59 of 65 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2000
On the planet Athshe, there is no word for war, there is no concept of murder, there is no language of hate. The world is one vast, green, gentle forest full of people who live between the world-time and the dream-time, who resolve their conflicts by means of ceremonial singing. Then the Terran League discovers Athshe's existence and a pattern of "colonization"-very similar to the exploitation of "primitive" cultures on Earth-begins to destroy the planet and its people; and, eventually, one young Athshean named Selver learns how to hate. On reading the back cover of "The Word for World is Forest" the novel struck me as being somewhat simplistic: good aliens live in tune with nature, evil destructive humans rape their planet, revenge ensues with tidy moral at the end. I was pleasantly surprised. The contrast between humans and Athsheans is much more than good-bad or nature-machine; the story is about more than the forced loss of innocence. Over the course of the novel Selver, whose wife was raped and killed by one of the human officers, becomes a god: he is the means by which new concepts are brought into the culture, and the concept which he learns and then teaches is war. The book is as much about the irreversible exchange of truly alien ideas as it is about anything.
Despite its seemingly formulaic premise, "The Word for World is Forest" is a thought-provoking and somewhat disturbing short novel written in Le Guin's usual poetic prose. It begins with the beautiful trick of transplanting the reader into the mind of the aggressor-Captain Davidson, the rapist and murderer of Selver's wife-and letting the reader absorb first his attitudes about the planet and its natives, then presenting the action from Selver's point of view, so that the reader finds all Davidson's stereotypes about the Athsheans suddenly shattered: a very effective switch, especially since it is obvious that Davidson is an unpleasant fellow, but so far there has been nothing to contradict his assumptions. The rest of the book will continue to change viewpoints in similar fashion, presenting different aspects of the action until finally, at the end, some resolution and understanding is discovered. The last line is both heartbreaking and irrefutable; it closes the book with the same strength with which it opens, and leaves the reader thinking. The book may not be as well-known as other stories set in Le Guin's Hainish universe, but it's a strong read whose points are subtle enough to keep the story from hitting the reader over the head with the moral but clear enough to raise questions. Also, like everything else Ursula Le Guin has ever written, it's done in language that reads like a dreamscape; which, considering the Athshean lifestyle, is most appropriate. "It doesn't take an old man or a great Dreamer to recognize a god! Where you go, fire burns; only the blind canot see it...I dreamed of you before we met here."
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on November 28, 1997
You can count on one thing after reading a Le Guin novel: a lot to think about afterward. This book tells of future Earthlings, who have invaded a lushly forested planet called Athshea. The natives are meter-tall humanoids covered in green fur, a peace-loving tribal culture. All the humans do seems destructive and senseless, and they decide they must find a way to make them leave. Obviously an analogy of European/American relationa/attitudes toward Third World nations; in anyone else's hands this could easily become mawkish and heavy-handed. Le Guin, on the other hand, transforms it into a powerful statement.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2012
Much as I'm in agreement with this book's message of environmentalism and nonviolence, I found its delivery of that message to be preachy, joyless, and heavy-handed. Its tale of colonist humans and their conflict with the native Athsheans transplants the worst atrocities of colonialism's past into the future, but loses any subtlety and nuance in the process.
It doesn't help that the Athsheans embody just about every romanticized stereotype of the native primitive. Like the most Disneyfied take on Native Americans, they live amongst the trees, perfectly in balance with nature. They're deeply spiritual, with a strong, aboriginal-like connection to the dream time. And, in the book's most groan-inducing conceit, they're completely peaceful, never having even conceived of murder until it's introduced to them by humans.
The humans, on the other hand, exemplify the worst habits of colonialism to a degree that strains believability. Despite the fact that the Athsheans have learned English, only one scientist, Lyubov, sees them as intelligent beings with a worthwhile culture. The rest of the colonists treat them with disdain and virulent racism, casually beating, enslaving, and raping them (or turning a blind, indifferent eye to those who do). This never quite makes sense; the humans complain that the Athsheans aren't any good as slaves (or anything else that they use them for), and the Athsheans themselves would happily avoid the humans if left to their own devices. The humans seem to be enslaving the Athsheans purely out of spite.
As polarized as the characters' views are, Le Guin does a skillful job of getting inside the head of each. Still, though she fleshes them out well and makes them believable characters, they're not particularly engaging or likable. Lyubov, the lone Athshean sympathizer, is weak and ineffectual; he never comes up with a course of action more ambitious than bemoaning his own impotence. The Athshean Sleverin is too remote, too much of an exoticized native to be relatable. And Davidson, the human antagonist, is an abhorrent embodiment of arrogant machismo and genocidal hatred. They're effective characters for driving the plot forward, but none of them are particularly enjoyable to spend time with.
The lens of science fiction can put history in a fresh new perspective, letting us see past and present injustices in new contexts free from our preconceived notions. In the case of The Word for World is Forest, however, the science fiction setting brings precious little new insight or perspective into the sordid history of colonialism; fictionalizing events merely allows Le Guin to reduce both sides to their most polarized extremes. It's a testament to her skills that despite the lack of relatable characters and a plot that marches inexorably toward the conclusion dictated by its allegorical nature, the story is still thoroughly readable and moves along at a snappy pace. I look forward to reading more of Le Guin's work, and seeing her bring her formidable talents to bear on a better story.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on March 22, 2002
This novel moves along. No wasted words. Sharp, pertinent symbolism, surreal imagery, and great dialogue abound.
Unfortunately, I think Le Guin picked a title that prompts ordinary folk to go: huh? "The Word for World Is Forest," however, is a Le Guin masterpiece. It is charged with the best in her, the energy of her earlier days.
At her worst, Le Guin's writing can be pedantic and sleep-inducing. Yet she has written so much that is excellent that I cannot help but have a great deal of respect for her. This novel is one of the quickest jolts of science fiction fun that I have yet to experience. It moves swiftly, and its meaning stays with you for a long time.
* * *
Eleven years later, let me add: much of her newer stuff is great too. I just read some of the stories in The Birthday of the World. Wow. I need to read more. She'll always be one of my all-time favorites.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Tor recently re-released the Hugo winner The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin in a lovely paperback edition, so I thought it finally was time to check out this famous short novel, originally published in the seventies.
The novel is part of Le Guin's famous HAINISH CYCLE (see also, among others, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed) but can be read completely separately, although being familiar with the larger story will give you a better understanding of the broader context and some of the technologies, such as NAFAL and the famous ansible. Earth-based humans have established a logging colony on the world of New Tahiti and are actively exploiting the pristine world and the indigenous humanoid population, called "creechies" by their human slave-masters but originally called Athsheans. They are a mystical and peaceful-seeming species that lives in harmony with its forest-covered world and practices lucid dreaming, but when the vastly outnumbered humans push them too far, a surprisingly strong and occasionally brutal resistance begins...
Ursula K. Le Guin packs a lot of depth into this short, elegant novel. The contrast between the two opposing world views couldn't be more clear, but there are also nuances within each culture, most noticeably on the human side with some characters that are more aware of the Athsheans' cultural identity, and others who treat them as little more than animals or slaves. Selver, the Athshean protagonist, is a complex, fascinating character who I'd love to have seen in a longer novel. By contrast, the human Davidson is so predictable and flat that he barely rises above the level of a caricature; other human characters luckily show more complexity.
Much has been made of the parallels that can be drawn between the James Cameron movie Avatar and this novel, and it's true that there are some notable plot similarities -- which may also explain the timing of this re-release. It's probably no coincidence that humans are on New Tahiti to gather wood (now Unobtain-, sorry, unavailable on Earth). On the other hand, the whole Noble Savage theme and stories of cruelty by colonizers to indigenous people were really nothing new even in the Seventies. Still, The Word for World is Forest is maybe the most famous example of this type of Romantic Primitivism in science fiction, so it's easy to see why there were comparisons with Avatar.
Thematically, The World for World is Forest is a child of its time. Just compare the treatment and place of women in the Athshean and human cultures for Ursula K. Le Guin's subtle feminist message. The colonization/oppressor theme was also highly relevant for the period. In case you're not familiar with the HAINISH CYCLE, there are layers upon layers of colonization in The Word for World is Forest, because in the overall history of this SF universe, the inhabitants of the planet Hain originally colonized many planets hundreds of thousands of years ago, including the planet Earth, and it's indicated that the Athsheans themselves may be derived from this original stock, too. Who is a colonizer, who is an oppressor, and who has the right to tell whom what to do, are all questions that come up again and again, but have no easy answers in this novel. These are themes that have been done many times, but rarely so succinctly and elegantly.
If you're not familiar with Ursula K. Le Guin's science fiction yet, The Word for World is Forest is probably not the ideal place to start, but on the other hand, its relatively short length makes it a good opportunity to get your feet wet and try one of the genre's most talented authors. This subtle, short novel is deceptively simple, but sure to keep you pondering it long after you've turned the final page
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
"Forest" started as a 1972 novella by Le Guin, published in Harlan Ellison's "Again Dangerous Visions." The novella won the 1973 Hugo award. Le Guin re-worked the novella into a slightly longer book, published in 1976.
"Forest" seems to have been a principle, if uncredited, influence on James Cameron's mega-hit, "Avatar" (James Cameron's Avatar: The Na'vi Quest). A linked, planet-wide life form, an environment under attack by resource-extracting Earthlings, and an intelligent humanoid species who fight back. Unlike Cameron, Le Guin had the courage to make the leader of the fight a native; Cameron's is an Earth man, of course. There's even more than a little of the dream-state of the Athsheans in the rocking/chanting of the Na'vi. And, as in "Avatar," the sympathetic anthropologist is killed, almost by accident.
But "Forest" is the better story, if only because it doesn't involve the over-the-top explosions that Cameron favors. Le Guin's spare, plain style makes the violence more vivid, somehow, than all of the super-stereo explosions. Her "shared dream" trope is much better thought out than Cameron's Gaiian organism, as well.
"Forest" has been criticized as reflecting too much of the Vietnam War, still under way when the novella was written. Points to Cameron for demonstrating that, 38 years (!) on, the problem is still real.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on December 24, 2005
"Many words of the Women's Tongue, the everyday speech of the Athsheans, came from the Men's Tongue that was the same in all communities, and these words often were not only two-syllabled but two-sided. They were coins, obverse and reverse...Often [the two meanings] were connected, yet not so often as to constitute a rule."
- anthropologist Raj Lyubov, herein
Athshe is a world of ocean and islands, whose land-dwelling lifeforms were obviously imported from Earth about a million years ago. Similar enough to be recognizable - and to trip up Earth-humans attempting to understand the people of Athshe who fail to take into account the subtle differences. The land-based portion of the ecosystem is small, but stable - forests that keep the topsoil from washing away, a small population packed relatively close together, with a culture that channels their aggression into (mostly) non-violent outlets. In particular, while they're in an environment unsuitable for some kinds of development, they've mastered the arts of controlling their dreams. Their language is a particularly interesting key in understanding their culture.
Then the humans of Earth arrived, determined to exploit the planet for its resources and colonize it, faced with a native population without a tradition of warfare or advanced weaponry with which to fight - a population which those in charge aren't interested in understanding, but who aren't fools, and who are being *shown* how to make war in a series of pitiless, unending lessons.
In an interesting twist, two of the three viewpoint characters are Earth-humans, representing opposing points of view on Athshe's true worth and the worth of its people, while the third is a Dreamer of Athshe. Davidson, who fancies himself as a pioneer and Conquistador, opens the book with his bigoted view of the native "creechies" - only to find himself flat on his back, at the mercy of a man whose wife he killed, left alive to carry a message back to the other humans. Lyubov, the planet's only anthropologist and the only human to have properly studied the languages of its people, provides a window through which the reader can gain a clearer understanding of Athshe's culture. Finally, Selver, Lyubov's friend and Davidson's victim, has become a god among his people, though what that means isn't quite what an Earth human might think; and having learned what will happen if the humans are left unresisted, he has also absorbed their lessons of warfare. The contrast between Davidson's view of Athshe - rotting forests to be cleared away, animals to hunt - and that of Selver's people is in itself worth reading the book for. (In fact, the nuances of Athshe culture that lead them to practice warfare, and the accompanying nuances of understanding their language and their mastery of dreams are as important, if not more so, than the brewing revolt.)
Less than three thousand aggressive, armed Earth people - only a few hundred of them women, incidentally - against a native population of about three million, wherein the Earth people are cut off from the rest of interstellar civilization by the barrier of lightspeed. The lack of supply lines is a serious handicap to the better-equipped Earth-people, but numbers and familiarity with the terrain are on the side of those born on Athshe.
As one outsider points out, "You have not thought things through." The ecological disaster shaping up on Athshe is quite logical in its development - the loggers are following profitable plans of exploitation drawn up on Earth, where the communications lag prevented sensible feedback from being applied when the native ecology was better understood, and naturally enough, military and management personnel are in charge on "New Tahiti", not ecologists, and they don't *want* to believe that logging out the islands will turn them into desert rather than farmland. The slow build-up of native resistance is due to most of Athshe's people not having even seen the new invaders, while few of those who *have* suffered from them are in a position to make their people see the danger, being enslaved under conditions that for an Athshean interfere with the ability to think clearly, since Earth-human and Athshean sleeping patterns differ as much as their cultures do.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
In the far future on the pristine world of New Tahiti is a wilderness Eden that Captain Davidson and other earthlings want to exploit for profit. He has already begun cutting down the trees. If it means the primitives die so be it as collateral damage often occurs when yumans conquer Mother Nature.
The native Athsheans are horrified over being massacred and enslaved. However, the vilest crime by the off-worlders is destroying the forest as their Word for World is Forest. Fearful of this new powerful God who is brutal on their former forest deity and on them, the Athsheans know there is little they can do but obey as violence is not in their make-up although Selver tries to lead an insurgency, which only further threatens his people's way of life.
This book was published over thirty years ago; long before Avatar. The story line is fast-paced while using a science fiction base to make a case that the "White Man's Burden" left Africa ruined and places like Tahiti devastated. Still relevant after all these decades, readers will appreciate Ursula Le Guin's classic novella of bloodthirsty avaricious outsiders destroying a peaceful Eden for profit.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 11, 2011
Ursula K. Le Guin writes this story with a grace that I've yet to see replicated outside of her own writing, pulling us into a world that is both alien and familiar. In her fantastical vision, human beings travel the stars to colonize exoplanets to harvest resources no longer found on Earth. This particular world is covered in nothing but water and forest, so people have landed for one reason: wood. But they are not alone. A tribal civilization of ape-like forest dwellers, whose mental and social capacities are comparable to that of the technologically advanced humans, quickly become tools for the loggers. Though they are referred to as "volunteers," these creatures are treated like slaves. Beaten, raped, and studied, they have no way to stop the humans because violence is beyond them. Then one individual experiences a change, summoning forth a bright, ferocious future that will shape the story of this planet forever.
Similar in some ways to the 2009 film Avatar, this novel is a work of classic science fiction that deals with not-so-far-removed concepts and emotions, displaced only in space and time by the bizarre settings in which the plot takes place. The morals that The Word for World is Forest elicits are still relevant today. The chilling manner in which the book is written gives it a sort of airy sci-fi feeling, somewhat like seeing the story play out in a dream. Though some will argue that this novel is the perfect length, leaving the reader with much to think about, I maintain that I wish it were longer, more filled out. I would have liked Le Guin to explore the culture of the natives more, expanding on their existential philosophy, their mental and psychological viewpoints, their lore, and so forth. Nevertheless, The Word for World is Forest made for a great read.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2010
In all honesty, the basic premise of this novella is the one I've read/seen many times before both in fiction (the latest version is James Cameron's "Avatar") and reality.
A group of evil and greedy Terrans is in a process of colonizing a new planet - Athshe. What it means, as you can guess, is that Terrans destroy Athshe's ecosystem by cutting down the planet's forests and sending wood to their mother planet Earth (which by this time is nothing but a barren desert) and enslave and abuse the native people who they consider to be imbecilic animals but choose to rape their females anyway. What's more is that through their heinous actions, Terrans affect the psyche of the whole planet's population, forcing the people to react to the invaders' atrocities in a way that is foreign to their inherently non-violent nature.
But of course, Ursula K. Le Guin, a great writer that she is, creates a completely unique and meaningful tale using this age-old story. As always, her world-building is impeccable. I am always amazed at how imaginative Le Guin is - there is no stone unturned, she creates an entirely original system of culture, social order, ecology, physiology, language, and thought process. The result is a remarkable work of science fiction firmly grounded in brutal reality of our past and present.