Valerie's Reviews > The Word for World Is Forest

The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
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Apr 14, 2016

I own a copy

This is not the edition I first read, but it's the edition I now own. It contains nothing but text: no introduction, no discussion, etc. (Update: No; it's not. I find that the edition with this cover title is dated 1976: my copy is dated 1972: so it's actually an earlier edition.

I can't compare this book to Avatar. I haven't seen Avatar. I would suggest that, coming from an anthropological background, it's probably different in many critical ways. I HAVE, however, seen the 5th Doctor episode "Kinda". In Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, it's stated that "Kinda" is based on The Word for World Is Forest, and on Buddhist theology. I can't say I made the connection, myself.

From the title I understood from the start that the book was anthropological (and linguistic). If the word for 'world' IS forest, it makes a big difference in a lot of ways. A world where the entire landmass is covered with old-growth forest is clearly not like the world we know--or at least remember.

I tend to ask about oceans in these stories. What are the oceans like? Are the locals seafarers? What impact does it have on their cultures, whether they are or not? I find; on rereading; that there is SOME marine travel (fishing; etc) But though there are several major islands; they seem to be all quite close together.

The 'hilfer' Lyubov is a pretty standard anthropologist. He describes Athshean culture as he was taught to. That he can understand no more about the Dreamtime than to describe the Dreamtime as 'unreal' and the Worldtime as 'real' 'as if that explained the difference between them' is a good indication that he CAN'T speak for (or really to) the Ashtheans, no matter how he tries to open his mind to the experience of the natives. But the fact that he's better than anybody else is a comment on the dangers of scorn for 'intellectuals' (or, as they're called here, 'speshes'. One note: while he is alive; Lyubov is subject to migraines. It's not clear whether these persist while he is a ghost. Theoretically he would leave such things behind. But his actions as a ghost are dependent on Selver's memories of him: and Selver remembers the headaches as an important part of Lyubov's character.

One point that becomes critical is the question of why the 'yumens' don't bring women along with them. The god (demon? anyway recognized as divine BECAUSE he's mad) Davidson has no difficulty with this. He thinks females are only for sex, and have no other place in any society. But the other Earth-humans? What do THEY think? Why did Lyubov not bring a female hilfer along? I recall a woman anthropologist commenting that the fact that Chagnon never brought a female anthropologist along to the Yanomamo essentially rendered all his observations invalid, because half a story is no story at all. And where are the women administrators? Ship captains? Lumber workers? No other women at ALL, except whores? At one point Lyubov points out one important lack. Not only are there few women, and no children (if there'd been 'yumen' children playing with the Athshean children, this would have been at least somewhat a different story), there are few to no old people: and NO old women.

In Athshean society (and it seems to be one society, worldwide, despite some local variations), the females, though not dreamers, are the keepers of the Worldtime. They arbitrate, fashion, devise. The men are essentially shamans. This society more nearly resembles Puebloan societies than any other I know of on Earth. This also causes Selver to realize that when the 'yumens' import women, it can only mean that they are moving in for good. Most Ashtheans regard the Earth-humans as a temporary plague. It's bad, but it will pass.

The 'translators', Selver and Davidson, are not just polar opposites. They don't just together act the divine role by bringing the concept of interpersonal violence from the Dreamtime into the Worldtime. They are also both recognized as essential. The Ashtheans never have any intention of killing Davidson. They recognize his divinity, and they don't have any way to deal with him but to exile him into a Hell (literally) of his own making. Selver, however, has to live in the world he has helped create. Though he tries to tell himself that he will return violence to the Dreamtime after he's finished with it, he knows this is not possible. It bothers him. It bothers him greatly. But it doesn't make him stop. He feels there is no choice.

But the question of what has become of the Earthlings who were NOT of the Davidson mold is also really not dealt with. Where now are the Mohegan? What has become of the Chief Josephs? Have the Polynesians entirely sold their birthright for a mess of pottage? Though the Terrans who come to Athshe are multiethnic, they seem to be all SOCIALIZED into one mode. The loss of what's now called multiculturalism is offstage and previous: but it's implied that it's a result of the paving over and loss of biodiversity in the history of Earth. But did this never result in any kind of resistance movements?

There's really no description of the contemporary Earth in this story. Even people who apparently signed on out of desperation, and who hope some day to be buried in the earth of their homeworld. don't seem to have any nostalgia. LeGuin seems to be generally hopeless about a 'sustainable' future for humans on Earth. She seems to think we'll never learn the knack of cohabiting our planet with other life-forms. Will there be no saplings taken back to Earth?

The final 'resolution' is, in many ways, superfluous. The Hainish and the Cetians interfere to remove the 'yumen' invaders: but the colony is not tenable well before they arrive. They essentially form a rescue party.

One wonders what the Athshean concept of Hell was before the arrival of the colonizers. Maybe they had none. But they have once they see the results of clearcutting. They may have had no idea of how to restore the forest, since it's not clear that they regarded themselves as caretakers of the forest beforehand. It may restore itself, given time. But it would help if somebody had an idea of how the restoration process works, and when and whether it can be sped up.

The question of the seafarers is only minimally addressed in the book. It's implied that the Athsheans have boats, at least for ferry purposes. And that the people, though not nomadic, are free to move and often do so. But the question of how much people travel at sea, and what THEIR experience is is really not developed. Jacques-Yves Cousteau used to say that a better name for Earth would be 'Water'. How much more would this be so for a world called 'Forest'? Yes, the landmasses are forested. It's NOT rich land. Climax forests are not on rich land. They are bootstrapping organisms. Their nutrients come from the canopy. Nutrients form a secondary rain, are processed in the leaf-mould on the ground, transferred into the soil, and ALMOST IMMEDIATELY are taken up by the tree roots. The soil retains almost no nutrients.

So where do nutrients come from at sea? And how do those nutrients come ashore? And return?

The fantasy of a world of archipelagoes (quite possible, but not true for most of Earth's history) is a common one, especially in LeGuin's cosmology. But the oceanic milieu is too often rendered invisible. Take, by way of contrast, Patricia McKillip's stories. The ocean is far from 'the end of the world' in her books. Seafarers play an important part in the societies. There are beachcombers. There are sailors.

By contrast, in this book, I don't recall even one depiction of a boat. I can't even tell what kind of boats they have. Canoes? Catamarans? Sailboats?

There's also another problem with a lot of LeGuin's books. The Hainish backdrop seems to imply that in ancient times the Hainish engaged in quite extensive ecological engineering. This may be just an excuse on the author's part for not learning basic principles of biology, especially botany. She may, as she says, love trees. But she evidently hasn't (as, say, Oliver Sacks has) learned anything about the history of botanical changes on Earth. There are (at least not in the foreground) no bromeliads in LeGuin's stories, as far as I've seen. The development of vascular plants, and of angiosperms, is taken for granted--and is assumed to be nearly the same on any world habitable by humans. This is 'evolution' in the sense that made Darwin avoid the term whenever possible--a sort of 'rolling out' of preformed and inevitable 'types' of life. Or maybe, in this context, transplantation? The latter seems more likely; based on some comments in the text.

The 'racism' of many characters in many of these books (so severe that they often deny each other's very humanity, although the one Hainish character insists that they're all buds from the same bush) is so extreme that it leads to absurdities even in the relatively openminded Lyubov. Of COURSE the Athsheans have history. For one thing, the Hainish insist that they're NOT natives. They were once colonists themselves. To what degree the original colonies consisted of volunteers is not clear. If they don't keep that history in written form, they must at least have some folklore. At several points there's a matter-of-fact listing of 'gods', who aperiodically emerge from and return to the Dreamtime. Where are those stories? One hopes that Lyubov recorded a few of them, along with his linguistic documents. These documents are saved and delivered to Lyubov's colleagues: but WE don't get to see them.

And this raises another issue. Did NONE of the invaders 'go bush'? Lyubov visits several communities: but he's not of the sort that would be likely to abandon his colleagues and join a 'town' of forest-dwellers. But surely SOME of the foresters might begin to prefer the forest life, and go over the wall? Davidson prefers the open, devastated clearcuts. But he's mad from the start, and madder yet by the end. Were no relatively sane people sent along besides some of the 'speshes'?

The belief system of the invaders is bizarrely tenacious. Despite repeated failures of what might be called the 'conquest mentality' (hasn't life on Earth been rendered almost entirely untenable by this attitude?), the 'colonists' don't seem inclined to even modify it, much less repudiate it. They build their walls of belief and immure themselves therein, no matter how stifling (even suffocating) they are. this is part of the unhopefulness I mentioned earlier. Let's hope that there's enough dissent in ALL the branches of humanity to enable at least SOME bending.

On rereading; I find the depiction of Donaldson cartoonish. I'm not sure if this is because he himself has edited his own thinking to MAKE it self-caricaturing--or if LeGuin simply could not get into the mindset of a person so different from her own way of thinking.

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