Book review: The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K Le Guin

15 04 2017

Over the past half century or so, Ursula K Le Guin’s work has received just about every SF / fantasy writing award going, and has achieved a greater degree of cut-through into the broader literary sphere than almost any of her genre contemporaries. I first encountered her writing through her ‘Earthsea’ trilogy (as it was then), but have also read many others of her books including the avowed classics The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.

TheWordForWorldIsForest

I first read The Word for World is Forest about thirty years ago; it didn’t particularly resonate with me at the time, and I think I subsequently confused it in my memory with her YA novel Threshold (also known by the title The Beginning Place), which I read at about the same time. When I realised recently that I didn’t recognise its synopsis, I decided a reappraisal was in order.

The Word for World is Forest is set on Athshe / World 41 / New Tahiti, home of a diminutive race of docile, intelligent green-furred humanoids known, by the terrestrial scientists who are studying them, as Athsheans, and as ‘Creechies’ by the soldiers and sawmill operators who have moved in to cut down the planet’s trees for precious timber to be sent back to a now-treeless Earth. Many of the Athsheans have been pressganged into service as labourers across the various timber-felling operations, but their largely nonconfrontational nature sees the Terran (‘Yuman’) settlers taking greater and greater liberties with their small green slave labour force. Eventually, a line is crossed, and a vicious insurrection ensues. The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Captain Donald Davidson, the supervisor of tree-clearing operations at Smith Camp; Selver, an Athshean held at Smith Camp, whose wife Thele has been raped and killed by Davidson; and Dr Raj Lyupov, a researcher at the central Terran, whose efforts to unravel the secrets of Athshean culture—a matriarchal society which places great importance on the technique of directed dreaming—have been substantially assisted by his interactions with Selver. All three individuals are, in their own way, quite strongly rebellious, and seek to follow their own directions rather than follow the guidelines explicitly or implicitly set for them by their respective societies, and this leads ultimately to disaster.

There are clear parallels between WWF and the movie Avatar: substitute wood for unobtanium, change the locals’ skin colour from green to blue, and you’re mostly there. The more immediate (and openly acknowledged) parallel, though, is with the Vietnam war, at its height when the story was first published in 1968; and I would say that there are also echoes, whether conscious or unconscious, of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Depressingly, the book has scarcely dated at all, and seems at least as topical now as it was fifty years ago.

Of the protagonists, Davidson is ruthless and venal; Selver is determined but troubled; Lyupov is prone to doubts. All three are utterly self-consistent, but with sufficient complexity of personality to render them both interesting and believable. There’s a solid moral subtext to the story, but it plays out cleanly as a contest between wholly motivated characters, and the text leaves you in no doubt as to why they’ve behaved as they have. Within its short frame (it is, I think, somewhere on the border between novella and novel) there’s enough vivid depiction to build up a clear and detailed picture of Athshean society—as befits, I suppose, the daughter of an anthropologist and a writer—and of the planetary ecology. The story has a kind of horrible inevitability to it, the atrocities are contained and yet truly shocking—as befits, I suppose, a tale of conflict written at the height of the Vietnam war—and the ending rings true. There are almost certainly more comprehensive treatments of the dehumanising effect of war, elsewhere in the SF canon, but WWF endures as a compact and insightful look at the depths to which human nature can descend.