The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K Le Guin

The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K Le Guin (1972)
Review by Cara Murphy

When the inhabitants of a peaceful world are conquered by the bloodthirsty yumens, their existence is irrevocably altered. Forced into servitude, the Athsheans find themselves at the mercy of their brutal masters.

Desperation causes the Athsheans, led by Selver, to retaliate against their captors, abandoning their strictures against violence. But in defending their lives, they have endangered the very foundations of their society. For every blow against the invaders is a blow to the humanity of the Athsheans. And once the killing starts there is no turning back.

Set several centuries in the future, and part of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, The Word for World is Forest has been seen a response to the role of the United States in the Vietnam War. Maybe it was at the time of writing, but I consider this book to be particularly relevant to our own actions today regarding the environment, the destruction of our planet’s natural resources and ‘assimilation’ of indigenous peoples. Certainly that was the theme that struck a chord with me and left a lasting impression.

Men from Earth have arrived on the planet Athshe, renamed it New Tahiti, and are in the process of logging the abundant forest, sending the valuable timber back to a homeworld which has suffered environmental destruction. The indigenous population are referred to by many as “creechies” and used as forced labour. The arrogance of the humans is personified in the pivotal character, Captain Davidson, whose point of view opens the book and sets the scene for the explosive events that follow.

“For this world, New Tahiti, was literally made for men. Cleaned up and cleaned out, the dark forests cut down for open fields of grain, the primeval murk and savagery and ignorance wiped out, it would be a paradise, a real Eden.” [p.12]

The native Athsheans – while sharing similar origins as humans, being ‘seeded’ millions of years previously by the Hain – are small, green-furred and live in natural harmony with their world. They have a matriarchal society, a culture of lucid dreaming and, prior to the arrival of humans, have no history of violence. Although the behaviour of the colonists, or ‘yumens’ as they call them, is of concern to the Athsheans, the idea of fighting back against the destruction and oppression is an alien concept to them. They don’t understand the yumens and consider them to be backward and insane.

“But they only dream in sleep, you said; if they want to dream waking they take poisons [hallucinogenic drugs] so that dreams go out of control, you said! How can people be any madder?” [p55]

Their world, where the word for ‘world’ is the same as that for ‘forest’ is described in rich detail and shows Le Guin’s talent for worldbuilding. When contrasted with the society the colonisers have created, Athshe is indeed a utopia.

Although I think that The Word for World is Forest is not one of Ursula Le Guin’s best books, it is well worth the few hours it will take to read. It lacks some of the depth seen in other novels such as The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed in my view; however, I found the character of Davidson compelling. While he was the archetypal colonist; self-righteous, overtly oppressive and dismissive of anyone not like himself, his inner dialogue revealed an almost sociopathic personality. He reminded me of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, slowly going mad in an unfamiliar environment. On the other hand, Selver, his Athshean adversary and nemesis, was a more thoughtful and introspective character who took no pleasure in becoming the first of his kind to kill and murder. He led a bloody and ruthless revolt but lost a vital part of himself in the process. Both men are irrevocably changed by the events in which they played central roles.

What has stayed with me is the environmental thrust of The Word for World is Forest. Men (and the human colonisers are all male) arrive on Athshe to plunder its forests with no consideration for the native inhabitants or the consequences of removing the trees from the land. It sounds very familiar to us today, with the Amazonian and Indonesian rainforests being cut down and replaced with soya and palm oil plantations. But we do not have a New Tahiti to exploit. Ursula Le Guin has described a lush and fertile world, one where the trees are the lifeforce of the land and the inhabitants recognise this. The Athshean society lives in harmony with its environment, respecting the land and the creatures that live around them. Le Guin makes a very interesting point… that the word for world in the Athshean language is forest, whereas the word for world in ours is earth.

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Grass, Sheri S Tepper

Grass by Sheri Tepper (1989)
Review by Cara Murphy

On the Back of the Book:
Generations ago, humans fled to the cosmic anomaly known as Grass. But before humanity arrived, another species had already claimed Grass for its own. It too had developed a culture… Now a deadly plague is spreading across the stars, leaving no planet untouched, saved for Grass. But the secret of the planet’s immunity hides a truth so shattering it could mean the end of life itself.

Grass is a novel with several strong themes, all relevant to our world today. Religion, the role of women in society and environmentalism are evident throughout the novel and raise some interesting parallels with our own planet today. But there is a dark side to Grass, one that the aristocratic families have learned to live with, uncomfortably, over generations; the Hunt.

Marjorie Westriding Yrarier is the central character. She arrives on Grass from a future Terra (Earth) dominated by Sanctity, an oppressive world religion. Her family relationships, her religion, ‘Old Catholicism’ and her faith in the very existence of God are constant themes in her life. Throughout the book, revelations about Grass, its culture and the nature of the native inhabitants, serve to undermine and challenge her entire belief system. Marjorie is a well-developed character and carries the book very well. I felt I engaged with her and found her to be a strong and insightful woman.

The world-building in Grass is top class. Apart from the spacetown and the estancias of the aristocracy, the whole planet is covered in grass… and Sheri Tepper’s descriptions of this world are some of her best writing

“Grass. Ruby ridges, blood-coloured highlands, wine-shaded glades. Sapphire seas of grass with dark islands of grass bearing great plumy trees which are grass again. Interminable meadows of silver hay where the great grazing beasts move in slanted lines like mowing machines, leaving the stubble behind them to spring up again in trackless wildernesses of rippling argent.”

and

“Beyond the ridge the watergrass filled a shallow basin dotted with islands of seagrass, the whole making such a marvellously lifelike seascape that it was called the Ocean Garden.”

The Hunt is a central feature of society in Grass. Organised by the aristocracy, in unspoken agreement with the Hippae, this is a disturbing parody of fox hunting in England. The Hippae themselves are unnerving and malevolent, frightening in their appearance,

“…the wicked neck barbs bristling to one side like a fan of sabres as they moved back…”

The families, collude with the Hunt, knowing that they risk their daughters wellbeing in doing so. What is the dark secret hidden within the Hunt? Who or what are the prey, the enigmatic Foxen? All is revealed, including the true natures of both Hippae and Foxen, as the book draws to its conclusion.

Throughout the book there are lengthy discourses on religion, original sin and guilt. Both Catholicism and fundamental Christianity (Sanctity, an oppressive religion, similar in some ways to Mormonism) are explored by Sheri Tepper. At times I found the religious aspect irritating, especially in the more theological discussions, but it is all relevant by the close of the novel, and indeed adds depth to the plot. But the author is not kind to patriarchal religions, and while Father James is a thoughtful and interesting character, the institution of Sanctity is corrupt and decaying in its oppressiveness. A secondary, but favourite character is Rillibee Chime who starts out as a minion within Sanctity but finds his life’s purpose on Grass. He is an innocent in many ways but holds a quiet power within him.

The strength of Grass is the world itself. How Grass the planet changes Marjorie is very well done and the very final conclusion is in keeping with her character. I loved the glorious descriptions of landscapes, the grass providing colour and texture to an otherwise plant-free world. The interconnectedness of all things was deftly illustrated by the relationship between the Hippae and the Foxen, which when fully revealed changes your perspective on both creatures. The mystery element, of what happens to the girls abducted by their mounts, is revealed, but is not the end of the story.

Grass is a thought-provoking novel, especially if you enjoy reading about human colonisation of alien planets and the imposition of old world ideology on a new world society. But it is a very human story too, with Marjorie’s core values being challenged by her experiences. She grows from an accepting, sometimes resentful, wife, mother and dutiful Catholic into a strong and confident women, ready to face her future on her own terms.

This review originally appeared on Speculative Book Review.