Book Review: The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. Le Guin (1972)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1976 edition)

4.25/5 (Very Good)

Won the 1973 Hugo for Best Novella. Nominated for the 1973 Nebula for Best Novella.

In November 1969, word of the My Lai Massacre (March 16, 1968), where American soldiers killed (and raped and mutilated) between 347-504 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, reached American newspapers. Ronald L. Haeberle’s iconic (and horrifying) photograph of massacred children and adults–superimposed with, “Q. And babies? A. and babies,” the chilling lines from NBC’s interview with massacre participant Paul Meadlo–was transformed into the “most successful poster” opposing the Vietnam War by the Art Workers Coalition. Ursula K.  Le Guin brilliantly channels this general anti-war anger, transposed to an alien local with colonizing humans as villains, in The Word for World is Forest (1972).

Highly recommended for any fan of 70s SF–especially of the anti-war bent.

Brief Analysis/Plot Summary

Selected for Harlan Ellison’s famous New Wave anthology Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), Le Guin’s novella tells the harrowing tale of the native inhabitants of planet Athshe (“New Tahiti”), derisively called “creechie” by their human occupiers. Captain Davidson, a horrifically villainous human responsible for the most egregious of the abuses,  stands in as a William Calley Jr.-esque figure…. a product of a system that might suggest idealistic rules of engagement (think Vietnam War era wallet cards—“You cannot and must not […] humiliate or degrade [your prisoner]”—but refuses to enforce them. As the novella shifts between both human and humanoid alien perspectives, the full effects of contact are revealed.

The forest dwelling Athsheans, blessed with a heightened awareness of  “dream-time,” practiced only ritualized combat before contact. After contact with the human colonists desperate to “tame” the planet and harvest its forests, the Athsheans are enslaved as “voluntary workers” to facilitate the destruction of their world. Due to the traumatic violence inflicted on their people, the Athsheans led by Selver Thele, whose wife was murdered before his eyes, fight back. Athsheans learn violence from the humans and respond in kind. Le Guin is clear to position Athshean violence as retaliation for the slavery of their people and unprovoked massacres. The Vietnam references flow fast and thick (troop transportation devices are called hoppers, forests are drenched in napalm, etc.). As the death count and burning encampments pile up, arrival of the League of Worlds officials signals the possibility for peace, but Davidson stokes further cataclysm.

Final Thoughts 

The Word for World is Forest (1972) is a kick in the gut. An artfully constructed kick, angular and poetic… Selver Thele’s rumination on the implications of his own violent actions comes to mind: “We killed them. We killed them as if there were not men. So will they not turn and do the same? They have killed us by the ones, now they will kill us as they kill trees, by hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds” (33). Athshean society transformed in the most “human” way possible…

Le Guin’s correlation of violent and exploitative colonization with sexual conquest is the most disturbing theme of the novel. Davidson’s interior thoughts lurch repulsively from dreams of being the first to take advantage of the new women colonists–“the line of 212 buxom beddable breasty little figures” (2)—to internal debates about whether or not the Athsheans are actually slaves, “right, but this isn’t slavery, Ok baby. Slaves are humans. when you raise cows, you call that slavery? No. And it works” (10). For Davidson, sexual violence is a key component justifying his actions: “Look, you’ve laid some of the females, you know how they don’t seem to feel anything, no pleasure, no pain, they just lay there like mattresses no matter what you do. They’re all like that. Probably they’ve got more primitive nerves than humans” (10).

Humans and other humanoids in the League of Worlds are not entirely villainous: Lyubov, an authority on the Athsheans and their culture, attempted to shelter Selver Thele from some of the abuse he received as a slave. In addition, the League of Worlds officers attempt to restrict Davidson’s violent impulses–but ultimately their actions are ineffectual.

This might be Ursula K. Le Guin’s angriest novel. And the anger is wielded like a well-honed sword, striking open all the rotting bones and malignant tumors of humanity’s darkest moments.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

 

(Uncredited cover for the 1972 edition)

(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1980 German edition)

(Christopher Gibbs’ cover for the 2015 edition)

31 thoughts on “Book Review: The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. Le Guin (1972)”

  1. Excellent insight! I want everyone to read this one and think about what is being said thougiiut. You hit it right in the head; I think Ursula would be proud to see her ideas still having power today.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I would like to figure out whether or not Le Guin wrote the novella after word of the My Lai Massacre appeared in US media…. Harlan Ellison, who originally anthologized it in Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), could be notoriously slow in putting stories in print… and of course, whether or not she wrote it quickly factors in as well. I tried not to make the correlation between the two too explicit.

    1. It’s definitely, as I mention, her angriest SF novel — but, it’s a powerful one. And, considering the environment of the Vietnam War, it was hard for SF at the time to not engage with it in some way.

      If you’ve read any of the newspapers from the period responding to the My Lai Massacre (I’ve spent hours in archives looking for these types of articles) it is hard not to notice how entire communities would excuse the sheer criminality of American soldiers involved in the massacre as “Good American boys would never do such a thing.” It’s that incredibly disturbing sentiment that this novel goes at with sword in hand….

    2. Also, although the back cover might proclaim that the Athsheans lived in a Utopian paradise, Le Guin does not paint it as such — they have violence and combat but it’s simply a ritualized action…

        1. First, this is in her Hainish cycle — they aren’t actually “aliens” — they are descendant from the same ancestors as man (which is a plot point as Davidson refuses to see them as related to “humans”). Second, humans within the book are not all captain Davidsons — some actively try to assist the native people. For example, at My Lai, multiple American soldiers attempted to shield civilians. The League of Worlds attempts to stop the abuses but cannot.

          Also, I make it very clear, that the native society in this book, retaliates in a devastating manner… Le Guin does not shy away from the fact that the Athsheans are all to happy to use violence as well.

  2. Hi Joachim

    A powerful post. I have not read it, and I am not sure I will. I already find the “world is too much with” me but your discussion of both the novel and My Lai did demonstrate the power of science fiction to inform and hopefully provoke thought and maybe even change a mind or two.

    All the best
    Guy

  3. I read the book years ago. I feel that it is a lesser work, compared to The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. Yes, even the patchy The Lathe of Heaven is better. Why is this the case? I believe that the character of Capitain Davidson is too one dimensional, too purely evil. This undermines rather than reinforces Le Guin’s attempt to channel her anger about the US in Vietnam. You raise the question of “how entire communities would excuse the sheer criminality of American soldiers involved in the massacre as “Good American boys would never do such a thing”.” Perhaps inadvertently Le Guin merely inverts this perspective, presenting Captain Davidson as the purely evil–or cynical, or whatever–“good American boy”. What would have been a better strategy, to my mind, would have been to show Davidson an his ilk as morally complex individuals who nonetheless engage in acts of brutality. By doing so Le Guin, or whoever, would be in a better position to understand the social and institutional relations of “evil” as practice, rather than as an abstract, moral absolute. Indeed, one of the problems with the focus on My Lai is that it tends to make of such massacres and exception, whereas it appears that such massacres were far more common than what many would like to pretend–for instance, consider the US journalist Jonathan Schell’s belief that atrocities like My Lai “had come to be the rule, and not the exception, in our conduct of the war”. No doubt the US war in Vietnam was both wrong and avoidable, but it most certainly was not the result of “pure evil” any than it was the result of the “purely good” intentions attributed to it by the US state.
    Rant over…

    1. I will point out that while Davidson himself might be more on the evil side, the League of Worlds administration, despite its good intentions, is itself virtually toothless in Le Guin’s word — they do not even remove Davidson from command! In addition, all of Davidson’s colleagues (other than Lyubov), attempt to mitigate the impact of contact with the native people in attempt to brush everything under the rung. Clearly this is a society where these types of abuses are far too common…. It was this institutional inertia and collusion on part of the rest of the colonists (other than Lyubov) where I thought the novel succeeded.

      Also, I am struggling to understand how the murder of children + sexual violence in the Massacre itself is not an act of pure evil…. While Davidson might be the epicenter of the atrocities perpetrated in the novel, other individuals allow it to happen or are easily persuaded to participate.

      1. I agree that the rape, massacre and destruction committed at My Lai is an evil act. But perhaps the greatest “evil” in operation there was the way the US state and its military (and all states for that matter – for instance my “own” abominable Australian state) are designed to let this happen, even bring it into being, as standard practice under particular conditions (e.g. witness the war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan). What is really evil here is the way they are explained away by agents of these states as exceptions or aberrations, whilst in fact they are a consequence of, and one of the options available in “politics by other means” (per Claustwitz). A sidebar: this is one reason I find military ethicists such bottom feeders, considering that the military, by any measure, is brought into being to kill in protection of the various interests of the state–even their fellow citizens at times.

        1. Both of your posts confirm what I thought: one dimensional is what I meant with too obvious, binary and preachy. I also had that same feeling with The Dispossed by the way. Admittedly, that book tried for nuance, but it was always clear where Le Guin’s sympathies lay. Lathe similarly fails as it makes a charicature of pragmatism. (I’ve tried to make both cases at lenght in my own reviews.) I did like Left Hand a lot though, but similarly it isn’t a complex novel.
          I know it’s not a popular opinion, but those books of Le Guin that are focussed on MESSAGE suffer because of this, as the real world is much more complex morally than the binary frames she uses to capture it.
          I do think Le Guin’s true strength lies when she aims at STORY first, as Earthsea is a stunning masterpiece – simple too, but not burdened by anything but itself.

          1. Bormgans, every one of those adjectives — “too obvious,” “binary,” “preachy,” “one dimensional,” are so profoundly negative when applied to fiction and I’m frustrated that you apply them to Le Guin (and especially to a book you haven’t read)!

            I would suggest that some topics you don’t need to approach with an incredibly complex moral landscape to make an effective point or to provoke thought. Did you completely avoid my discussion of Le Guin’s disturbing analysis of the role of toxic + violent masculinity tied up with the colonizing enterprise? These are serious topics that she handles deftly.

            In addition, and incredibly complex moral landscape would deaden the sheer evil of the actions…. which existed in Le Guin’s day and will continue to crop up in the future.

            And, to be clear, this is a narrative-driven novella…. I feel like you are extrapolating widely from your previous engagement with her works. This is a mere 80 odd pages in Again, Dangerous Visions (stretched with huge font to a variety of lengths over 100 in later standalone paperback editions). It does not overstay its welcome. It is intense, punchy, and brief. This isn’t The Dispossessed length!

    2. But yes, I’m with you that it is a lesser novel in comparison to The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. I have not read The Lathe of Heaven — but I’ve read the other Hainish novels….

  4. After reading The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness this was the next book from Le Guin that I wanted to read. There is something about the how the title sounds in English that I find poetic for some reason.

    I had some idea of what is was about but I didn’t know it was so grim…a kick in the gut, as Joachim put it. To me, it works as an allegory of colonialism in general. Not very different of what the Spaniards did in Many parts of America.

    One other thing that came to mind were the similarities with the Movie Avatar by James Cameron. Everybody talks about how it borros heavily from Dances with Wolfes but I think it also took some elements from this novel.

    1. Thanks for stopping by!

      The book itself is filled with poetic moments — from the title ’till the end. But yes, definitely an allegory of colonialism, but honed in the fires of the Vietnam War era.

      I’ve never seen Avatar — on purpose. I know critics have made the comparison (I think they compared it also to Alan Dean Foster’s Midworld as well?). The premise itself is a somewhat standard one — but Le Guin adds a level of power and intensity missing from similar works.

      1. Carlos, I agree about title – the alliteration of word and world is great. It’s the best thing about the book! Maybe I’ve been too unfair. As allegory, the book is an accurate tale of 500+ years of colonialism and imperialism. And yeah, James Cameron seemed to mash up Le Guin and the Poul Andersen story Call Me Joe (1957)–amongst other influences. However, I find the more mythic aspects of Le Guin’s work sitting uncomfortably with its “realist” SF setting. For me, The Dispossessed is a much more successful argument (if it’s argument we’re after).

      2. That poetry might be the redeeming quality here, and is the thing that interests me most with Le Guin. Regardless of what I posted I still want to read it – poetic allegory doesn’t always need complexity. As you say, some things might deserve to be called straight out evil, and anger as an emotion might be succesfully summoned by primitive storytelling means.

        1. if you haven’t already, check out Le Guin’s “The New Atlantis” (1975) — it’s not in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. Absolutely one of her best short stories….

          https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2017/01/22/book-review-the-new-atlantis-and-other-novellas-of-science-fiction-ed-robert-silverberg-1975-le-guin-wolfe-tiptree-jr/

          In terms of her newer short fiction, I remember enjoying “Paradises Lost” (2002) — it appeared in The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (2002).

  5. Yes, admittedly I extrapolate from my previous encounters, I’m clear on that. I’m glad for this conversation to shape my expectations a bit further, but I wonder if putting sheer evil into the spotlight via literature (written by a distant observer) is something that truly interests me. I’m glad you say this is narrative driven, but still, what would have come first: the desire to tell a story, or the desire to shape Le Guin’s anger into a story? I’m generally less interested in the latter. I’m reading Kolyma Stories right now, a first person gulag account, and that hits hard and works supremely well as literature, among other things because it comes from experience and doesn’t try to convince, and just wants to tell. Shalamov doesn’t even try to paint an incredible complex moral landscape either, so now that I think about it I guess complexity isn’t even the most important determining factor in my appraisal of the Le Guin work I’ve already read (Earthsea being not complex either, btw), but I guess it’s the didactic idea that Le Guin’s writing about politics and war will help make the world a better place that rubs me the wrong way, especially as it (to me at this moment) seems the most important raison d’etre of this novel, like that of The Dispossessed and Lathe.

    But indeed, another important argument here indeed would be lenght.

    1. I try to judge individual works based on their individual merits and try not to bother myself with any existential questioning of how we can change the future or the purpose of fiction. That said, I cannot help but think that fiction as a vehicle for self and societal reflection has deep — perhaps immeasurable–value.

      And, I could spin the story another way, it DOES comes from her experience — her historical context at a junction in American History filled with passionate protest! She is absolutely breathing the air that swirled around her…. She is not separate from the world in which she lived — regardless of whether she was a soldier or not.

      And, this isn’t specifically a novel of the Vietnam War…. or a novelization of the My Lai Massacre. Yes, it is a novel birthed in the historical context in which she lived.

      Rather, it places some of the more disturbing psychological issues of war and masculinity (present in the Vietnam War of course) into relief.

      1. Agreed, much of this is about reader temperament. I do think intention matters when judging literature, as judging merit is inseperable from judging the succes of the author’s intention – in so far as we are able to determin that intention. My reluctance is not so much about existential questioning of fiction in general, but questioning the merit of a particular book. If it succeeds into placing psychological issues into relief, it might have other merrit than the merit I talked about so far – the question for me will be if that will outweigh the other.

        I also agree Le Guin is part of her world, that’s an excellent remark. And again, I want to stress that each of your reactions so far makes me want to read this book more and more.

  6. Looks like a real interesting read and it´s now on my list. Would you recommend the novellete in the Harlan anthology or the longer novel? They are no the same correct?

    1. It’s a novella (right under novel length) not a novelette (far shorter). But yeah, they are the same version (I’m almost positive) — in both the stand alone publication and the original anthologized edition. As I mentioned in the comments above, the stand alone edition has giant font and clearly has been stretched via formatting to fill the pages.

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