Ursula K Le Guin: The Word for World is Forest
Introduction by Ken MacLeod
SF Masterworks: Gollancz 2014 (1972/6)
A novella I’ve had on my shelves for a couple of years, The Word for World is Forest is one that I was reluctant to begin, having understood that it was regarded as too polemical to be pure fiction. Completed in the aftermath of the terrible Vietnam war it was an expression of controlled rage against wanton killing, defoliation, poisoning and waste by a triumphalist aggressor against a supposedly inferior culture; Le Guin’s motivation was commendable but I’d had doubts sown over whether there was any edification to be had.
Having read it I can see the critical reservations all too clearly, but I can also appreciate its merits: a forward-moving narrative, a handful of clearly observed characters whose thought processes we observe, a sense of hope in amongst the more pessimistic aspects, imaginative touches that characterise both the genre and the universe that Le Guin has created in her Hainish Cycle. I can say that, yes, I was edified by the storyline, despite the darkness at its heart.
And here I must reference Joseph Conrad’s 1899 book Heart of Darkness, which later went on to inspire Coppola’s 1979 anti-war film Apocalypse Now. Similar themes run through both novellas — subjugation, maverick officers, exploitation — which I feel may be more than a coincidence. And, as the author makes clear in her own 1976 introduction, her London sojourn in the late 60s and involvement in protest demonstrations reflected, amongst other things, her own environmental concerns, concerns which I think Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ also encapsulated: “They took all the trees | And put them in a tree museum,” she sang, and “you don’t know what you’ve got | Till it’s gone,” adding “They paved paradise | And they put up a parking lot.”
So, is this a Garden of Eden story as the foregoing implies?
Possibly. On the surface it appears to be exactly this. Terrans — incomers from old Earth — have landed on the forested world of Athshe, known by the colonists as New Tahiti. Their purpose is to log the forests, timber products being seen as status objects back on deforested Earth; unfortunately for all concerned, Athshe is already populated by small high-intelligence life forms (hilfs), clearly hominid even though covered in a greenish fur. It’s unfortunate for the Terrans, for whom these little people stand as obstacles to exploiting the planet’s resources; and it’s particularly unfortunate for the peaceable Athsheans, who are enslaved by the logging teams, abused, raped, even murdered.
We see how things play out from the viewpoint of three individuals: Captain Donaldson, a bigoted and cruel racist who sees the Athshean “creechies” as so subhuman as to deserve the most vile treatment; Raj Lyubov, an anthropologist who recognises that the Athsheans’ seeming laziness is due to their ability to dream while awake, and to remember their dreams; and finally, Selver, a “creechie” abused and disfigured by Donaldson who, in initiating an uprising against the colonists, precipitates changes that have both good and evil consequences. Le Guin describes the three viewpoints, from the diametrically opposed mindsets of Davidson and Selver to the nuanced approach of Lyubov which, however, proves largely ineffectual when reconciliation is attempted.
Le Guin’s choice of names for her sympathetic anthropologist Raj Lyubov is rich with associations: Raj is not only ‘king’ or ‘ruler’ in Sanskrit-descended languages, in some Slavic languages it apparently can also mean ‘paradise’ or ‘heaven’, while lyubov is Russian for ‘love’. His attempt at mediation is approved by higher authorities, but will it cut any ice with rogue Terran elements or indigenous Athsheans? We know that contact with advanced civilisations can have negative effects, even resulting in the annihilation of isolated communities and fragile ecosystems; by postulating a future in which lessons have still not been learned by humans, where baser instincts are allowed to go unchecked, the author was clearly shining a light on contemporary attitudes and actions. But is her polemical approach overcoming the requirements of fictional narrative, with our expectations of beginning, middle and final resolution?
I believe it’s possible to regard the majority of fiction as having an underlying moral, usually more implicit than explicit but evident by the conclusion: Right overcomes Evil, the baddies get punished, good people grow in the face of adversity, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But we mostly squirm at instances where on the one hand protagonists sermonise or spout bland platitudes, or on the other extol dubious creeds and justify inhumanity. Even classical tragedies have lessons for the chorus to consider and the audience to ponder on. In that sense The Word for World is Forest is no different — we contemplate the consequences that evil brings.
So in her 1976 introduction Le Guin talks about Donaldson being, “though not uncomplex, pure; he is purely evil — and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist.” Subconsciously, however, we all fear the manifestation of evil, and when it’s so focused in an individual it’s hard to accept that any good qualities might count, least of all outweigh, in the balance. So here’s the thing: the thoughts and words and deeds that Le Guin shows us emerging from Captain Donaldson are credible because time and again we have heard and seen and suffered from such as these, thoughts and words and deeds which we are still experiencing now, in the present.
To return then to the question of whether this is a Garden of Eden story: as we gradually discover the backstory of Athshe, of Earth and of Hain we are left floundering as to whether there exist true parallels with the genesis myth in Le Guin’s tale. Who is the Creator in all this? Where is the Serpent to tempt the innocents? What is the forbidden fruit the Athsheans are ‘encouraged’ to taste? The looked-for analogies and relationships are never exact, nor do they bear much close inspection. When I consider the other modern counterparts to Le Guin’s novella — for example, films like Avatar or the reboots of the Planet of the Apes series — I note the classic Eden myth compromised: the Na’vi in Pandora, the primates in the Californian redwood forest and the Athsheans on New Tahiti only approximate to Adam in Eve in the most general way; there is usually one maverick soldier who proves to be the catalyst to the inevitable climactic shoot-out, though whether by doing rather more than tempt the forest-dwellers with deadly weapons he counts as the wily serpent is debatable. What only is certain after all the mayhem is that things can never be the same.
To enjoy (if that’s the correct word) The Word for World is Forest one doesn’t need to know much about the SFF basis of Le Guin’s Hainish scenario. Terms like hilf, NAFAL (nearly-as-fast-as-light travel) and ansible (an instant communications device, derived from ‘answerable’), and concepts such as the humanoid/hominid connections between Hain, Earth and Athshe, can all either be gleaned from the text or merely serve as background noise to the main narrative. That main narrative is paramount, and its theme is this: contact engenders conflict, and conflict engenders change — it’s how we manage that change and learn to live with it that is the challenge. As Selver says to Lepennon the Hainishman, “Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will.” The moral is that Paradise — as it once was — will remain lost.
I suspect Le Guin’s choice of New Tahiti as the colonisers’ name for Athshe was deliberate: Tahiti was regarded as a paradise on earth by European visitors in the 18th century. However, by the time of Gauguin’s sojourn in the late 19th century Tahiti had reluctantly ceded sovereignty to the French and its ancient culture was in the throes of inevitable change.