By 1972, Ursula K. Le Guin was increasingly being seen as one of the most important writers of science fiction and fantasy. Following three fascinating but mostly ignored novels, the Oregon-based author and her Hainish series were brought to wide attention by The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). She had also published A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) and The Tombs of Atuan (1971), the first two entries in her Earthsea fantasy series, to some acclaim.
While Le Guin’s career was taking off, she was profoundly troubled by outside events - specifically the horror of the Vietnam War. This would profoundly influence the fifth entry in her Hainish series, The Word for World is Forest. As Ken MacLeod put it in his introduction, the book is a “reflection on invasion, exploitation and oppression, and on the necessity and cost of resistance.”
While this description is accurate, it is also an understatement. While certainly a “reflection”, the novel is also a forceful howl of anger. Le Guin later wrote of science fiction not as a means of predicting the future, but of explaining and commenting on the present. While this process is evident in other examples of her work, The Word for World is Forest is particularly strongly suffused with the author’s feelings about contemporary events. Many of the elements of the book are analogues for aspects of the war then raging in Vietnam, and consequently the novella - only 126 pages long in the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition - feels direct and pointed. While Le Guin later regretted this bluntness, it is arguably crucial to its significance today. After all, its calls for tolerance, respect for the natural world, and fierce condemnation of colonialism are sadly as important now as ever.
While The Word for World is Forest is sometimes referred to as the sixth Hainish book, it should surely be considered the fifth. Its publication as a separate book didn’t occur until 1976 - after The Dispossessed had been published in 1974, and the Vietnam War had ended with the Fall of Saigon in 1975. However, it was first published much earlier, in 1972. This was as a part of Again, Dangerous Visions, a mammoth two-volume anthology edited by Harlan Ellison. The timing is significant - firstly, because readers initially encountered the story when the Vietnam War was still ongoing; and secondly because it represents what Le Guin called her “most overt political statement” and helped to precede The Dispossessed, which is also explicitly political.
The Word for World is Forest won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1973. Notably, the same anthology also contained another award-winning story by a pioneering writer of feminist SF. Joanna Russ won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story for her contribution, “When It Changed”. Russ expanded upon the story with her novel The Female Man in 1975.
The story takes place in the year 2368, placing it early in the chronology of the Hainish cycle. The story is set on the densely forested planet Athshe, long inhabited by an intelligent, diminutive, green-furred humanoid species. The Athsheans have a peaceful, matriarchal culture in which waking dreams play a large role in decision-making. They live in harmony with their environment, and violent acts like rape and murder are virtually unknown.
Unfortunately for the Athsheans, the planet’s rich supplies of wood attract the establishment of a permanent colony by visiting humans from an environmentally devastated Earth. Naming the planet “New Tahiti”, the militaristic humans impose a brutal rule over the areas they control. The troops give the Athsheans the derogatory nickname “creechies”, press them into slavery, and routinely commit rape and murder against them. Soon, their industrialised logging operation devastates large areas of the planet. Just as with the Amazon rainforest in the real world today, this ecological vandalism threatens the long-term viability of the entire ecosystem.
By the time the novel begins, the human bases have been established for four years and the stage is set for a deadly confrontation - caused by humans introducing violence to Athshe for the first time.
In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin wrote chapters from the perspectives of two main characters, and interspersed within the narrative a number of fictional documents. The Word for World is Forest has a different structure - for the first time, she used the perspectives of three characters, alternating chapters between them. These three views of events help shape the reader’s overall image of the plot, and help Le Guin present her message.
First to be introduced is Captain Don Davidson. The commander of one of the human logging camps, Davidson is something unusual in Le Guin’s fiction - an unambiguous and irredeemable villain. He revels in his cruel treatment of the “creechies”, and rules over his slaves and subordinates with an iron fist. When he learns that Earth has, in his absence, joined the Ekumen - a peaceful affiliation of worlds - he regards it as a dangerous conspiracy against human authority. His actions precipitate much of the plot.
Secondly, Le Guin introduces Selver. A native Athshean, Selver has observed and personally experienced the savagery of the human invaders and Captain Davidson in particular. This convinces Selver that the humans must be fought, and he breaks with his people’s peaceful way of life in order to attack them. Through Selver, Le Guin explores the uniqueness of Athshean culture - their matriarchy, the significance they attach to dreams, and their connection to the natural world. He is also a test case for the corrosive effects of violence.
Thirdly and finally, the novella introduces Raj Lyubov. While by no means a saint, he is easily one of the most sympathetic of the story’s human characters. He is an example of Le Guin’s frequently recurring character type, in that he is an anthropologist tasked with understanding the Athsheans and their way of life. Despite his strong past connection with Selver, Lyubov lacks the authority to effect change in the story, and is caught between two cultures - neither of which he is truly a part of.
The novella’s allusions to the Vietnam War are many and obvious, but the story is no weaker for this blunt approach. One strong similarity is the human technology in use: Davidson’s troops frequently use “hoppers”, which resemble helicopters. Their favoured means of clearing forest and punishing unruly locals is “fire jelly”, a clear stand-in for napalm. Specific events in the war which may have influenced the story include the Mỹ Lai massacre and the Tet Offensive, which both took place in 1968.
Le Guin’s sympathies are clear. The humans are bad - even the “good” ones, while the Athsheans are a noble people forced by circumstances to do terrible things. Ken McLeod is accurate to highlight “the necessity and cost of resistance” in the novella. By taking up arms against the humans, Selver and his followers stand up for their way of life, but simultaneously risk destroying it themselves. Even in those few situations where violence can solve problems, it comes with a terrible, appalling cost.
A number of SF novels have been identified as influences on James Cameron’s 2009 billion-dollar blockbuster Avatar. These include Deathworld (1960) by Harry Harrison and Midworld (1975) by Alan Dean Foster. However, it is clear that the film owes a great debt to The Word for World is Forest. The film’s borrowings from the novella are as many and as obvious as the novella’s responses to the specifics of the Vietnam War. Le Guin made clear her distaste for Avatar, saying:
“Since the film completely reverses the book’s moral premise, presenting the central and unsolved problem of the book, mass violence, as a solution, I’m glad I had nothing to do with it.”
Whatever your feelings on Avatar, The Word for World is Forest is an easy book to recommend. A short and accessible read, it is also rich with complex and troubling ideas. The topics it addresses are, unfortunately, at least as important today as they were in 1972, as the world faces appalling environmental and ecological degradation and prejudice has many friends in high places. The novella is more strident and forthright than Le Guin’s other fiction, but still offers no simple answers; no easy way out from its moral problems. It also has an interesting and significant place within the wider Hainish cycle, and readers exploring Le Guin’s sci-fi should definitely make time for a trip to Athshe.