#LoveHain: The Word for World is Forest

© C A Lovegrove

The last Friday of the month means it’s time to think about the latest title in the #LoveHain readalong. This is The Word for World is Forest, a novella length Hainish story with definite moral intent.

Published in an anthology in 1972 and only later in book form in 1976, the novella is set on the planet Athshe where logging companies from Terra are devastating the environment and violently disrupting the lives and culture of the forest people.

Below you’ll find the usual three general questions to get the discussion started, and after that there’ll be a reminder of the next Hainish novel up for consideration at the end of June.

© C A Lovegrove
  • Athshe is the name the indigenous peoples give to their world: it means ‘forest’. But their world is threatened by exploitation. Is there ever a balance to be struck between leaving an environment pristine and using its resources out of necessity, or for gain?
  • Where do you feel our sympathies should lie, with the humans in the story or the ‘creechies’? Was the author drawing a parallel with, say, Amazonian sloths whose environment was as much under human threat half a century ago as it even more obviously is now?
  • Some might argue that the story here is subservient to the messages that Le Guin seems to be giving, and that the narrative suffers as a result. Would you agree?

#LoveHain #UKLGsf

The next read for #LoveHain is The Dispossessed (1974), and the discussion for it is scheduled for the last day of next month, Friday 30th June. A repost of my review of The Word for World is Forest will appear in due course.

19 thoughts on “#LoveHain: The Word for World is Forest

  1. It’s pretty message-heavy, but I still found it a compelling story. My complaint would be that I’d really like to read more about the Athsheans, their dreaming ways, and especially what is going to happen to them now that they’ve learned to murder. As with City of Illusions, I really wished for the story to go on to a second half.

    One could also wish for more insight into the villain other than as an object for Le Guin’s venomous disgust toward all such horribly abusive people. There was one glimpse I thought of what might have formed him, when he mentioned experiencing the famine on earth and seeing rats pouring over a wall as a boy. Such traumatic experiences, it’s increasingly clear, are behind the actions of sociopaths, and that’s something we need to learn more about how to prevent or heal. It doesn’t help to merely demonize them, and that is the biggest fault of the book in my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, Lory, it’s certainly a compelling story though, like you, I too felt there was much more to tell. Unlike a couple of her other novels or novellas there doesn’t appear to be any follow-up short story exploring other perspectives – I expect she must’ve felt she’d said all she’d wanted to say about exploitation, destruction and the Vietnam war. However The Lathe of Heaven went further into dreaming, in a way which reminded me a bit of Philip K Dick’s novels more than her Hainish stories.

      As for character-forming experiences determining one’s later attitudes and philosophy, that’s often the case with many of us – and not just sociopaths! There’s an exercise I came across where one’s asked to recall the earliest experience that made a significant impression, and this is supposed to indicate a general approach to life, the universe and everything…

      In my case it was an incident at my 5th birthday party which convinced me that receiving something that someone wrongly thought I really wanted wasn’t what made me happy – and probably accounts for my somewhat suspicious attitude towards charitable acts, however well-intentioned!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I like that it’s also a reflection on our own planet which, although it’s called ‘earth’ really relies on its forests, from tropical to temperate rainforests, from equatorial jungles to the boreal forests stretching across Canada, Alaska, Russia and Northern Europe. Our world could also be called Forest except that logging plus global heating is jeopardising them all.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. In highly urbanised Britain, as elsewhere, so many street names and housing developments commemorate the trees and plants that once thrived where bricks and concrete now dominate. I once lived near an area called Ashley (‘ash grove clearing’) from which all the trees had been cleared over time; and so many Springfield Roads are no longer fields and any springs culverted.

          The Richter novel, which I’ve briefly looked up, sounds great.


            1. Yes, the element ‘-ley’ in the suffix derives of course from Old English leah, which variously meant woodland, a clearing in that woodland or, later, a meadow.


      1. Bartographer

        Whoops, meant to reply to my own comment and not yours. But I do have another update: I left Piranesi on my nightstand this morning and we’re headed on a weekend vacation, so I guess I’ll start this one a few days early.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Bartographer

    Just picked this and Clarke’s Piranesi up from the library. Started the latter first (it’s so good!) but I’m very excited for this. I’ll get back in a few days with my thoughts.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Bartographer

        I finished it (I’m generally a quick reader if I have the time and space, which I did today in the car)! I’m about to go to bed and typing on my phone but I’ll give my thoughts tomorrow.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’d read this at least once, a long time ago. All I remembered about it was that it was partly about the Vietnam War (which the firejelly supports). But I was rather disappointed this time around.

    Q1 Balance: I absolutely believe there can be a balance point between leaving-alone and exploitation; that’s exactly what evolution brings about over time, forcefully so. Indigenous wisdom speaks to this – I’m fascinated how many indigenous cultures explicitly seek to rein in human greed. But I don’t think Le Guin addresses balance here nearly as well as she does in many other works; the “bad” Terrans are contrasted with the Athsheans, but I don’t recall learning in what specific ways the Athshean lifestyle is in balance with their planet.

    Q2 Sympathies: 100% agree with Lory that Davidson is demonized. Le Guin often has “good” v. “bad” characters, but seldom so heavy-handed. The violence that Selver resorts to complicates the narrative, at least.

    Q3 Messages: Le Guin herself admits (in “On What the Road to Hell Is Paved With”) that this work is flawed; she says she regrets but does not disavow, which I admire. It may be weak Le Guin, but that’s still orders of magnitude beyond many others!

    I was intrigued by the notion of gods in Athshean culture and wished we had learned why Selver is said to become a new one. And I loved this line: “The most winning characteristic of the rather harsh Cetian temperament was curiosity, inopportune and inexhaustible curiosity; Cetians died eagerly, curious as to what came next.” Finally, Le Guin’s early unconscious sexism persists here, side-by-side with the respect for “grannies” – for example, when Selver reflects: “The Lodges and many dwellings of the yumens were burned, their airships burned or broken, their weapons stolen or destroyed: and their females were dead.”


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