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.


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.


Book review: Kalpa Imperial, by Angélica Gorodischer

30 10 2016

Angélica Gorodischer is a multi-award-winning Argentinian writer who for many years has been active in a variety of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, and crime fiction. Only a small fraction of her work has yet been translated into English.


Kalpa Imperial (combining La Casa del poder and El Imperio mas vasto, 1983, translated by Ursula K Le Guin) is a collection of thematically-connected short stories that trace the repeated rise and fall of a fictional, never-specified empire, as narrated by a sometimes-irascible storyteller. The partial histories embedded within each story, always overlaid by the storyteller’s observations on the human foibles of the protagonists and the audience, are so tenuously connected to each other that the overall arc of the collection might best be described as a ‘mosaic epic’, rather as though one had chosen several widely-spaced chapters from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and forced the reader to interpolate the intervening narrative. The somewhat distant, second-remove presentation of the individual storylines gives the work a feel more of mythology than of fiction. Several of the stories (or, if you wish, chapters) feature no directly-reported dialogue, but instead offer passages that describe occasional episodes of discourse interspersed with the storyteller’s opinions on a broad variety of matters; it’s refreshing when, as in ‘The Pool’, one of the chapters (or, if you prefer, stories) with a greater degree of immediacy, actual conversation occurs.

The geography of the Empire defies precise identification (though it appears to occupy a northern-hemisphere location); so too does its chronology. Other than the storyteller, there are no characters whose biographies extend from one story to the next, and it’s entirely possible, indeed likely, that the tellers of the various stories are not the same individual but rather a sequence of storytellers representative of that occupation, since several of the storytellers speak of their particular narratives as though these are things of the recent past, or indeed the present. Several of the stories reference cars, planes, and other modern inventions, others reveal a more primitive technological level, and yet each story makes mention of a sequence of emperors and empresses, with so many disparate lineages and dynasties, never connected, that the span of the full collection must be at least several thousand years in total. There’s thus a sense of stream-of-consciousness, of surrealistic anachronicity between (but not within) the various stories. This, too, I suppose, conveys the texture of mythology or legend, a sense that doesn’t get adjusted until midway through the final tale, ‘The Old Incense Road’.

Other than The Silmarillion, it’s difficult to find points of literary comparison. There’s a sense in which an analogy can be drawn with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy—a timeless, emblematic seat of power, riddled with schemes and concealed conflicts— although where Peake’s novels are almost painstakingly precise and specific, Gorodischer’s stories are carefully obscure, and with a much broader sweep. A closer comparison might well be with Samuel Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon cycle, though I haven’t read this and know of it only by reputation.

The focus of the stories in Kalpa Imperial is often on the nature of power, or the occurrence of transitions of power, and on the interactions between leadership and society. There’s frequently an allegorical slant, and numerous examples of unchecked cruelty and corruption. There are battles, sometimes of arms and sometimes of wits (and sometimes of one versus the other), encompassing, at times, a cast of thousands and at other times just two. Good emperors (or empresses) follow bad, and vice versa, with the nature of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ always contextual and subject to redefinition. Sickness and deformity is frequent, and the need for an heir is a repeated refrain. The intent, I think, is to convey a sense of history, while not remaining captive to historical constraints. This all probably makes it sound as though the book is lacking in personality, which isn’t the case: some of the characterisation is exceptionally vivid, though in other places it seems deliberately enigmatic.

Because of its emphasis of the long view, within which the personal and the specific struggles to surface, Kalpa Imperial isn’t a book that lends itself to rapid digestion. It’s hardly a pageturner: I found myself reading perhaps a dozen pages at a stretch before needing to take a break. It is, though, undeniably well written; beautiful and elusive; constructed with a careful if haphazard eye for detail.

Done well, a mosaic novel can be greater than the sum of its parts. Kalpa Imperial is done well. And the involvement of Le Guin as translator is an endorsement in itself.