Book review: The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. Le Guin (1972)

Finished May 2021

science fiction

Overall, I really loved reading The Word for World is Forest, and coming from someone who generally stays away from fiction that says a lot. This doesn’t fully do it justice, but imagine that Terry Pratchett watched one of Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier movies and decided to write a political sci-fi novel about colonisation, deforestation and war.

Here is a better blurb/summary from goodreads:

Centuries in the future, Terrans [basically humans from Earth] have established a logging colony & military base named “New Tahiti” on a tree-covered planet whose small, green-furred, big-eyed inhabitants have a culture centered on lucid dreaming. Terran greed spirals around native innocence & wisdom, overturning the ancient society. Terran colonists take over the planet locals call Athshe, meaning “forest,” rather than “dirt,” like their home planet Terra. They follow the 19th century model of colonization: felling trees, planting farms, digging mines & enslaving indigenous peoples. The natives are unequipped to comprehend this. They’re a subsistence race who rely on the forests & have no cultural precedent for tyranny, slavery or war. The invaders take their land without resistance until one fatal act sets rebellion in motion & changes the people of both worlds forever. 

I came to The Word for World is Forest in the middle of reading Staying With the Trouble, partly as a palate-cleanser, partly because Donna told me to (“Le Guin’s work … pervades much writing for environmental justice and environmental resurgence.” (2016, 213n3)), partly because I love sci-fi and had always been curious about Le Guin’s work, partly because I am a Star Wars fan and wanted to read the book that supposedly inspired George Lucas to ‘invent’ the planet of Endor and its inhabitants, the Ewoks, and partly because I find poetry and fiction to be far more inspiring than academic work and I wanted to be inspired.

I don’t know if I was truly left feeling inspired, but I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

For a start, it’s short and I vastly prefer short novels to long ones. You don’t need 200,000 words to tell a story or make a point. At that point it’s generally just window-dressing (see: The Overstory, which made my eyes roll so hard so many times that I only made it halfway through).

Secondly, I really clicked with Le Guin’s voice. Her clipped, irreverent humour blankets a seething, sardonic rage about the capacity of power and violence to infect its victims with its own black magic. Le Guin acknowledges in the introduction that this was a work which was written quite quickly, and in a helpless fury in response to the butchery of Vietnamese lands and people by American hands:

I wrote [The Word for World is Forest] […] in the winter of 1968, during a year’s stay in London. All through the sixties, in my home city in the States, I had been helping organise and participating in non-violent demonstrations, first against atomic bomb testing, then against the pursuance of the war in Viet Nam.

[…] 1968 was a bitter year for those who opposed the war. The lies and hypocrisy redoubled; so did the killing. Moreover, it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of non-combatants in the name of “peace” was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the earth in the name of “man”.

[…] It was from such pressures, internalised, that this story resulted: forced out, in a sense, against my conscious resistance. I have said elsewhere that I never wrote a story more easily, fluently, surely – and with less pleasure. I knew, because of the compulsive quality of the composition, that it was likely to become a preachment, and I struggled against this […] I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious self has other opinions.

[…] American involvement in Viet Nam is now past […] and so the moralising aspects of the story are now plainly visible. These I regret, but I do not disclaim them either.

I don’t think she needs to regret them, and I am glad she does not disclaim them. I understand that for an author, the idea of writing a simple and straightforward morality tale or parable can be somewhat distasteful. It smacks of clumsy metaphor and allegory, perhaps recalling the fumbled analysis of Sauron as Hitler or Animal Farm as Russia. However, I don’t think that the metaphor is overextended in this case, and the events unfolding on the forest/world of Athshe stand alone as a conceivable and feasible future. Furthermore, and unfortunately, colonisation, defoliation, despoliation, massacre, rape, and genocide are features of human activity far beyond what happened in Vietnam in the 1960s.

I liked many of the characters, although none stuck out – this is not a story in which character is king, perhaps with the exception of the general who represents the Big Bad. I really liked that [SPOILER!] one of the more likable colonisers does not survive. I liked that the brutal scenes were brutal. I liked that it wasn’t all explained – especially the political scenes left me as frustrated and confused as they do in this world. I felt deeply moved when the Athsheans felt afraid for their planetary kin, mourned their dead, and contemplated how having learned about violence might change them.

I wish the Athsheans had had a bit more humour/variation in their personalities as they did at times strike me a little too sombre, reminiscent of the sad, serious, wise Indigenous person frequently seen in films and television. However, their sobriety and humourlessness is entirely understandable in the context. I yearned for more detail about how the dreaming worked, and I didn’t feel like the perversion of that practice was as shocking as Le Guin perhaps hoped it would be, but it could well be that I’ve just been number by horror movies and video games of this century.

I don’t really know how to end this review, other than to give you a sample of the writing, with two passages featuring two of the main characers: Selver, the Athshean, and Lyubov, a Terran/yumen (human):

Captain Raj Lyubov had a headache. It began softly in the muscles of his right shoulder, and mounted crescendo to a smashing drum beat over his right ear. The speech centres are in the left cerebral cortex, he thought, but he couldn’t have said it; couldn’t speak, or read, or sleep, or think. Cortex, vortex. Migraine headache, margarine breadache, ow, ow, ow. Of course he had been cured of migraine once at college and again during his obligatory Army Prophylactic Psychotherapy Sessions, but he had brought along some ergotamine pills when he left Earth, just in case. He had taken two, and a superhyperduper-analgesic, and a tranquilliser, and a digestive pill to counteract the caffeine which counteracted the ergotamine, but the awl still bored out from within, just over his right ear, to the beat of the big bass drum. Awl, drill, ill, pill, oh God. Lord deliver us. Liver sausage. What would the Athsheans do for a migraine? They wouldn’t have one, they would have daydreamed the tensions away a week before they got them. Try it, try daydreaming. Begin as Selver taught you.

&

At first the Athshean made no response. His strange face, the large deep-set eyes, the strong features misshapen by scars and blurred by the short silken fur that followed and yet obscured all contours, this face turned from him, shut, obstinate. Then suddenly he looked round as if against his own intent. “Lyubov, you shouldn’t have come here. You should leave Central two nights from now. I don’t know what you are. It would be better if I had never known you.”

And with that he was off, a light walk like a long-legged cat, a green flicker among the dark oaks of Tuntar, gone. Tubab followed slowly after him, still without a glance at Lyubov. A fine rain fell without sound on the oak-leaves and on the narrow pathways to the Lodge and the river. Only if you listened intently could you hear the rain, too multitudinous a music for one mind to grasp, a single endless chord played on the entire forest.

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