Tor recently re-released the Hugo winner The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin in a lovely paperback edition, so I thought it finally was time to check out this famous short novel, originally published in the seventies.
The novel is part of Le Guin’s famous HAINISH CYCLE (see also, among others, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed) but can be read completely separately, although being familiar with the larger story will give you a better understanding of the broader context and some of the technologies, such as NAFAL and the famous ansible. Earth-based humans have established a logging colony on the world of New Tahiti and are actively exploiting the pristine world and the indigenous humanoid population, called “creechies” by their human slave-masters but originally called Athsheans. They are a mystical and peaceful-seeming species that lives in harmony with its forest-covered world and practices lucid dreaming, but when the vastly outnumbered humans push them too far, a surprisingly strong and occasionally brutal resistance begins…
Ursula K. Le Guin packs a lot of depth into this short, elegant novel. The contrast between the two opposing world views couldn’t be more clear, but there are also nuances within each culture, most noticeably on the human side with some characters that are more aware of the Athsheans’ cultural identity, and others who treat them as little more than animals or slaves. Selver, the Athshean protagonist, is a complex, fascinating character who I’d love to have seen in a longer novel. By contrast, the human Davidson is so predictable and flat that he barely rises above the level of a caricature; other human characters luckily show more complexity.
Much has been made of the parallels that can be drawn between the James Cameron movie Avatar and this novel, and it’s true that there are some notable plot similarities — which may also explain the timing of this re-release. It’s probably no coincidence that humans are on New Tahiti to gather wood (now Unobtain-, sorry, unavailable on Earth). On the other hand, the whole Noble Savage theme and stories of cruelty by colonizers to indigenous people were really nothing new even in the Seventies. Still, The Word for World is Forest is maybe the most famous example of this type of Romantic Primitivism in science fiction, so it’s easy to see why there were comparisons with Avatar.
Thematically, The World for World is Forest is a child of its time. Just compare the treatment and place of women in the Athshean and human cultures for Ursula K. Le Guin’s subtle feminist message. The colonization/oppressor theme was also highly relevant for the period. In case you’re not familiar with the HAINISH CYCLE, there are layers upon layers of colonization in The Word for World is Forest, because in the overall history of this SF universe, the inhabitants of the planet Hain originally colonized many planets hundreds of thousands of years ago, including the planet Earth, and it’s indicated that the Athsheans themselves may be derived from this original stock, too. Who is a colonizer, who is an oppressor, and who has the right to tell whom what to do, are all questions that come up again and again, but have no easy answers in this novel. These are themes that have been done many times, but rarely so succinctly and elegantly.
If you’re not familiar with Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction yet, The Word for World is Forest is probably not the ideal place to start, but on the other hand, its relatively short length makes it a good opportunity to get your feet wet and try one of the genre’s most talented authors. This subtle, short novel is deceptively simple, but sure to keep you pondering it long after you’ve turned the final page.