Gabrielle's Reviews > The Word for World is Forest

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
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My love for LeGuin's work just keeps growing with every book of hers I read, even when she does everything she can to break my heart. Her novels are always thought-provoking, and she can make a small page count pack one Hell of a punch: at a mere 128 pages, "The Word for World is Forest" still left me devastated. This is a story about hatred and violence, the harm they cause in the long and short term; it's about colonialism and the preservation of aboriginal cultures, deforestation, militarism… Knowing it was written in the wake of the Viet-Nam war, it is easy to understand how all these issues were bouncing around in Le Guin's head, and how it influences the tone of her story.

The Athsheans' culture is based around the forest they live in, and dreaming - when they are awake and asleep. Violence is not something their society knows, which makes them easy picking for the Terran colonists who show up to harvest wood that they sell back to an ecologically ruined Mother Earth. The Athsheans are short and green-furred humanoids, which leads the soldiers assigned to work on their planet to think of them as simple-minded animals, and abuse and exploit them. An Athshean named Selver sees his wife raped and killed by Captain Don Davidson, and is himself brutally beaten by the sadistic soldier. This experience will completely alter Selver's way of thinking and feeling, leading him to rebel against the colonists and commit acts his people had not been thought capable of.

Brute force is the only power Davidson understands. His Terran patriotism translates as hatred of other species and paranoia. While his commanding officer and the inter-planetary alliance Earth is now a part of want the planet and their natives treated respectfully, Davidson's self-righteously disobeys their orders and escalates the conflict. An anthropologist named Raj Lyubov, who was sent to the planet to study the natives and the ecosystem, tries to mitigate the crisis by seeking out Selver to renew his friendship and support, but his efforts are too little too late.

A peaceful culture forced to abandon their non-violent nature in the face of extinction is a heart-breaking premise, but it is one the pages of history shows us to have happened many times. The complex ways both species perceive each other and their incapacity to communicate clearly about their world-views obviously doesn't help. The word the Athsheans use for world is forest, and the word for dream is also the word for root. The delicate balance they maintain, with their dreaming practice, between their conscious and subconscious minds, is impossible to grasp for the colonists, who can't understand their motivation.

Selver is a very introspective character, who turns to violence in desperation: he is aware that those actions are toxic to his people's nature, but cannot find another way to protect and preserve his culture. He knows he is doing the wrong thing for the right reason, that now his people will know murder, a concept that had never reached their consciousness before, and he feels this burden on his shoulders.

In my copy's introduction, Le Guin comments that this book might be one of her most didactic work, and that she has never felt comfortable with that. I can appreciate that sentiment: I certainly don't enjoy being smacked in the face by ideological agendas when I'm reading fiction. While this book is more heavy-handed as a commentary than "The Dispossessed", it is no less haunting and challenging, and written with enough finesse to avoid turning into propaganda. Certainly, the gentle natives and brutal, coarse invaders is not a new trope. In fact, it borders on the cliché and in the hands of a lesser writer, it would fall flat. But Le Guin was raised by anthropologists and it shows: she understands how cultures work, how they change and how people adapt to change, so her story remains solid and feels real.

I turned the last page with a lump in my throat: the slight ambiguity at the end, that flavors the conclusion with bitterness, was as appropriate as it was disturbing. A moving little book, perfect for Le Guin fans and for newbies.
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Reading Progress

February 10, 2016 – Shelved
February 10, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
February 10, 2016 – Shelved as: sci-fi
September 1, 2016 – Shelved as: own-a-copy
April 10, 2017 – Started Reading
April 10, 2017 – Shelved as: fantasy
April 10, 2017 – Shelved as: read-in-2017
April 10, 2017 – Shelved as: speculative-fiction
April 10, 2017 –
page 62
April 11, 2017 – Shelved as: ouch-my-feels
April 11, 2017 – Shelved as: reviewed
April 11, 2017 – Shelved as: mandatory-reading
April 11, 2017 – Finished Reading

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