a matter of political disagreement, not a strike against Le Guin's writing. If anything, my dissatisfaction is a testament to how provocative she can be. It's impossible to read The Word for World is Forest and not have a visceral reaction to it, whether you agree with its sentiments or not. I could spend this entire review bitching and moaning about how ham-fisted Davidson is as a character, but it won't change the fact that I'll never forget him. Indeed, if her goal was to create someone to hate on just about every level, she succeeded.

Beneath the blunt polemic that structures the story, there are plenty of Le Guin's trademark details of an imaginitively realized, deep alien society worth exploring. The Athshean society is full of interesting ideas about the nature of consciousness and the psychological effects that would spring from different ways of understanding it at the cultural level. It also very briefly touches on the idea of a shared consciouness with the forest itself. Le Guin would explore these ideas further in later works--for example, the idea of alternating realities through dreaming would become foundational to The Lathe of Heaven, and she would explore the idea of a conscious ecosystem in the short story "Vaster than Empires and More Slow"--but the seeds for them planted here are far more intruiging than the clumsy Vietnam allegory that serves as the main narrative thrust.

The Word for World is Forest
The boring cover

There's also the character of Selver, the Athshean who turns to violence to save his people and, in the process, becomes a kind of god. He is a fascinating and dynamic character--the only one in the novel--but Le Guin stubbornly refuses to expand upon him in any meaningful way. There are only a few chapters from his point of view, and none really explain his motivations or how he evolved. Instead, there's just a lot of needless exposition, all in service of moving the story at a brisk pace to its predictable climax.

There's also a bizarre digression right in the middle of the book in which the humans receive help from the newly-formed League of Worlds and are given an ansible. Anyone familiar with Le Guin's Hainish cycle shouldn't be surprised by this--it's putting this story into the greater context of her interconnected universe--but it feels out of place and very tangential to the plot, whereas the rest of the book has a laser-like focus on keeping things streamlined. I don't mind the digression, but a little consistency would be appreciated; if she's going to go into exhaustive detail about human politics light years away, she could spend at least a couple more pages describing the Athshean way of life.

Again, though, I must stress that The Word for World is Forest is one of Le Guin's most important and influential works, a story that, though borne from the current events of its time, has become a timeless modern fairy tale being told and retold throughout science-fiction and fantasy. It's frustrating, blunt, and preachy as Hell, but it leaves an impression which cannot be critiqued away.

-e. magill 11/21/2019

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