When the inhabitants of a peaceful world are conquered by the bloodthirsty yumens, their existence is irrevocably altered. Forced into servitude, the Athsheans find themselves at the mercy of their brutal masters.
Desperation causes the Athsheans, led by Selver, to retaliate against their captors, abandoning their strictures against violence. But in defending their lives, they have endangered the very foundations of their society. For every blow against the invaders is a blow to the humanity of the Athsheans. And once the killing starts, there is no turning back.
Le Guin’s The Word For World Is Forest is part of her sprawling, massive science-fiction series The Hainish Cycle; each novel can be read on its own, thankfully, since I’ve not read the whole cycle and don’t know where this particular installment fits in with the rest…
The Word For World Is Forest feels, in many ways, like a reply to Little Fuzzy, published a decade earlier; both focus on the use of a planet rich in natural resources being harvested by offworlders, both have furry native species with human-level intelligence whose intellect is believed, by the colonialist forces wanting the aforementioned natural resources, to be far less; and both look at how that harvesting of resources without regard for the indigenous inhabitants of the planet could be ended. The difference is that Le Guin’s version of the story replaces a white saviour applying the rule of law with a violent uprising, coming from within the indigenous inhabitants, the Athsheans.
That, of course, is not the only difference; for a start, Le Guin’s story is told alternating between the perspectives of the colonising and the native people, whereas Piper’s is told entirely from the point of view of the colonising ally of the natives. That gives a certain richness to The Word For World is Forest by giving us a variety of perspectives; a militaristic coloniser who sees the natives as nothing, or less than nothing; a coloniser who sees the natives as primitive but worthy of respect all the same; and a native of the planet, with whom Le Guin’s greatest sympathy lies, but who is still damaged and changed by his encounter with the colonisers. That theme is one of the major ones in the novel; that even after a colonisation has ended, it is impossible to forget the impact that the encounter with a colonising force has on a colonised people. It’s a theme we often see ignored or elided in this field, but Le Guin tackles it head on, with a sort of tragic sadness to her writing about it; while The Word For World is Forest is about resistance to colonialist forces, it is also about the way those same forces cannot be fought without a cost.
As a novel, The Word For World is Forest has a set of virtues all its own beyond the political. Le Guin is well known for both her characterisation and prose, and those are on full display in this work; it’s a lucid, clear, not plain but very much unadorned prose style that changes as we shift from viewpoint to viewpoint, having the same base on which to work but with very different layers on top of that. The sections with the appalling Captain Davidson are full of unchecked rage and hatred, contempt and paranoia, barely held in check by the man; Le Guin shows her contempt for Davidson by using his contempt for the Athsheans, his contempt for other Earth humans, and his contempt for women to paint a portrait of an angry, isolated, egomaniacal sadist with an appalling desire to hurt and control with no compassion. Raj Lyubov’s chapter, on the other hand, tells a rather different story; the xenologist still doesn’t understand the Athsheans or their culture, but at least has empathy for them; The Word For World is Forest has an excellent balance of detached intellectual curiosity and compassion in this section, with that fundamental failure to understand perfectly included.
The worst written sections, or at least those which are weakest, are those in The Word For World is Forest which come from the viewpoint of the Athshean revolutionary anticolonialist Selver. The problem here is that while Selver is passionate, and made out clearly to be far from saintly, he’s not actually all that interesting; he is in many ways a cipher for his countrymen and his culture, with guilty conscience and all. It’s a bit of a problem, because Le Guin doesn’t really make Selver terribly believable or someone we can connect with terribly; it also, of course, puts the position of the colonised into the position of the literally-alien, even while attacking the coloniser.
The Word For World is Forest is certainly a strong novel, and a brilliant effort to attack colonialism and understand the damage that it does; it’s unfortunate that Le Guin’s protagonist falls down a little too much.