Ben Flasher's Reviews > The Word for World is Forest

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
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it was ok

Much as I'm in agreement with this book's message of environmentalism and nonviolence, I found its delivery of that message to be preachy, joyless, and heavy-handed. Its tale of colonist humans and their conflict with the native Athsheans transplants the worst atrocities of colonialism's past into the future, but loses any subtlety and nuance in the process.

It doesn't help that the Athsheans embody just about every romanticized stereotype of the native primitive. Like the most Disneyfied take on Native Americans, they live amongst the trees, perfectly in balance with nature. They're deeply spiritual, with a strong, aboriginal-like connection to the dream time. And, in the book's most groan-inducing conceit, they're completely peaceful, never having even conceived of murder until it's introduced to them by humans.

The humans, on the other hand, are depicted as the worst of colonialism with all the nuance of a political cartoon. Despite the fact that the Athsheans have learned English, only one scientist, Lyubov, sees them as intelligent beings with a worthwhile culture. The rest of the colonists treat them with disdain and virulent racism, casually beating, enslaving, and raping them (or turning a blind, indifferent eye to those who do). The enslavement of the Athsheans never makes much sense; the humans complain that the Athsheans aren't any good as slaves (or anything else that they use them for), and the Athsheans themselves would happily avoid the humans if left to their own devices. The only apparent motivation the humans have for enslaving the Atsheans is spite.

As polarized as the characters' views are, Le Guin does a skillful job of getting inside the head of each. Still, though she fleshes them out well and makes them believable, they're not particularly engaging or likable. Lyubov, the lone Athshean sympathizer, is weak and ineffectual; he never comes up with a course of action more ambitious than bemoaning his own impotence. The Athshean Sleverin is too remote, too much of an exoticized native to be relatable. And Davidson, the human antagonist, is an abhorrent embodiment of arrogant machismo and genocidal hatred. They're effective characters for driving the plot forward, but none of them are particularly enjoyable to spend time with.

The lens of science fiction can put history in a fresh new perspective, letting us see past and present injustices in new contexts free from our preconceived notions. In the case of The Word for World is Forest, however, the science fiction setting brings precious little new insight or perspective into the sordid history of colonialism; fictionalizing events merely allows Le Guin to reduce both sides to their most polarized extremes. It's a testament to her skills that despite the lack of relatable characters and a plot that marches inexorably toward the conclusion dictated by its allegorical nature, the story is still thoroughly readable and moves along at a snappy pace. I look forward to reading more of Le Guin's work, and seeing her bring her formidable talents to bear on a story that is more nuanced and less didactic.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
September 14, 2012 – Finished Reading
October 24, 2012 – Shelved

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Dawn The "romanticized stereotype of the native primitive"... Also called the "Noble Savage."


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