The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K Le Guin, is a novella set on the fictional world of Athshe, a forest planet (as the name implies). It’s part of her Hainish Cycle, a series of novels, novellas, and short stories set in the far future where interstellar communication and travel is possible, so different groups of sentient beings are in communication with one another for the first time. This particular novella is more like fantasy than science fiction, since there’s no particular science in it, but the series is decidedly SF, so science fictional elements like faster-than-light communication are still a feature. I’ve not read much from the series – only The Left Hand of Darkness and possibly a couple of short stories – but you don’t need any background with the setting to make sense of this story.
This novella is the tale of humans (Terrans) colonising Athshe, which they call New Tahiti. It focuses on their enslavement of the native Athshean population, as well as other interactions between the two races. There are three point-of-view characters: Davidson, one of the colonial commanders who despises the Athsheans but loves a bit of murder and pillaging; Lyubov, an anthropologist who has come to respect and care for the Athsheans, including learning their language; and Selver, the main Athshean protagonist, who has become friends with Lyubov and has a long-standing grudge against Davidson for reasons that become apparent. Although the plot draws in a wider circle of characters, the plot is really about the relationships between these three men and what occurs as a result of them. Because it’s a novella, to give any details about the plot beyond the basic set-up feels like spoilers, so I’ll steer clear.
A lot of what Le Guin is doing here is about the worldbuilding rather than the plot (though the plot is compelling). Because Lyubov is an anthropologist and is one of the central characters, it makes sense that he views the world through a lens of wanting to learn as much as he can about it. That provides a natural way for Le Guin to really develop the world without resorting to dumping pages of exposition. She’s also adept at creating different societies with just a few lines of dialogue – within the first few pages, we get a very vivid sense of “New Tahiti” (because we’re in Davidson’s point of view) and the way the men colonising it interact, both with one another and with the indigenous population. Again, in the sections from Selver’s viewpoint, we get an insight into the Athshean way of life, and learn more about specific cultural aspects, like their attitudes towards sleep and dreaming. (This actually reminded me in some ways of Ted Chiang’s short story Story of Your Life, which became the film Arrival. I love both story and film, and it was fun to realise that the Athsheans probably inspired the alien species in that story to some extent).
Fundamentally, despite admiring Le Guin’s skill I had a similar issue here as I did with The Left Hand of Darkness – I think her primary goal is an ideological one, not a narrative one. Obviously I agree with her that colonialism and slavery are bad, but it seems like she’s taken that as the moral aim of her book and written a story around it. I prefer books where the author appears to have written the story for itself and had the themes emerge as they go. (Brilliant anticolonial fantasy that is less overtly preachy includes, for example, a lot of the stories and essays in The Silmarillion and the appendices of Lord of the Rings). This is just personal taste, and I know a lot of people love Le Guin’s work. I don’t dislike it – but I think the fact that the story is there to serve the moral, rather than the other way around, affects her plotting and characterisation in ways that don’t work for me.
For example, one of the primary point of view characters is Davidson, a cartoon villain: violent, stupid, misogynistic, racist (towards other Terrans as well as Athsheans), and otherwise bigoted. His philosophy is that “the only time a man is truly a man is when he’s just had a woman or just killed another man”. He oversees the savage treatment of the native inhabitants of the planet and can regularly be found musings on the pleasures of violence and the fact that women are objects. The issue with this, of course, is that in an environment where colonialism succeeds, most of the people contributing to it are nothing like Davidson (and, in fact, I don’t think that people who are like Davidson are generally aware that they are – I think people who are this driven by intinct are too busy following said instinct to spend much time reflecting on it). I think when characters are this stereotyped, they actually undercut the moral that Le Guin is trying so hard to put across. Almost all the problems could be massively reduced by Davidson never getting through the vetting process for colonising Athshe. Is that really what she thinks about colonialism – that it is the actions of a few bad men? I suspect not, but it seems to be the accidental message of the book.
All that said, I think Le Guin is a wonderful writer. The world she created in this novella, and the connections to the wider world of the Hainish Cycle, were incredibly vivid. I will continue to read her because I hugely admire her worldbuilding – I don’t think I’ve ever read a SF writer who creates such vivid worlds with such little reliance on info-dumping. Still, I will be taking long gaps between her books. When it really comes down to it, I read fiction for the characters, and Le Guin’s characters are a bit too close to constructs and not enough like people for my personal liking. I do think this would probably be a very good introduction to Le Guin’s work, if you’re curious (unlike The Left Hand of Darkness, which was my introduction and which is much more philosophical).
I haven’t read the Word for World is Forest for years now, but I enjoyed your critique. I have loved le Guin for years because of her politics as well as her skill as a writer. By complete coincidence I have a review of another in the cycle – City of Illusions – to go up in a couple of hours. I’ll add a link to this post.
I mean, I agree with a lot of Le Guin’s politics – it’s the way they are constructed in her novels that doesn’t work for me. For me, it’s the difference between reading 1984 (which I loved) and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (which I couldn’t get through) – they both have similar political messages at their core, but 1984 feels more like a novel and less like a tract to me. Lots of people love both! I am not one of them. I think that is my difficulty with Le Guin as well. I do admire her though, and will continue to read her for her worldbuilding.
I know that you (and Bill) read more hard sci-fi than I do. I tried Left Hand of Darkness and couldn’t get into it. However, you brought Connie Willis to my attention, and that more my speed!
Yes, Connie Willis and Ursula Le Guin are definitely opposite ends of the spectrum! Ultimately I think that the characters are always the most important part of a novel for me, and that is Willis’ real strength, even though her plots are often riddled with inconsistencies.