Ursula Le Guin is a goddess; her work, the antidote to dumb, techno-imperialist science fiction.
I’ve just finished The Word for World is Forest, published in 1976. While less well known than the sublime Left Hand of Darkness (1969) or the epic The Dispossessed (1974), it has all the characteristics that make her writing so compelling. Even if it suffers from two big flaws…
The setting: Earth, we learn, is a barren, treeless wasteland. Humans have set up a military-industrial colony on a vast ocean- and forest-covered world, which they have dubbed ‘New Tahiti’. (Yes, it’s a bit like James Cameron’s Avatar, but without body transfer, blue aliens, Sigorney Weaver, or those silly flying critters).
The colonists want the planet’s priceless trees; they have enslaved some of the indigenous humanoids to help them. Driven to desperation, the indigenous people eventually rise up and wage a guerrilla war.
The Word for World is Forest is one of Le Guin’s more allegorical works: the Vietnam parallels are obvious. In a lesser writer this would mean you could stuff the book in its pigeon hole and forget about it. Not so with Ursula! While allegorical, the commentary is not laboured. Le Guin’s work, while always of its time, usually transcends its time too.
Her prose is disarming: prosaic, yet moving; precise, yet ethereal. Her feminism is consistent, political, anti-essentialist – a far cry from Margaret Atwood’s more recent, compromised concoctions (more on that soon!). Thematically, Le Guin worries away at the prospects for trans-species friendship, for fleeting but real connection across a gulf of difference. In this book a friendship, at once insubstantial and capable of transcending death, emerges between the indigenous humanoid, Selver, and the human coloniser-scientist, Lyubov.
Lyubov is one of the colony’s ‘speshes’ (silly neologisms are one of the book’s forgivable of-its-era minor weaknesses), specialist scientists sent to learn about the indigenous people and their planet’s ecology. Lyubov is no detached, objective scientist however. He forms a friendship with his alien informant. He is aware of the political umbrella safeguarding his work space, and of his own meagre political capital. Alone, isolated amid military and company men, he breaks down in tears at a meeting where the future of the indigenous inhabitants is being debated.
Lyubov is an admirable scientist: meticulous, curious, polite, but also engaged, emotional, caring, angry and passionate. He shows science transcended the strictures of personal objectivity, willing to lay bare the ethical and personal investments required to make knowledge. He is the ‘good guy’ if you hadn’t guessed.
Lyubov explained to Selver why the humans had come. Selver, as far as he is able, recounts this explanation to his kin.
“He [Lyubov] said they had come from another place which is not the forest; the trees there are all cut down; it has a sun, not our sun, which is a star. All this, as you can see, wasn’t clear to me … It does not matter much. It is clear that they want our forest for themselves. They are twice our stature, they have weapons that outshoot ours by far, and firethrowers, and flying ships … They have left their roots behind them, perhaps, in this other forest from which they came, this forest with no trees.” (p56)
Like all the planet’s indigenous people, Selver hasn’t experienced violence until the human colonists arrive. Le Guin errs here: she gives the planet’s people no history or politics; they exist in a dream-state of innocent balance with their dark forests until the humans show up. It is borderline unforgivable, really: an anachronistic throwback to 1960s noble-indigenous-living-in-harmony type guff. This is Big Flaw No.1. Her other books don’t reproduce this mistake.
1st Edition (left) and later edition cover. The indigenous people are described as simian and fur-covered (right), not green nymphs (left)
Early in the book we learn that the arrogant military administrator, Davidson, raped and killed Selver’s wife. Davidson is very clearly the bad guy. Lyubov = good, Davidson = bad. This is Big Flaw No.2: in-your-face moral ciphers. The book reminded me of another forest-world fiction, Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon. The good/evil dynamic in this Le Guin novel really is alarmingly similar to the fight for Charlie Sheen’s tortured middle class soul between the evil Barnes and good soldier Elias.
The more I think about it the stronger the parallels. Did Stone read this book?
In Platoon, as Sheen flies away in the chopper he realises that evil Barnes and good Elias will forever wage war in his soul, and that he is a “child born of those two fathers”.
The outro in The Word for World is Forest has Selver reflecting that both Davidson and Lybov will haunt his world forever, even if the humans were to leave. For once one has learnt killing, one cannot forget it:
“’Sometimes a god comes,’ Selver said. ‘He brings a new way to do things, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death … There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.’”
The humans arrived and from them Selver’s kin learned violence, aggression and authority. Yet some hope – even if ultimately dwarfed by violence – lies in the trans-species friendship between Selver and Lyubov.
At once an anti-colonial polemic, a plea for respecting difference and a dirge for lost innocence, The Word for World is Forest might not be Le Guin’s best work. But that still puts it in the science fiction top 10. Because Le Guin is a goddess.