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.
The book cover below includes alt-text.
I knew I had to read this book when I saw the title. I think The Word For World Is Forest is the most beautiful and poetic title, and it gives a great insight into the nature of the book. Despite the grim subject matter, I really enjoyed the story. I got pulled right into it, which doesn't usually happen with Le Guin's books in my case — I need some time to adjust to them before I become truly engaged.
It might be a simple story, in a way. A story with clearly defined good and evil, and a conflict between them. It's not subtle, which some people criticize it for, but does everything really have to be subtle?
There are subjects that benefit from subtlety — complex, multidimensional, ambiguous. And then, there are subjects like colonialism, enslaving, dehumanizing and brutally abusing the native population, and destroying the planet's natural resources with no regard for the future. Sure, these things can be shown with subtlety, too. Anything has nuance, and we might explore the culture that breeds such attitudes, the "necessity" of exploitation if one's survival depends on it or it's done in the name of saving humanity, the violence and trauma that the abusers have experienced, leading them to perpetuating it. That's possible. But is it necessary? There are different ways to tell stories, and an in-depth exploration of the roots of evil, humanizing the perpetrators, is one of them. But it's definitely not the only one.
In this case, the author isn't interested in the "why". She is interested in exploring the effects this violence has on the people on the receiving end. And she doesn't shy away from showing exactly how brutal and painful exploitation is.
I don't think it's wrong to present colonialism in such a dark way, because there is nothing untrue about it. Seeing the colonized as less than human, unintelligent, passive, and therefore justifying any harm done to them — they can't feel and don't care anyway — isn't that realistic? Reminds me of how humans treat animals (they are just primitive biological machines, unlike us). And, unfortunately, not only animals fall victim to that kind of thinking. Slavery, war crimes, genocide, etc. — all of that has been justified in the perpetrators' eyes because the people they abused were "not really human", were somehow less, somehow undeserving of compassion, in many cases because they were in some way different.
The same can be seen in this book. The colonizers don't make an attempt to understand the natives' culture or needs. Any difference is treated as deficiency, because surely the colonizers themselves are the model humans, and that's how everyone else should be. One might say it lacks subtlety, but isn't that exactly how colonizers behave in real life?
We have a villain, who, again, is criticized by some readers for being one-dimensional in his brutality and machismo. And hey, the author could have shown his softer side through someone he cares about and treats completely differently, or perhaps, his past as a victim to make him more complex. But does she have to? Even if he is a complex human, that doesn't have any meaning for this story. The focus is the effect his actions have on the native population. So what if he also had a garden of roses and secretly wrote poetry? The story isn't about that.
And here is where it gets interesting, because the natives are non-violent and have no concept of purposefully harming the other. However, they are brutally introduced to it by the colonizers. Their planet is being taken over, they are being enslaved, abused, raped and killed. Their forest is getting destroyed, and, as you can guess from the title, it has a sacred meaning for them. Forest is the same word as world. Without the forest, there is no world, it doesn't really exist.
It's not an easy process for the natives, but they allow themselves to be changed by the violence they experience. I say "allow themselves" because it's a conscious decision they debate. In the end, they decide to take the violent road, too, and stand up to their oppressors. I can't deny that there was satisfaction in seeing that. However, the question that Ursula Le Guin poses is how that will change the natives. She hints that now that they know what it's like to kill another person, it will have an irreversible, and likely catastrophic effect on their culture. That's probably a reflection on the contagious nature of violence, and how it breeds endless, hopeless cycles perpetuating itself.
Of course, the world-building was impeccable as always, and the natives' culture based on lucid dreaming was interesting to look into.
You might enjoy the book if you don't mind violence, like stories with environmental and anti-colonial messages, unique world-building and cultures.
Content warnings for sexual assault and violence.
Ursula K. Le Guin published twenty-two novels, eleven volumes of short stories, four collections of essays, twelve books for children, six volumes of poetry and four of translation, and has received many awards: Hugo, Nebula, National Book Award, PEN-Malamud, etc. Her recent publications include the novel Lavinia, an essay collection, Cheek by Jowl, and The Wild Girls. She lived in Portland, Oregon.
She was known for her treatment of gender (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Matter of Seggri), political systems (The Telling, The Dispossessed) and difference/otherness in any other form. Her interest in non-Western philosophies was reflected in works such as "Solitude" and The Telling but even more interesting are her imagined societies, often mixing traits extracted from her profound knowledge of anthropology acquired from growing up with her father, the famous anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber. The Hainish Cycle reflects the anthropologist's experience of immersing themselves in new strange cultures since most of their main characters and narrators (Le Guin favoured the first-person narration) are envoys from a humanitarian organization, the Ekumen, sent to investigate or ally themselves with the people of a different world and learn their ways.
Featured image by Darkmoon_Art.