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.