Thursday, June 9, 2011

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

The Word for World is Forest is a novel set in Le Guin's Hainish universe, bases on the Hugo award winning novella of the same title. Chronologically it is the second of the longer pieces (there's also a whole bunch of Hainish short fiction), after The Dispossessed (1974). The series was written out of chronological order though, this novel was published two years after The Dispossessed and some ten years after the first novel in the Hainish cycle, Rocannon's World. There's also an edition of the novel that combines it with The Eye of the Heron (1978), a novel that may or may not be part of the Hainish cycle. My edition is the 2010 reprint by Tor. It is said to be reissued in the wake of the success of the film Avatar, which shares certain themes with the novel. I haven't seen Avatar so I can't really tell you anything sensible about that.

New Tahiti is a recently colonized world. It's continents are covered in lush forests, an ideal export product for timber-hungry Earth. Once the forest has been cleared there should be plenty of land available to cultivate and further settle the planet. The native sentient species, the Athsheans, have not developed technology beyond a primitive level and are considered non-violent. In true frontier spirit, they are exploited for labour and sex, mistreated and generally accepted to be just another resource the planet has to offer. Problems arise when the poorly understood forest ecology collapses in places where excessive cutting has taken place. Erosion of the cleared top soil causes many areas to turn into wastelands. Further problems arise when the Athsheans finally respond to the provocations by the settlers and turn violent. The situation is quite a mess when representatives of the newly formed League of All Words arrive with a revolutionary new device.

Le Guin again manages to stuff in an awful lot of social commentary in such a short text. The novel contains a reference to the Vietnam War and some of the lessons learnt from it prevent the settlers from going on an all out offensive once the hostilities break out. One of the major characters, anthropologist Raj Lyubov, is actively seeking cooperation and a deeper understanding of Athshean culture. Not everybody is so accepting of this approach however. Captain Davidson is a man who feel that harsh measures are the only way to get the natives to be docile and productive. If that means beating, humiliating, raping or killing a few, well, that is what can be expected of life at the frontier. Or to put it in his words, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

The settlers may be internally divided, the gap between them and the natives is even wider. Although part of the treatment of the natives is due to plain cruelty, in other instances, an enormous lack of understanding between the two parties causes problems. Le Guin shows the misunderstandings but also the unwillingness to believe that the Athsheans are just as intelligent as the settlers. They are addressed in very simple, condescending English for instance, and the myth that they do not sleep, is believed long after it has been proven false. That sleep and dreaming are an important part of their culture and world view is missed by almost everyone.

Le Guin could have made it a story of the inevitable downfall of the native culture in the face of the settler's superior technology. And in a way it is, the author shows us a people with a stable, pacifistic and spiritually highly developed culture, living in harmony with their surroundings. Such a simple and, in the eyes of settlers, naive culture cannot escape being changed by the contact with the settlers. Although violence was not completely absent from their lives, the possibility has been introduced by the settles, disrupting the almost Eden-like society the Athsheans live in. An end to paradise, their lives will never be the same.

The author does give the story an interesting twist by introducing the ansible. This device is one of the things that connects the Hainish books, The Dispossessed for instance, discusses the theoretical framework for the device. It makes instant communication possible over light years of distance. Before this technology was introduced there was a time lag of 27 years between the settlers and Earth. In effect they were on their own. Any kind of response to crimes or mismanagement would have taken generations to arrive. Now, instructions can be called for immediately and accountability takes a whole new meaning. The effect of physical distance is diminished and so, the outcome of the story is not quite as tragic as one might expect at the start of the novel.

The Word for World is Forest is not considered the best of Le Guin's work. I haven't read enough of her books to say something sensible about that but I can say that I very much enjoyed reading it. As with other books by Le Guin I've read, my response was a bit delayed. It took me a few days to process what Le Guin put into this novel and the more I think about it, the more I see how complex the tale is. It's perhaps not quite as ambitious as The Dispossessed but still a fascinating read. After reading this book there is no escaping it, I'm going to have to read the Hainish Cycle in it's entirety.

Book Details
Title: The Word for World is Fores
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 189
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2464-1
First published: 1976


  1. This sounds like an excellent read.

    I'm pretty sure I've only read some of the Earthsea novels, but it's been years, so I'm not sure.

  2. That one is still on my to read list. I think we have a copy of A Wizard of Earthsea around here somewhere.

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