“The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Over the next few weeks, Mythgard is running a free online course on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. I’m rereading Le Guin’s Hainish books in order to prepare. 

The Word for World is Forest continues Ursula K. Le Guin’s exploration of injustice. This time, she focuses on cultural and environmental destruction. In the distant future, humans colonize the planet Athshe for its timber resources. Le Guin alternates between Davidson, a human military officer, and Selver, an Athshean native whose wife Davidson had raped and killed. This isn’t one of Le Guin’s subtler novels, but it is a well written parable about the dangers of first contact.

The Athsheans are a low-tech alien race that venerates trees. They end up rebelling against the militaristic human colonists. Sound familiar? The plot of The Word for World is Forest reads like a more interesting version of AvatarOf course, Le Guin published her novel over 35 years before Avatar, leading to accusations that James Cameron “borrowed” parts of Le Guin’s story for his movie.  Unlike Avatar‘s Navi, the Athshean story doesn’t end with a “happily ever after.” Instead, their victory comes at a cost. Whereas murder had been unheard of on Athshe before first contact, the Athsheans learn violence from humans. The final line of the book hints that this society will never be the same again.

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Deja vu all over again…

Unfortunately, like Avatar, the human characters possess little depth. Capt. Davidson embodies all of the worst stereotypes of white male colonialists, from raping a female native to enthusiastically killing Athsheans. This is especially problematic because Davidson is one of our point of view characters, yet he shows no redeeming characteristics even in his deepest thoughts. Unlike in The Dispossessed, there’s no sense that the Athshean utopia is flawed. Le Guin never seriously explores the human point of view.

As I noted last week, some critics accused Le Guin of becoming too heavy-handed in The Dispossessed, but I actually find that critique more applicable here. As usual for Le Guin, the story is well written, but it’s just not very deep.

Next week, I will look at Le Guin’s The Telling, her most recent book in the series

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About Dom

I study constitutional politics in Southeast Asia and I occasionally work as a consultant for rule of law projects. I enjoy science fiction and fantasy stories, both as an escape and as a way to better understand our world. One day, I hope to write a book about politics in genre literature.
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