I’d been going through one of those phases where – despite being surrounded by unread books – I had no desire to read any. I started a couple but neither of them really grabbed me. So, I thought, why not read this tiny book I picked up randomly at a bookstore a few months ago?
Of course, it was by Ursula Le Guin, so I should have realised that I was, in fact, setting myself up for 118 pages of brain ache. Le Guin is an amazing writer, but my God she doesn’t write fluffy sci-fi. The issues she explores are interesting, but they’re also often deeply uncomfortable.
A few years ago I read The Left Hand of Darkness, which was alright, but I didn’t really connect with the story or understand what it was about until the end. I sort of had to slog through it.
This book, The Word for World is Forest (1972), is set in the same universe as The Left Hand of Darkness, but on a different planet. It shows what happens when a logging company from Earth (Terra) is sent to settle on a planet to pretty much strip it of its forests. They enslave and abuse the native population (Athsheans), a passive race that starts to change as a result of the colonists actions.
There are three main characters in the book: Captain Davidson (commander of one of the logging camps), Raj Lyubov (the anthropologist) and Selver (the Athshean protagonist).
I found the characters difficult to relate to. Davidson is a complete prick. He is absent of any redeemable qualities. Lyubov is much more sympathetic, in that he has empathy (and a brain), but he doesn’t act on his knowledge. It’s easy to feel a lot of pity for Selver, but not much else.
In short, they’re not very fleshed out. They feel like manifestations of emotion – blind violence, worry and rage – rather than people with complex personalities and motivations.
The story focused around the themes of colonisation, cultural imperialism, sexism, violence and the wholesale destruction of nature. Yep, fun times.
Ursula Le Guin always writes intelligent and thought-provoking stories, but this one came off as a bit like an anthropology treatise, rather than a novel. The Atheshean’s had an interesting way of dreaming and sleeping, but it was hardly explored. Meanwhile we got to revisit Davidson and his ranting about firebombing entire native settlements.
I’ve since read that the book was written in fury about the Vietnam War, which makes a lot of sense. The Guardian quoted Le Guin as saying:
“I was unable to protest my country’s increasing involvement by non-violent action. My frustrated anger and shame went pretty directly into the book.”
It’s very powerfully written, and an interesting tale. It’s clear to me that the real villain of the piece is the violence of men. Davidson and Selver are written as if they have no control over their natures. Even when it looks like Selver may have sorted himself out, it’s clear that the violence has spread and an entire civilisation changed.
The Word for World is Forest is an uncomfortable read. Once I’d struggled through the first chapter – narrated by Davidson, in all his arrogant, imperialistic, sexist glory – I continued reading with no anticipation, just grim curiosity. It’s the sort of book that makes you despair for humanity, and while I’m glad I’ve read it I wouldn’t want to read it again.