Here is a work of speculative fiction worthy of the “Masterworks” label. The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin has plenty of meat on the bone despite the short number of pages its text occupies. It’s thematically rich, a novel of memorable ideas and characters both. Le Guin problematises the ethic of exploitation in her signature style, poignant and deeply thoughtful.
“…it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of non-combatants in the name of “peace” was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of “man”. The victory of the ethic of exploitation, in all societies, seemed as inevitable as it was disastrous.” (from Le Guin’s Introduction).
This realisation is the initial push that gave birth to The Word for World is Forest. The theme of exploitation is joined by the equally relevant subject of colonialism: our very own human race, now travelling along the stars, has promulgated across different planets; central for The Word is the so-called world of “New Tahiti,” dominated by oceans and lush green forests, where a little over two thousand men are working to deforest the world one island at a time, in order to sate the unquenchable thirst of an Earth that has exhausted all its natural resources of wood.
New Tahiti isn’t a world devoid of life, however – it teems with small green humanoids, as short as human children (or ewoks, if you, like me, have an unhealthy Star Wars obsession and measure everything according to ewok size). The earthling conquerors call these native cousins of theirs ‘creechies’. They think of themselves as human – and indeed, they’re an off-shoot of the human race, just one branch in many throughout the galaxy, as Le Guinn’s narrative tells us. They do not know violence towards one another, except for those few among them who grow insane, and they inhabit the world of dreams in the same way that they inhabit the waking world. To them, there is no difference between what we would describe as ‘real’ and ‘unreal’. The message is clear - reality is more nuanced than our understanding of it.
The humans of the world that is forest are the vessel of the third major theme of this novel – the collective loss of innocence of a whole race. Because while they never could take lives before the coming of the humans, after three years of what is called “voluntary service” and is in fact slavery, and the horrific brutality of one particular man, Captain Davidson, the “dumb, simple, harmless creechies” change. The catalyst for their change is one native of the planet, Selver. Put through a horrible gauntlet, Selver changes, becomes a god to his own people. “We may have dreamed of Selver these last few years, but we shall no longer; he has left the dream time. In the forest, through the forest he comes, where leaves fall, where trees fall, a god that knows death, a god that kills and is not himself reborn.” Selver is nothing like our own gods, for the word carries a different context - it stands to mean someone who brings change along with them.
As for Davidson? He is, in Le Guin’s own words, “pure evil.” The spirit of the militaristic, exploitative imperialist is imbued in his image, a man whose implacable certainty in the fact that he knows best is nothing short of horrifying, a man who would describe himself as “a world-tamer. He wasn’t a boastful man, but he knew his own size. It just happened to be the way he was made. He knew what he wanted, and how to get it. And he always got it.” Davidson is a scathing critique whose Point of View speaks more loudly about the sickness of imperialist policy and thought than I ever could.
The short novel is an art form in itself and The Word for World is Forest shows, once again, Ursula K. Le Guin’s mastery to the fullest extent. I give this novel a 5/5 and my absolute recommendation – this is a must-read for any fan of science fiction and for anyone whose interests involve any of these three major themes. The way Le Guin examines them leaves awe and awakens deep reflection in the reader – and the ultimate fate of the natives of the world is tragic, for as Selver says, “You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back to the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses.”
Pretenses, after all, are one thing Le Guin has never allowed her readers to hold onto.