(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.
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.
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(Uncredited cover for the 1972 edition)
(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1980 German edition)
(Christopher Gibbs’ cover for the 2015 edition)