Ursula Le Guin, The Word for World Is Forest

It's a slim and seemingly light volume, Ursula K. Le Guin's early-70s novel The Word for World Is Forest, but it's shocking how much she's jammed into it. At 180 pages of text, in many ways it's like a haiku, an aphorism, an epigraph: you know what's there without her having to tell you about it.

And it's all good stuff. All of it.

Sure, as other reviewers will tell you, the novel's setup and conceptual framework were deeply mined for Avatar. And sure, it's been respected for long enough that maybe it's time to push back against this novel. I mean, come on - Kubrick accepts anachronism in Full Metal Jacket just so a copy of the novel can be on a bedside table five years before its actual publication date?

But no way am I pushing back. I was grabbed immediately by this novel, firmly, and I finished it the evening of the day I bought it. And for a teacher as hopeless as I am at keeping up with my reading, even when I'm at leisure, the first weeks of September are NOT the time that I tend to read compulsively for fun. For Le Guin and The Word for World Is Forest, though, it seems I've made an exception, and my students are just going to have to be okay with that. (Sorry, gang!)

Basic plot: It's the future, humans are one humanoid race among several, and humans have colonial rights on Athshe, or World 41, which is about 27 years travel from Earth. Technologically advanced humans from Earth have begun enslaving the Athsheans in order to consume and change, entirely, the planet's natural resources. The absolute disrespect shown by humans for Athshe's ecosystems, animals and humanoids leads to warfare, sparked by an individual conflict between a single human and a single Athshean. Previously, the Athsheans had been understood as systemically incapable of violence against another person. Now that they've consciously breached their absolute nonviolence, what then for the Athsheans? And what then for the humans, both those in the novel and those reading it?

If you think of Avatar, then the movie's Colonel Quaritch (played so well by Stephen Lang) isn't a bad fit for the novel's antagonist, Capt. Don Davidson. Both are ruthless in their dealings with the locals and the new world, and both believe that it's suicide not to treat the new world ruthlessly. The difference comes in how Le Guin lets you watch Davidson's disintegration from the inside, from what seems like a stereotypical jarhead into a paranoid psychotic, so that even the hateful (and hateable!) Davidson is fully human after all. No matter how good Lang was as Quaritch, the script meant that the colonel was part of the system, and hence in the movie, the Pandorans had to reject the entire system.

In The Word for World Is Forest, Davidson's pivotal role in shocking the Athshean protagonist Sam/Selver out of his nonviolence makes Davidson a kind of inoculant, or maybe a persistent toxin. It's personal, not just systems-based, and it's far richer as a result. We get to watch two humanoid species at war on the home planet of the lesser species, watch multiple humanoid species try to understand each other, and - most importantly of all - imagine what comes next after this kind of cataclysm, for the winner who cannot but be changed by the experience. And on both sides of the conflict, it's about the individuals, not just the species.

The story parallels the Vietnam war in some ways, but it would have resonated at the time with all sorts of social justice movements. The humans' response to the Athsheans' radical nonviolence, for example, reminded me of the 1965 marches in Selma, Alabama. The dehumanizing language applied to the Athsheans - noted primarily for their long hair - would have made sense to the hippies, even if the Athsheans' hair is usually green and grows all over the body.

So anyway, there's just so very much to say about this fast read of a novel, I enjoyed it enormously, and I'd totally recommend it. But you know what? It's not even the book I enjoyed most this weekend. More about that tomorrow!


Anonymous said…
I liked this book, too--haven't seen the movie, but wonder if Le Guin's novel has also informed China MiƩville's new novel, Embassytown.

I wonder if you'd like CM, or perhaps have already read Perdido Street Station or maybe The City and the City.

richard said…
Like I said in today's Ozeki review, there's too damned many books out there to get to. I need people to read on my behalf, and not just to tell me about it but to download the experience into my brain.

So no, I haven't read any Mieville yet. Argh, argh, and double argh. I should, you think?
Anonymous said…
I definitely do, if you can steel yourself to a writing style utterly given over to a raging and unashamed love for verbiage and monsters. His writing is richly grotesque and clever, drawing on everyone from Benjamin to Derrida to all forms of Marxism, ever. But not annoyingly, if you like worldmaking. Perdido Street Station is perhaps the best place to start. The City and the City is probably his cleverest book. The Scar is, imho, his most sublime (proper sense). Iron Council is the best phantasmagorical gay western love story about social revolution I've read thus far.

jo(e) said…
I ordered this book after reading your review -- and read it yesterday. I'd been wanting to use _Always Coming Home_ in my contemporary nature literature course but it's just too long. So I think I'm going to use this one instead.
richard said…
Yeah, I'm a tastemaker. (Flicks imaginary bit of fluff off shoulder.)

Very glad to hear that you liked it, and one of these conferences, or online, I'd love to hear more about your enviro course. I'm wondering how to make ours more sustainable, more robust within the English program.

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