Title: The Word for World is Forest
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre: Sci-Fi/ Fantasy
Publication date: 1972
Centuries in the future, Terrans 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.
Humans have learned interstellar travel from the Hainish (the origin-planet of all humanoid races, including Athsheans). Various planets have been expanding independently, but during the novel it’s learned that the League of All Worlds has been formed. News arrives via an ansible, a new discovery. Previously they had been cut off, 27 light years from home.
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 don’t know if it is just me but when I am reading a series I grow to like them more and more with every next book. I’m not sure if the author is getting better or the stories, if I am just more familiar with the style and the story but it has been true for almost every series I read (where I managed to go past the second book).
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula Le Guin, the fifth book in the series, is living proof of that. And the funny part is that the books in the Hainish cycle are not even following the same storyline. In the best case scenario we have a brief mention of planets or species we know from before but other than that every book starts with new characters, new planet and new social, racial or alien issue.
In The Word for World is Forest the story goes like this: we have a new planet where a few thousand humans have been transported to mine wood material — a commodity desperately needed back on Earth. Just like anywhere else we humans go, we destroy, so after short four years they have irreversibly influenced the local geology, vegetation and sentient life. They have enslaved the local population, a race of humanoid creatures around one meter tall, covered with green fur. They use them as ‘free labor’, destroy their homes and way of life and find absolutely nothing wrong with it.
The story is told from three points of view: of Captain Davidson, a human military man who thinks anything non-human is beneath him and can (and should) be destroyed for the benefit of humans; of Raj Lyubov, the anthropologist of the colony and the biggest advocate for the local people and the preservation of their society; and of Selver, the chief Athshean protagonist of the novel (a.k.a one of the aliens). Davidson and Selver are the two opposites with Lyubov being a bridge in-between. It’s an interesting conflict because Lyubov is a human yet he hates Davidson with passion; on the other side, after getting to know Selver he considers him a friend and does everything in his power to save and help him. Fun fact, Lyubov means ‘love’ in Russian where I suppose the name comes from.
This book has the perfect balance of battles, scheming, sci-fi and difficult themes that are still current now (Avatar, anyone?). And of course, the flow and the prose are off the charts. I think this was the only book I read in one sitting and there wasn’t even one moment I found slow or boring.
But most of all, I loved the fact that it made me hate Davidson with great passion. When the book started with Davidson’s POV and his ‘superior’ and misogynistic way of thinking I was afraid how this man is going to become the protagonist, the hero. It didn’t occur to me that Le Guin will start with the antagonist. And what a marvel he was! He was so convinced he was the smartest, the bravest, the toughest – basically the ‘mannest’ man – that everything he did and said fit his personality like a glove. And he didn’t see himself as the bad guy, he was the hero in his own eyes. I was in awe at the commitment to the character that didn’t waver even for a second. I think that made the book so much better for me. As they say, the book is as strong as its antagonist and I have to say, it has been a while since I hated a person so much. The fact that it made me feel so strongly about him is a testament in itself how emotional and influencial the books is. It even made me want the human race, my race, to fail and be destroyed to the last man. Weird what the power of fiction can do to you, eh?
I’m giving The Word for World is Forest 5/5 without a second thought. Le Guin worked up the ladder and she deserves the praise for this one. As you can tell, I’m still hyped about it 😀 Let’s hope when I get my hands on the next it would be just as good.
What about you? What rating would you give? What are your thoughts and takes on The Word for World is Forest?