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Hainish Cycle #5

The Word for World Is Forest

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Centuries in the future, Terrans have established a logging colony & military base named "New Tahiti" on a tree-covered planet whose small, green-furred, big-eyed inhabitants have a culture centered on lucid dreaming. Terran greed spirals around native innocence & wisdom, overturning the ancient society.

Humans have learned interstellar travel from the Hainish (the origin-planet of all humanoid races, including Athsheans). Various planets have been expanding independently, but during the novel it's learned that the League of All Worlds has been formed. News arrives via an ansible, a new discovery. Previously they had been cut off, 27 light years from home.

The story occurs after The Dispossessed, where both the ansible & the League of Worlds are unrealised. Also well before Planet of Exile, where human settlers have learned to coexist. The 24th century has been suggested.

Terran colonists take over the planet locals call Athshe, meaning "forest," rather than "dirt," like their home planet Terra. They follow the 19th century model of colonization: felling trees, planting farms, digging mines & enslaving indigenous peoples. The natives are unequipped to comprehend this. They're a subsistence race who rely on the forests & have no cultural precedent for tyranny, slavery or war. The invaders take their land without resistance until one fatal act sets rebellion in motion & changes the people of both worlds forever.

160 pages, ebook

First published March 17, 1972

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About the author

Ursula K. Le Guin

925 books23.7k followers
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.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,653 reviews
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
405 reviews2,201 followers
January 24, 2018
Posted at Heradas Review

1/23/2017 edit: The world lost an absolute literary giant today. If you haven't read Ursula K. Le Guin, do yourself a favor. She's fantastic.

The Library of America just published these definitive hardcover collections of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle novels and stories, which made my decision to finally start working my way through this classic series of speculative fiction that much easier. I’m going to be tackling these in no particular order, since my research shows that they’re only tertiarily connected to one another, but take place in a shared universe.

The Word for World is Forest is a terrific novella, originally published in the Harlan Ellison edited Again, Dangerous Visions anthology in 1972. It went on to win the Hugo award for best Novella later that year. I believe it was very influential to James Cameron's Avatar (which I am now certain was constructed entirely from story elements and themes originating in Old Man's War & The Word for World is Forest). The novella also definitely influenced George Lucas’s Ewoks from Return of the Jedi, to such a degree that I think plagiarism is the better suited word.

It's a social science fiction story, and a moralistic/ethical one with some wonderfully insightful and precient things to say about dangerous ideas entering the public consciousness. In this way it was perfectly suited for that Dangerous Visions anthology. My main takeaway from tWfWiF is that once a dangerous idea is out there for the first time, there is no turning back. It becomes a part of the public consciousness. Here, specifically that dangerous idea is the very concept of murder, introduced to the peaceful Athsheans by their human/yuman occupiers.

I enjoyed the waking dreams that the Athsheans were capable of, and how deeply dreaming was ingrained into their culture and at such a foundational level. Especially when that was contrasted with how little the humans/yumans dreamt; how they had almost lost the ability altogether and required drugs to fully dream. It speaks volumes to how overworked and under-rested western, and specifically American culture has become. Assuredly, this has only become a larger problem since the seventies when this was written. Dreams are necessary, not only as moments of respite from our chaotic lives, but as catalysts for forward imaginative thinking. We need downtime in order to reset. Dreams fuel us and encourage us to create. What are we without dreams? Without the possibility to imagine something different?

There was a great line in this book about how suicide harms those who live on, but murder harms the murderer herself. I really liked that. It may not be entirely true, but poetically, it was beautifully constructed. This story almost represents the antithesis of that sentiment, when the concept of murder enters the societal consciousness of the Athsheans, it continues to harm them after the fact, by perpetuating itself ad infinitum. It’s impossible to go back once innocence is lost. The Athsheans are forever changed by the invading yumans. Be cautious what you allow into your lives and societies.

Okay, so onto the Ewok/Return of the Jedi connection:

You've got a forest planet, filled with furry little creatures about a meter tall. They’re described as looking quite a bit like teddy bears. They live in the forest city named Endtor. Some of them were being used as slaves. They eventually rise up and decide to take on their occupiers, and reclaim their planet. All of their names are exactly 2 syllables long. Hmm… sounds a little familiar.

Are you kidding me George Lucas? For real dude? It took about 9 years, but you massively ripped that concept off from Le Guin. You didn’t even scrape the serial numbers off it. If Le Guin were particularly litigious, she could probably get a percentage on all Ewok merchandizing past and future. She doesn’t strike me as the type to sue, and Disney is a bit of giant to go up against these days. Still, credit should be given where credit is due. The Ewoks originated in Le Guin’s mind, and she deserves the recognition.
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,113 reviews44.4k followers
March 27, 2022
I’ve been looking for a book like this for a very long time, a book that – at its very core – tackles the environmental destruction associated with systematic imperialism.

Now let me try to unpack that a little. I write these words as my own home (my planet) is being destroyed by mass scale consumerism, as our ever-growing appetites and population continues to decimate our own forests and natural land. This is not a new phenomenon, but as we advance technologically, we have become more adept at destroying ourselves. We continue to expand without any thought of the consequences. Time is ticking and Earth is in a sorry state.

The humans in The Word for World for Forrest have already destroyed their planet’s natural world, so they look outward and attempt to colonise other worlds to harvest their natural resources (namely wood.) Again, these humans have not a thought of consequences and by extension care little for the indigenous populations of their colonies.

And this is where the novel gets real interesting because one thing that really stood out to me – perhaps because of my own reading and background as an animal rights activist – is the association of animals with the “primitive” population. For the invading humans to morally justify enslaving them and to destroy their world (or habitat), they are considered less than human. They are associated with cows and rats and monkeys to make it easier for the colonisers to brutalise their planet. Their forests are cut down and harvested without a second thought, like we destroy the amazon rainforest because it only affects animal life and not us directly (in the present.)

For me, there is much to discuss here. Without going into too much depth about this distorted and destructive viewpoint, the novel brings out strikingly important themes about the nature of imperialism, colony, and slavery. Arguments for environmental justice are irrevocably linked with how we treat other humans and their cultures, and how we view the notion of what is "animal" and how it should be treated.

And because of this, I argue that it is an extremely important work of science-fiction because we could learn from it as a society. And this is why art is so radically essential. We have a distant future, and a distant alien world, we are dealing with intergalactic politics and racism across humanoid species, but the allegory is not too far from today.

And that's truly terrifying.


You can connect with me on social media via My Linktree.
Profile Image for Nataliya.
745 reviews11.9k followers
April 26, 2023
"Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will."
In every book by Le Guin there is that special something for me, something that grabs a firm hold of my mind and heart and stubbornly hangs on, refusing to let go, burrowing deeply, growing roots, sprouting shoots that will go on to quietly, unobtrusively, almost imperceptibly change my mental landscape forever - by making me really think, by challenging established ideas, preconceptions and expectations with unexpected quiet subversive subtlety.
"But even the most unmissionary soul, unless he pretend he has no emotions, is sometimes faced with a choice between commission and omission. “What are they doing?” abruptly becomes, “What are we doing?” and then, “What must I do?”

The idea, the storyline Le Guin uses is not new; in fact, it appears to be as old a human nature itself - just like that scene in the beginning of Kubrick's 'Space Odyssey', when proto-us make the definite step on the road from ape to human by learning how to use tools as weapons of murder.

Throughout ages, we have fought to prove that we are stronger - ergo better - than whoever happens to be *Them*, scarring our history with bloodshed, hatred, exploitation, dehumanization, prejudice, murder. After all, strongest survive, as evolution postulates. Isn't that true?
"You know the people you’re studying are going to get plowed under, and probably wiped out. It’s the way things are. It’s human nature, and you must know you can’t change that."

No, Le Guin's premise is not new, and, of course, she's not the first one to see the injustice ingrained in it. We find ways to justify the advantage of brute strength - be it of a human or an entire nation - but, feeling bad about it somewhere deep in the human core, feeling the appeal of the idea of justice, we also root for the underdog, the oppressed, the seemingly weak, and we hope that 'payback is a bitch'.
"But you must not pretend to have reasons to kill one another. Murder has no reason."
And so we think we know how this story will go, right from the opening pages of this short book, the pages that seem to forgo the subtlety and go straight for the divide between Good and Evil. The Evil being the technologically superior ruthless Earthlings carelessly and brutally exploiting the resources and the inhabitants of a lushly green planet known as the Forest to its people. The Good being 'the natives', the seemingly harmless, attuned to their environment and themselves helpless race of humanoid Ewoks, immersed in the culture based on nature and dreaming. The inevitable clash between the 'native' Selver and the 'outsider' batshit-insane macho Davidson should represent this struggle, and we know that the underdog should win, and humans should be taught a lesson in the nature of true humanity, and that the life on the planet should continue in the lovely ways that recover from human influence and proceed to prosper in the satisfying feel-good way.
"[...] and above all Athshe, which meant the Forest, and the World. So Earth, Terra, meant both the soil and the planet, two meanings and one. But to the Athsheans soil, ground, earth was not that to which the dead return and by which the living live: the substance of their world was not earth, but forest. Terran man was clay, red dust. Athshean man was branch and root."

But this is Le Guin writing, with her sharp mind and a knack for anthropology, and the understanding that the present world hinges on political negotiations much more than the idea of justice. She knows that the epic showdown and the happily-ever-after may look good on page and screen, but in reality there are scars that do not heal, and that the reaction to every action does not just go away after it has served its purpose, that most victories are Pyrrhic and that things can never be the same as though nothing had happened - because it did happen, after all.

Because in order to protect themselves and their way of life the Athsenians in Le Guin's novella had to go against their nature itself, to change, to adapt - and therefore never be able to return to the hopeful "it can be now as it was before". Because change cannot be undone. Because cruelty and hatred begets same.
"But had he learned to kill his fellowmen among his own dreams of outrage and bereavement, or from the undreamed-of-actions of the strangers? Was he speaking his own language, or was he speaking Captain Davidson’s?"
Le Guin's book was written in the heyday of the Vietnam war, and it's easy to see the parallels to it reading about Americans in battle machines fighting people in the forest. But it's just as easy to see parallels to the more mundane events that are present in our everyday lives. The questions periodically raised in the media about what's more important: preserving the livelihood of the farmers or saving a rare species of beetles? Ensuring livable wages to people in sweatshops overseas or cheap running shoes to the consumers in the Western world? Preserving delicate marine life systems or cheap oil drilling to ensure current wellbeing of people needing the fuel?

And let's not forget the age-old and completely wrong paradigm of "If you're not with us, you're against us!" and the appalling idea of patriotism as hating the Other, so aptly summarized by quite caricaturish and terrifying in his self-righteous madness Davidson: "See, where we differ is that with you Earth doesn’t come first, actually. With me it does."

This story is unmistakably a 'Le Guin', with its anthropologically-themed musings, impeccable and original world-building, the marring of the lines between good and evil, the greyness between black and white, the emphasis taken away from the action and to the politics, the belief in the role of the government in ensuring the semblance of peace and order, with its somewhat dry and cerebral language occasionally permeated by the descriptions so brilliantly vivid it's breathtaking. And just like every book by Le Guin I've read so far, I'll recommend it to all my friends without hesitation.
"Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will."
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,868 reviews16.5k followers
May 9, 2019
“If it’s all the rest of us who are killed by the suicide, it’s himself who the murderer kills”

So muses author Ursula K. LeGuin in her 1972 novel The Word for World is Forest. The winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novella, LeGuin’s mastery of the language and the genre are in full display as well as her remarkable imaginative powers.

Revisiting her “Hainish” cycle of works (not a series of books but rather a group of stand alone works with a thematic central core – somewhat similar to Heinlein’s Future History or Poul Anderson’s Poletechnic Series, though I am unaware of any reoccurring characters in LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle), the author sets this work on a small planet inhabited by short, green furred humanoids who, though technologically backward, are spiritually and evolutionarily more advanced than the visiting, conquering and destroying Terran colonists.

I cannot read the novel without forming a mental comparison to the 1953 short story Piper in the Woods: A Short Science Fiction Novel by Philip K. Dick. LeGuin has crafted a world where the humans (as the natives are no doubt descended from a common Hainish ancestor as all humans are in her Hain narratives) are so spiritually connected to the forest of their world that they cannot separate abstract thought away from the woods. Further, the natives are able to manifest and relate more fully to their dreams and LeGuin borrows a “dream state” awareness reminiscent of aboriginal Australian concepts. The novel suggests an anthropological study and a broadened metaphor for LeGuin to observe and provide comment upon her fellow man.

Most noteworthy is LeGuin’s first person perspective of one of the Terran colonists – Captain Davidson. A villain of Dickensian evil, LeGuin portrays this characterization as adeptly as John Steinbeck did when he described car salesmen in The Grapes of Wrath. This element of the novel is also akin to Norman Mailer’s murky observations in Why Are We in Vietnam? and perhaps both share a troublingly inevitable comment on our baser nature.

Bradburyesque in its lyrical beauty, this is nonetheless a violent and disturbing novel. Though the natives are small, green furred and naturally peaceful, they have been pushed to extremes and have themselves found an atavistic internal brute. Observant readers of classic science fiction have noticed that director and producer James Cameron borrowed shamelessly from Poul Anderson’s themes in his short story Call me Joe, and Cameron may also have adapted themes from LeGuin’s outstanding work.

Profile Image for Henk.
851 reviews
January 17, 2023
A thought provoking version of Avatar, with little green men instead of blue ones. We end up rooting for the aliens and the forest that covers their world, that’s trying to grapple with colonial Terran rule
Wrongs could not be righted, but at least they were not still being done.

The Word for World is Forest definitely delivers on the beautiful, poetic title and the themes of exploitation and ecological degradation are sadly as relevant as when this book was written
Ursula K. Le Guin uses sparse, effective language to paint the picture of a world being exploited by Terra while being inhibited by a native humanoid intelligent species called Athsheans or more derogatory Creechies.

Behind abbreviations these peaceful non-industrious people are used as slaves to facilitate the exploitation of the planet by the 2.000 odd settlers. The casual cruelties, like ignoring their natural sleep rhythm are especially poignant, as is the coercive manner how non-humanisation makes it so easy to use the natives. We follow Davidson, a psychopath like military man, Lyubov the anthropologist send to document the indigenous population and Selver who after being abused by Davidson turns into a rallying point for resistance against the humans.

The humanity of Lyubov, who ends up thinking the following when the natives shun him as a human:
He was always disagreeably suprised to find how vulnerable his feelings were, how much it hurt him to be hurt is best rendered. Davidson is the epitome of toxic masculinity and self aggrandisement, even slightly shunned by the author herself as possibly to one dimensional, but somehow instantly made me think of Donald Trump his positioning and showmanship, showing that however modern we think we are sexism is still definitely a thing.
Selver from a philosophic point of view is most interesting, because to preserve his culture he will need to change it. You can’t save a people by selling your friend is something mentioned in the book but in how far is that true Le Guin seems to ponder. In how far does resistance not also change the one committing to it, introducing the concept of murder in the erstwhile totally peaceful society of Selver’s people for instance.

The book is replete with thoughtful meditations on major themes, but action and gruesome things also definitely take a place. A small gem of a novel, definitely also very interesting for non science fiction lovers, a very clear sign I need to read more of Le Guin very soon!

Several tactics are tried, from segregation to campaigns of terror
Profile Image for Repellent Boy.
488 reviews507 followers
February 20, 2021
Ya puedo decir alto y claro que me he estrenado por la puerta grande con Ursula K. Le Guin. ¡Vaya gustazo más grande! Llevaba años queriendo iniciarme con la autora, aunque no tenía muy claro cual sería una buena opción. Al inicio dudaba entre "La mano izquierda de la oscuridad" y "Los desposeídos". Menos mal que una amiga (Carol, esa eres tú jaja) me recomendó empezar por "El nombre del mundo es Bosque". Y ha sido un acierto total, porque me ha maravillado.

La historia nos va a presentar a una Tierra donde los seres humanos ya han agotado la mayoría de los recursos. Es por eso que se enviaron grupos de humanos a explorar otros planetas en busca de estos recursos acabados, como por ejemplo la madera. Es así como hace algunos años los humanos llegaron a un lugar al que llamaron "Nueva Tahití". Este mundo es rico en bosques, prácticamente todo su terreno está lleno de árboles, y los hombres empezarán a deforestar estos bosques. En este mundo habitan los "creechis", unos seres humanoides de pelo verde y un metro de altura, que horrorizados ven como su mundo está muriendo por la mano humana.

Trata temas como la colonización, el machismo, la xenofobia, el racismo y el más importante, el medio ambiente, y todos los trata de manera exquisita. La autora es capaz de crear personajes redondos en muy pocas páginas (el libro es muy cortito) y dotarlos de un carácter muy definido. El personaje de Davidson refleja todo lo que está mal en la sociedad, el de Lyubov representa a ese hombre horrorizado ante la verguenza de pertenecer a una especie que solo destruye, y Selver es un personajazo que se ve obligado a convertirse en un lider.

Me ha parecido una historia fascinante, que va de menos a más y que te absorve completamente conforme va creciendo y haciéndose grande. Me ha emocionado mucho la historia, confirmarme de parte contraria a los humanos una vez más, ante la violencia con la que este trata siempre al mundo que le rodea, como si todo lo que hay en él le perteneciera exclusivamente. El libro refleja esta naturaleza horrible del ser humano como pocos, y te remueve ese sentimiento que todos deberíamos tener de respeto a la naturaleza.

He tenido que dejar un par de días de reposo, porque me ha dejado un poso enorme. En cuanto lo acabé no sabía como orientar la opinión, ni siquiera que nota darle. Pero llevo dos días sin parar de pensar en él y con ese pellizco bonito que se te queda dentro cuando algo te impacta mucho. Y cuando un libro te hace sentir eso, las 5 estrellas se quedan cortas. Ursula, ¡qué alegría me ha dado conocerte!
Profile Image for Tadiana ✩Night Owl☽.
1,880 reviews22.7k followers
November 24, 2017
3.5 stars, rounding up. Final review, first posted on Fantasy Literature:

In The Word for World is Forest, Ursula Le Guin’s 1972 Hugo Award-winning novella, she works out her frustrations with the Vietnam War, colonialism, and ecologically insensitive societies. The human colonists on the world Athshe have enslaved the 3-foot tall, furry green native people and have created ecological disaster everywhere they go. They’re stripping the forests for logging purposes, as timber is worth more than gold back on Earth, to the point that (unlikely as it may seem) it’s a profitable venture to ship logs back to Earth at sub-light speeds.

When Captain Don Davidson ― a perfectly loathsome man who spews racist, crude, and ignorant thoughts and words at every turn; the scenes from his point of view are like wallowing in a cesspool ― rapes one of native women, who he doesn’t really view as human, it proves to be the turning point in the relationship between the human colonists and the formerly peaceful natives.

Le Guin writes a powerful, somewhat allegorical tale; it’s just too bad she uses such a scenery-chewing, one-dimensional villain to make her point. The Word for World is Forest is a very moralizing, preachy story, but there are parts that are subtler, and as a whole it will stick with me. It was written in 1968, and there are some definite resemblances to the later movies Return of the Jedi (Ewoks, anyone?) and Avatar; the inspiration seems fairly clear. The connection has raised enough discussion that Le Guin expressly distances herself from the latter film in the Introduction to the recently published two-volume Library of America collection, Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels and Stories (“Since the film completely reverses the book’s moral premise, presenting the central and unsolved problem of the book, mass violence, as a solution, I’m glad I had nothing to do with it.”). Le Guin’s ending confronts that “unresolved problem,” in one of the stronger scenes in the story, making it clear that a society’s adoption of violence as a means to an end, while it may win the immediate battle, is a Pandora’s Box.

I first read The Word for World is Forest about twenty years ago; I think I even still have the paperback with this cheesy cover:


I have to say that I definitely appreciated it more this time around, in large part because I’ve been reading Le Guin’s other Hainish Cycle novels and stories in the LOA collection. Familiarity with her other Hainish works enhances the background setting and grounds the subplot relating to ansible communications from Earth and visiting personnel from other worlds. This time around the real meaning of the title also dawned on me: humans call their world “Earth,” and we are primarily tied to the land and ground, but for the Athsheans, it is the interconnected, living trees and forests that define their world. Hence, in the Athshean language the word for “world” and “forest” is the same. That intriguing concept and the importance of lucid dreaming in the Athshean culture, and their relevance to the plot, added some much-needed depth to this novella.

I received a free copy of this for review as part of a two volume set, Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels and Stories, which I recommend highly to anyone who likes thoughtful SF.
Profile Image for Charlotte Kersten.
Author 3 books433 followers
February 6, 2022
“Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will.”

So What’s It About?

Terran colonists take over the planet locals call Athshe, meaning “forest,” rather than “dirt,” like their home planet Terra. They follow the 19th century model of colonization: felling trees, planting farms, digging mines & enslaving indigenous peoples. The natives are unequipped to comprehend this. They’re a subsistence race who rely on the forests & have no cultural precedent for tyranny, slavery or war. The invaders take their land without resistance until one fatal act sets rebellion in motion & changes the people of both worlds forever.

CW for sexual assault and colonialist violence.

What I Thought

I spent some time reading about this book’s inception and response, and I think that bears discussing before I dive into this review. The Word for World is Forest was written partially in response to the Vietnam War in 1972 . Its themes of antiviolence, anticolonialism, antimilitarism and environmental awareness reflect Le Guin’s own convictions in this regard but have led to this work being described as overly polemical. That response is interesting to me – when I was reading the book I never saw it as overly preachy or aggressive or controversial. Rather, it seemed to me that Le Guin was really just willing to examine the cruelty and violence that lie at the heart of colonialism. Whether a depiction of speculative colonialist violence seems excessive may depend, I think, on how one thinks about the history of real colonialist violence in our own world. Shortly after reading this book I read King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild and the colony Le Guin created unfailingly represents the true events that unfolded in the Belgian Congo.

One key thing that Le Guin understands is the precarious, thin veneer of moral justification that covers the naked greed of imperialism. Colonialists like one of the main characters Davidson speak of taming the land and bringing order, even bringing an end to an era of darkness. But if you scratch at such grand statements just a little you’ll find that there’s nothing to them, and all that remains is the ruthless abuse of labor and natural resources of exploitation colonialism.

Another key part of Le Guin’s examination of colonialism involves the matter of dehumanization. The decision to “other” a colonial subject is an essential step in justifying what is done to them and in this book we see the way that the Terrans characterize Athsheans as primitive, emotionless, passive and stupid creatures whose every abuse is acceptable because they don’t fight back. At one point, horrifically, Davidson explains to his men that when they rape Athshean women they are always passive, thereby justifying the act because they clearly feel nothing and proving the Athsheans’ inferiority of feeling and intellect. (I will say, while I am on this topic, that while the plot’s motion hinges on Davidson’s homicidal rape of Selver’s wife there are no significant female characters to speak of in this story. I think a female perspective would have brought a great deal to this book. )

Crucially, though, what Le Guin makes clear is that it is the colonizer is the one dehumanized by what he does in the process of colonizing. Again, this point reminded me of another work that I had read recently, Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire. Selver’s way of phrasing it is particularly interesting and beautiful:

“If the yumens are men, they are men unfit or untaught to dream and to act as men. Therefore they go about in torment killing and destroying, driven by the gods within, whom they will not set free but will try to uproot and deny. If they are men, they are evil men, having denied their own gods, afraid to see their own faces in the dark.”

Speaking of evil men, I think Davidson bears some exploration. Another of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at this book is that the characters are one dimensional compared to Le Guin’s usual characters. To be sure Davidson is wholly and irredeemably despicable, but I do have to say that it’s hard to see him as an unrealistic character after reading the book that I mentioned previously, King Leopold’s Ghost. In its account of the conquest of the Congo it described the role of men like the explorer Henry Morton Stanley and a number of colonial officials and administrators, and the kinds of tyrannical violence and brutality they engaged in are not far off from what Le Guin represented in fiction.

I also think that choosing to write from Davidson’s perspective was a good choice because of the way it allows the reader direct insight into the mindset of dehumanization, entitlement and paranoia that is required to do the kinds of things that Davidson does. His characterization reminded me of how Le Guin talks about power and toxic masculinity in Tehanu (oh God, Charlotte’s talking about Tehanu again, someone shut it down quick). To be brief, her idea is that exploitative power like the power of the patriarchy (or in this case, the power of a colonizer) is built upon the backs of others and so it is fundamentally unstable, and that instability leads to fear, and often that fear leads to anger. I definitely saw this process at work in Davidson’s mind.

Lyubov is another interesting character, and with him Le Guin looks at the role of anthropology in the colonial project. Because of her own background (both her parents were anthropologists) I think Le Guin is in a particularly strong position to discuss this complex interaction. Lyubov has nothing but good intentions but his reports about the Athsheans end up facilitating the Terrans’ dehumanization of the Athsheans and their consequent enslavement. He sees Selver as his equal and friend and seeks to understand the Athsheans’ culture to help them, but ultimately he is powerless to stop the colonial process and at one point he seems to see anthropology as in integral part of it: “Maybe leaving descriptions of what we wipe out is part of human nature.”

The Athsheans are non-violent as a culture but they finally bring their planet’s conquest to an end by staging a brutal attack against the main Terran outpost on Athshe. There is no glorification of revolutionary violence here, only a kind of grim acceptance that the Athsheans do what they must to liberate themselves. “Wrongs done could not be righted, but at least they were not still being done,” Le Guin says, and she also pays due diligence to the fact that the Athsheans may now be free from their enslavement, but they are irrevocably altered not only by the violence that was done to them but also by the violence that they have learned to do to others as a consequence:

“You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.”
Profile Image for Apatt.
507 reviews781 followers
July 14, 2013
Good short books are profitable reads, therefore great ones are greatly profitable. I am thinking of the time invested in reading the entire book and the pleasure, inspiration or education gained from them. This book clocks in at 189 pages but Le Guin made every word count.

Like most of Ms. Le Guin's works this is a thought provoking story. What happen when we introduce evil into a hitherto innocent and passive culture? The Athsheans are very vivid creations, the story of their enslavement and exploitation by humans is heartfelt and all too believable. Real life examples of man's inhumanity to man is plentiful, what would we do (or not do) if we encounter a less advanced and weaker alien race? I shudder to think of it. I suspect the movie Avatar is inspired by this book because of the similarities in the main theme. Le Guin's story is much more sophisticated of course.

This is the third Le Guin book I have read this year (2011), the other two being The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia and The Left Hand of Darkness. Of the three The Word for World is Forest is my favorite. A book of this quality at this length ought to be read by everyone.

Note: If you are in the mood for short but great sci-fi novels have a look at this for plenty of suggestions (and do join us at PrintSF for sf books discussions).
Profile Image for Anthony.
Author 4 books1,865 followers
November 5, 2018
Devastating. I continue to be astounded by the depths of feeling, wisdom, and truth that Le Guin was able to unearth in her work. This was in many ways the most brutal of her books that I’ve read, but it is still filled with a terrible beauty and even some hope.
Profile Image for Ben Flasher.
8 reviews12 followers
June 5, 2018
Much as I'm in agreement with this book's message of environmentalism and nonviolence, I found its delivery of that message to be preachy, joyless, and heavy-handed. Its tale of colonist humans and their conflict with the native Athsheans transplants the worst atrocities of colonialism's past into the future, but loses any subtlety and nuance in the process.

It doesn't help that the Athsheans embody just about every romanticized stereotype of the native primitive. Like the most Disneyfied take on Native Americans, they live amongst the trees, perfectly in balance with nature. They're deeply spiritual, with a strong, aboriginal-like connection to the dream time. And, in the book's most groan-inducing conceit, they're completely peaceful, never having even conceived of murder until it's introduced to them by humans.

The humans, on the other hand, are depicted as the worst of colonialism with all the nuance of a political cartoon. Despite the fact that the Athsheans have learned English, only one scientist, Lyubov, sees them as intelligent beings with a worthwhile culture. The rest of the colonists treat them with disdain and virulent racism, casually beating, enslaving, and raping them (or turning a blind, indifferent eye to those who do). The enslavement of the Athsheans never makes much sense; the humans complain that the Athsheans aren't any good as slaves (or anything else that they use them for), and the Athsheans themselves would happily avoid the humans if left to their own devices. The only apparent motivation the humans have for enslaving the Atsheans is spite.

As polarized as the characters' views are, Le Guin does a skillful job of getting inside the head of each. Still, though she fleshes them out well and makes them believable, they're not particularly engaging or likable. Lyubov, the lone Athshean sympathizer, is weak and ineffectual; he never comes up with a course of action more ambitious than bemoaning his own impotence. The Athshean Sleverin is too remote, too much of an exoticized native to be relatable. And Davidson, the human antagonist, is an abhorrent embodiment of arrogant machismo and genocidal hatred. They're effective characters for driving the plot forward, but none of them are particularly enjoyable to spend time with.

The lens of science fiction can put history in a fresh new perspective, letting us see past and present injustices in new contexts free from our preconceived notions. In the case of The Word for World is Forest, however, the science fiction setting brings precious little new insight or perspective into the sordid history of colonialism; fictionalizing events merely allows Le Guin to reduce both sides to their most polarized extremes. It's a testament to her skills that despite the lack of relatable characters and a plot that marches inexorably toward the conclusion dictated by its allegorical nature, the story is still thoroughly readable and moves along at a snappy pace. I look forward to reading more of Le Guin's work, and seeing her bring her formidable talents to bear on a story that is more nuanced and less didactic.
Profile Image for Santy.
77 reviews73 followers
June 1, 2021
A este libro lo busqué.

Últimamente estoy inmerso en una green vibe, donde mi interés (y por lo tanto conocimiento) sobre el medioambiente y su cuidado alcanzaron picos nunca antes vistos. No es ilógico que, en consecuencia, haya buscado unos cuantos libros de tendencias ambientalistas (si alguien lee esto y quiere recomendar uno de tales características, será muy bien recibido :) ). Esta novela es uno de los resultados de mi búsqueda.

"La ecología de un bosque es muy delicada. Si el bosque perece, la fauna puede extinguirse junto con él."

Sinopsis breve (porque no es tan popular): Nueva Tahití es un planeta cubierto de bosque y habitado por humanoides (seres humanos evolucionados a partir de una antigua colonización humana). El objetivo comercial de la colonia humana (yumana) es la exportación de madera, muy valiosa en la Tierra, y que pese a estar todavía en sus inicios, ya ha provocado una deforestación completa de parte de una de las grandes islas del planeta…“

Los crichis, habitantes nativos del planeta, están trabajando en calidad de "voluntarios" junto a los terrícolas, pero, como siempre, hay una discrepancia entre la palabra y las acciones, y la población nativa se ve dominada y reducida la explotación como mano de obra, y también la de su hábitat, el inmenso bosque. Lo interesante es ver con qué profundidad este hecho afecta a todos estos sujetos, ya que antes que nuestra especie los invadiera, eran pacíficos y vivían de la forma más cercana a una utopía posible; sin embargo, luego de estos cambios que se dan y las interacciones con nuestra cultura (no muy agradable), comienzan a desarrollar ciertos comportamientos violentos, entre otras cosas, que muestra que la colonización dejó una marca en la historia de aquel pueblo para siempre (he aquí la importancia de recordar la historia).

Y justamente, uno de los puntos fuertes, además de la crítica al colonialismo, es el aspecto ambiental. Supongo que, en la época en que fue escrito este libro, el tópico de ecología era apenas mencionado, por eso, en cierto punto, esta novela persistió en el tiempo, ya que ahora, en la actualidad, parecería tener más sentido. Contamos con múltiples narradores, pero me voy a centrar en dos: Davidson y Lyubov, cuyo comportamiento, en cierto punto, resume la problemática. Tenemos a Davidon, un ser completamente desagradable, que podríamos interpretar como la cara del capitalismo en su máxima expresión, el cual, su único interés es explotar y sacarle un provecho económico al planeta y todos sus habitantes cueste lo que cueste; en contraposición, Lyubov, del lado de la ecología, es quien decide intentar comprender a los nativos del planeta y sus comportamientos e intenta poner un límite a la explotación concibiendo la importancia de una sustentabilidad, ya que el bosque no es solo un recurso, es un bien común. No es fácil leer cómo se les arrebata su hogar y reducen al bosque (donde siempre se remarca su belleza y calmal, supongo que para resaltar la ruptura de ese equilibrio natural) a madera, o como se corrompe a la sociedad crichi, pero, el pensamiento más obvio y complejo que se me ocurre es que se reflejaron muchos de los comportamientos dañinos e irracionales que tenemos, como el de hacernos daños a nosotros mismos (probablemente la única especie), o entender que, en nuestro caso, ninguna raza superior nos está colonizando, sino que somos nosotros mismos los que destruimos nuestro hogar.

"¿Qué pasa entonces con esas criaturas? Parecen hombres y hablan como hombres. ¿No son hombres? -No lo sé. ¿Acaso el hombre mata a otro hombre, excepto en un ataque de locura? ¿Acaso mata la bestia a los de su especie? Sólo los insectos. Estos yumenos nos matan con la misma indiferencia con que nosotros matamos víboras. El que me enseñó a mí decía que se matan unos a otros, en disputas individuales, y también en grupos, como las hormigas cuando pelean. Eso yo no lo he visto. Pero sé que no escuchan a quienes piden clemencia."

Según vi por ahí, este libro es uno de los más "emocionales" de la autora, ya que nace del descontento hacia la Guerra de Vietnam. Sea como sea ¡felicitaciones! Logró hacerme enojar, y mucho, en especial por todas aquellas injusticias que se cometen y que no se sentían como ficción, sino que podía identificar y transportar a la realidad. Y por esto último también me gustó, es una lectura que fácilmente relaciono con la sociedad actual, en especial ante una emergencia climática como la que parece amenazarnos día a día.
Profile Image for Justine.
1,134 reviews309 followers
April 3, 2022
Le Guin's writing is clear, thoughtful, penetrative, poetic, and spare. The thought experiment here relates to whether changing yourself to emulate the invader in order to rid yourself of the invader is ultimately worth the cost.

It's impossible to put on the coat of violence for a limited purpose. Once worn, the garment can never be completely removed. Yes, you survive, you preserve your home, but at what cost? Perhaps you have not survived, but instead killed the most important part of yourself and now walk dead upon the home you saved.

Only if you listened intently could you hear the rain, too multitudinous a music for one mind to grasp, a single endless chord played on the entire forest.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,692 followers
July 18, 2018
"--the anthropologist cannot always leave his own shadow out of the picture he draws--"
- Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for the World is Forest


The more Le Guin I read, the more I love her. Reading Le Guin for me these last couple years, reminds me of how I felt when I first discovered John le Carré. They seem to both be able to write the same theme in so many different ways. It makes me think of Monet's many versions of the same church front or pond. Masters all. An artist doesn't have to go very wide to create worlds, sometimes the best worlds are created by just going deep.

In this novel Le Guin explores two cultures colliding. In many ways, this book is an exploration of acculturation. Le Guin's parents were both anthropologists, so some of these ideas pop into many of her books. The novel, while dealing with big themes of cultural anthropology and environmentalism, still doesn't let the themes dominate the narrative. She creates an interesting story, fantastic characters, and lets the themes come naturally. Nothing is forced. Her ideas seem entirely native to the story.
Profile Image for Markus.
473 reviews1,526 followers
December 27, 2016
Another excellent instalment in the Hainish Cycle. Ursula le Guin has become one of my favourite authors ever despite the fact that none of her writing has really astounded me. There is just something about each one of her books that makes them both enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Also, this book has proto-ewoks.
Profile Image for Algernon (Darth Anyan).
1,496 reviews962 followers
May 7, 2017
They were here, in Centralville, twenty-seven lightyears from Earth by NAFAL and four hours from Smith Camp by hopper, the second batch of breeding females for the New Tahiti Colony, all sound and clean, 212 head of prime human stock.

Written in 1972, this second book in the Hainish cycle is chillingly prescient about the modern world we are living in today. Although the main theme is deforestation, echoes of "The Handmaid's Tale" and of conservative attitudes regarding economic imperatives, lesser races, sexism, militarism, selfishness as the highest virtue and even 'alternative facts' are sadly too easy to correlate from this almost 50 years old story to the daily news we hear in 2017.

"Right, but this isn't slavery, Ok baby. Slaves are humans. When you raise cows, you call that slavery? No. And it works."

Space travel has brought humanity to the stars, but their arrival on New Tahity, an ocean planet with a few scattered islands covered in lush forest, means extinction for the environment and enslavement for the native population: small, furry green aborigens not so different from the pygmies of Central Africa or the lost tribes of the Amazonian jungle. The newcomers call them creechies or monkeys and use them as forced labor in cutting down the native trees.

"See, you want to keep this place just like it is, actually, Kees. Like one big National Forest. To look at, to study. Great, you're a spesh. But see, we're just ordinary joes getting the work done. Earth needs wood, needs it bad. We find wood on New Tahiti. So – we're loggers. See, where we differ is that with you Earth doesn't come first, actually. With me it does."
Kees looked at him sideways out of those blue golf-ball eyes. "Does it? You want to make this world into Earth's image, eh? A desert of cement?"

Kees, the local naturalist from Smith Logger Camp, has few actual powers to stop Davidson, the logger's boss and the poster boy of the New Right, America Earth First policy. Le Guin has no use for subtlety or moderation. It's a life or death situation both for the forest and for the creechies. Us or them. Liberals or Conservatives. Might versus Right. And we all know which side is losing.

Primitive races always have to give way to civilized ones. Or be assimilated. But we sure as hell can't assimilate a lot of green monkeys.

Back in 1972 though, science-fiction writers were more optimistic and could imagine a scenario in which the military-industrial complex can be brought to its knees. I'm not going into plot details here (other than to say that the novel packs a lot of action for such a slim and militant story). I would rather draw another parallel to the modern times: The Hainish cycle is built around one technological breakthrough – the 'ansible' – a device that allows for instant communication across light-years in distance. Policy was no longer static explains one of its ambassadors on New Tahity. Abuses of power and ecological disasters are communicated instantly to the public and to the legislative branch. Our modern equivalent for the ansible is the internet and, not surprisingly, it is one of the first targets for censure from the current administration.


I don't want to end my review on such bitter and downbeat remarks. Ursula K le Guin has also a keen eye for beauty, and this is truly worth fighting for.

All the colors of rust and sunset, brown-reds and pale greens, changed ceaselessly in the long leaves as the wind blew. The roots of the copper willows, thick and ridged, were moss-green down by the running water, which like wind moved slowly with many soft eddies and seeming pauses, held back by rocks, roots, hanging and falling leaves. No way was clear, no light unbroken, in the forest. Into wind, water, sunlight, starlight, there always entered leaf and branch, bole and root, the shadowy, the complex.
Profile Image for Werner.
Author 3 books578 followers
April 9, 2023
All of the books that I've read by the late Ursula Le Guin were pre-Goodreads reads (though I did reread the single fantasy novel among them, A Wizard of Earthsea, last year). This novella is the only remaining one of them that I haven't reviewed until now (though, ironically, it's also the one I'd rate the most highly in terms of literary quality). 2001 is a rough guess at when I read it (it was originally published in 1972 in Again, Dangerous Visions, the sequel to Dangerous Visions, but I've never read either of these anthologies completely). Set in the far future, like most of her SF, it fits into the broad framework of her so-called "Hainish Cycle," the premise of which I explain in my review of Planet of Exile (here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... ). However, it's set much earlier, at a time when the Ekumen (though not yet called that) is in its infancy.

Our setting here is the planet Athshe (called "New Tahiti" by the Terran "yumans"), some 27 light years from Earth. It's mostly water (like the author's fantasy world of Earthsea), but with a large cluster of heavily forested islands. The indigenous population is humanoid (and Hainish-descended, as Earth humans supposedly also are, in Le Guin's fictional universe), albeit short-statured and green-furred; but they're technologically primitive. They have a very peaceful culture (physical confrontations can't escalate to extreme violence, because the weaker party can make a submissive gesture that the other party is culturally conditioned to unquestioningly respect) and generally live in sustainable harmony with each other and with their forest environment. So they initially have no psychological equipment to understand, or effectively resist, when Terran colonists descend on their world to log its timber and establish military bases. Submission gestures aren't respected by Terrans, and don't stop them from enslaving, raping and eventually killing Athsheans. Through the eyes of our two viewpoint characters, Athshean leader Selver and Terran Capt. Davidson, the most racist and aggressive of the invading military officers, we watch this cultural clash play out to its end --and it's virtually guaranteed that no matter how it ends, it won't be happily, and it's going to leave massive irreparable damage.

Literary works, of course, always originate in a cultural and socio-political context, which also greatly influences how they're received. Le Guin was, and always remained, very much a part of the SF genre's New Wave, a movement which, insofar as its politics defined it, was self-consciously oriented to the radical Left, messianically Utopian in its goals, and committed to ideals of pacifism, environmentalism and wholistic approaches to life as shibboleths, even if these were rather vaguely understood (and even if the power structures New Wave writers saw as their allies were in practice locked into policies whose premises and effects were/are diametrically opposed to all three ideals). The trends she projects here into the far future are extrapolated from the racism, militarism, environmental degradation and colonial imperialism she'd seen in her own lifetime up to that point, and which continue into our present, making this a very relevant novel even after 50 years. That her criticism of these comes self-identified as from the Left ensured it of a warm welcome from readers and critics on the Left (who might not, necessarily, reflect very critically on whether or not they're personally implicated in any of these sins!), and it won her a second Hugo Award. (Had a virtually identical work been written instead by, say, a self-identified Christian paleoconservative, it's a safe bet that a Hugo Award, or any award, wouldn't have been its lot.)

The cultural context of the early 70s, of course, was already heavily polarized into Left vs. Right camps, and it's only become more so since. Readers and critics on the Right could be inclined to ignore this work at best, or to read it with a jaundiced eye if they read it at all. That's both sad and ironic, because the essential message here is much more defined by a dichotomy between right and wrong, rather than "Right" and "Left." Belief in the kind of traditional ethics that C. S. Lewis famously called "the Tao" --and Le Guin claimed to be a Taoist, though that's coincidental!-- respect for nature and for traditional cultures, and preference for peaceful and harmonious relations between people and groups are characteristic of healthy conservatism (though people with other beliefs can share them, through what Christians would call the "common grace" of conscience); and nothing that Capt. Davidson and his ilk stand for "conserves" anything of value, environmentally or culturally. So dismissing this tale as a worthless piece of "politically correct" propaganda does it a profound disservice. (It's worth noting, in that context, that one of the more noxious features of PC ideology is the insistence that racism, imperialism, cruelty, greed, etc. are all exclusively white-race behaviors. But Capt. Davidson is quite proud of his African ancestry; and his commanding officer is Vietnamese. Le Guin displays a wholesome recognition that all of these behaviors and attitudes are the common temptation of us "yumans" generally.)

This is a powerful, somber novella, with a story arc that's both thought-provoking for the mind and emotionally evocative for the heart, and a denouement which is anything but simplistic. Everybody, of any persuasion, could benefit from reading it; and we don't have to travel 27 light years into space to profit from its messages. We can, to our benefit, do that right here.
Profile Image for Repix.
2,178 reviews413 followers
July 12, 2021
Ecología, violencia, machismo, brutalidad, esclavitud.
Tristemente más actual que nunca.
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
996 reviews1,134 followers
April 11, 2017
My love for LeGuin's work just keeps growing with every book of hers I read, even when she does everything she can to break my heart. Her novels are always thought-provoking, and she can make a small page count pack one Hell of a punch: at a mere 128 pages, "The Word for World is Forest" still left me devastated. This is a story about hatred and violence, the harm they cause in the long and short term; it's about colonialism and the preservation of aboriginal cultures, deforestation, militarism… Knowing it was written in the wake of the Viet-Nam war, it is easy to understand how all these issues were bouncing around in Le Guin's head, and how it influences the tone of her story.

The Athsheans' culture is based around the forest they live in, and dreaming - when they are awake and asleep. Violence is not something their society knows, which makes them easy picking for the Terran colonists who show up to harvest wood that they sell back to an ecologically ruined Mother Earth. The Athsheans are short and green-furred humanoids, which leads the soldiers assigned to work on their planet to think of them as simple-minded animals, and abuse and exploit them. An Athshean named Selver sees his wife raped and killed by Captain Don Davidson, and is himself brutally beaten by the sadistic soldier. This experience will completely alter Selver's way of thinking and feeling, leading him to rebel against the colonists and commit acts his people had not been thought capable of.

Brute force is the only power Davidson understands. His Terran patriotism translates as hatred of other species and paranoia. While his commanding officer and the inter-planetary alliance Earth is now a part of want the planet and their natives treated respectfully, Davidson's self-righteously disobeys their orders and escalates the conflict. An anthropologist named Raj Lyubov, who was sent to the planet to study the natives and the ecosystem, tries to mitigate the crisis by seeking out Selver to renew his friendship and support, but his efforts are too little too late.

A peaceful culture forced to abandon their non-violent nature in the face of extinction is a heart-breaking premise, but it is one the pages of history shows us to have happened many times. The complex ways both species perceive each other and their incapacity to communicate clearly about their world-views obviously doesn't help. The word the Athsheans use for world is forest, and the word for dream is also the word for root. The delicate balance they maintain, with their dreaming practice, between their conscious and subconscious minds, is impossible to grasp for the colonists, who can't understand their motivation.

Selver is a very introspective character, who turns to violence in desperation: he is aware that those actions are toxic to his people's nature, but cannot find another way to protect and preserve his culture. He knows he is doing the wrong thing for the right reason, that now his people will know murder, a concept that had never reached their consciousness before, and he feels this burden on his shoulders.

In my copy's introduction, Le Guin comments that this book might be one of her most didactic work, and that she has never felt comfortable with that. I can appreciate that sentiment: I certainly don't enjoy being smacked in the face by ideological agendas when I'm reading fiction. While this book is more heavy-handed as a commentary than "The Dispossessed", it is no less haunting and challenging, and written with enough finesse to avoid turning into propaganda. Certainly, the gentle natives and brutal, coarse invaders is not a new trope. In fact, it borders on the cliché and in the hands of a lesser writer, it would fall flat. But Le Guin was raised by anthropologists and it shows: she understands how cultures work, how they change and how people adapt to change, so her story remains solid and feels real.

I turned the last page with a lump in my throat: the slight ambiguity at the end, that flavors the conclusion with bitterness, was as appropriate as it was disturbing. A moving little book, perfect for Le Guin fans and for newbies.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
428 reviews184 followers
January 7, 2023
If I had read this when it first came out in 1972, it could have seeded my future as a misanthropic ecologist. Here was a radical, table-turning book in which humans are the greedy, ecologically clueless aggressors who get their asses handed to them by the rusticated, forest-dwelling natives of an invaded planet.

Unfortunately, I wasn't alive in 1972 (it's okay, I still became a misanthropic ecologist without it). And fortunately, in the 50 years that passed between when The Word for World was published and when I read it, some of the major paradigms it challenges - views of indigenous people, ecological thinking, anthropocentrism - have shifted in ways that make this book seem less audacious. Indigenous land management techniques, for example, are having a renaissance as we realize, belatedly, that 100 years of forest fire suppression has possibly not been the way to go. It's no longer revolutionary to portray humans as the antagonists, particularly in the face of accelerating climate change.

It took me a week to get through a 160 page book, not because it was bad, but because it never really hooked me. Also, my brain insists on picturing the Athshean natives (small, fuzzy, forest-dwelling) as Ewoks, which doesn't do any favors for the dignity of this book. Thanks, George Lucas.

The plot is pretty basic, though I do like the details with which LeGuin fills out her indigenous culture, and in particular, its dreaming state. It's a short book, but it features three different perspectives: that of Davidson (human alpha male), Lyubov (human translator), and Selver (Athshean). Although they are more mouthpieces than characters, their perspectives shed light on all sides of the conflict. The tone is muted, and the last chapters are particularly somber and reflective: The writing is good, utilitarian for the humans, rhythmic and a little outré for the Athsheans.

I do think LeGuin missed a terrific opportunity to make up fun alien plants by positing that this planet was seeded by Earth organisms, hence recognizable descendants of pines, oaks, chestnuts, etc.
Profile Image for Prerna.
222 reviews1,319 followers
July 28, 2021
Welcome, to another episode of benevolent colonialism vs barbaric indigenous culture, and this from the celebrated annals of science fiction. Oh, but what's this? The indigenous people are winning?! And without a white savior or a colonialist deflecting to the good side? No transformative hero's arc? No construction of entire narratives centred around a white dude that realises the value of indigenous culture and saves the day? So you're telling me, science fiction, a world of comple make-believe, a world belonging to Meinong's jungle, can actually imagine healthy, hopeful alternatives? Man, what a bummer. Ursula Le Guin clearly did not know how to play by the rules.

I had trouble with this book in the beginning, mostly because the first chapter is about the hyper-masculine, misogynistic, racist, rapist, pro-pro-colonialist, protagonist-antagonist. I wondered if this was finally going to be that one Le Guin book that I would absolutely hate. But as always, she surprised me in no time.

There is a madness to this story, a sacred insanity. As Selver comes to grips with his own divinity and the vicious dreams that he sees seeping into reality around him, he has to battle that other insane divinity, the crazy God, the protagonist-antagonist, Davidson. With the knowledge of death and murder dawning upon him, Selver counters oppression with destruction, with rebellion. And what could be more punitive than a forced exile, than a prolonged life, to a God that wants an end? So Selver bestows upon Davidson with the one thing he has never known, the one thing he abhors: mercy.

And with this I complete my 2021 goal of reading the six main books of the Hainish cycle.
Profile Image for Ivana Books Are Magic.
523 reviews191 followers
October 26, 2021
This novella is an absolute masterpiece! Poetically written, deeply profound and wonderfully imaginative, The Word for World is a Forest is an exceptional book. The story Le Guin created is a incredibly tragic and sad one, but it rings absolutely true in its sadness and tragedy. Wisdom is something I have come to expect in Ursula K.Le Guin's writing but this novella seems to be especially abundant in it. Wisdom is a big word, yet I cannot use another, for Le Guin's writing truly strikes me as wise.

This novella ( or a short novel, depending how you classify it) is a work of great complexity that can be studied on many levels and that raises many interesting questions, from psychological, social, political to linguistic ones. The Word for World is a Forest captures the harsh realities of any war or military conquest and stresses that it is often (if not always) the innocents that suffer and die. Once blood starts to flow, it is hard to stop it. Violence often breads more violence. The cycles of violence are hard to break, both on individual and social level. Heart-breaking and poignant, this story of colonization and conflict makes us face the darkness that exists in human kind.

This novel is a part of Le Guin's Hainish series, that is set in this future Universe of her creation where there are several humanoid races ( us humans, being just one of them and not the founding one). In fact, we humans were planted on Earth by the Haniish people and many years into the future they come looking for their offspring. You don't have to know a lot about the Hainish Universe to be able to read this novel, though. It can be read as a separate work. I found that things are explained along the way pretty well, but reading more about The Hainish Cycle and its alternative history/future might help to shed more light.

This book is set on a planet Athshe, populated by peaceful humanoids who are small in size (as is expected from forest people). When a part of them is enslaved and treated in most cruel ways possible by human colonizers from Earth, they start to rebel. Le Guin pays as much attention to the language as you can expect from such a skilled writer. She inserts many words from the Athshe language and in this way (and in many others) makes their culture sound authentic. The Athsheans call to the human colonizers "yumens", while the Earth men/colonizers (much to their shame) most often use the derogatory term "creechie" for the natives. Even when the Athshe people start to question the humanness of 'yumens' based on their deeds of exceptional cruelty and violence, they still use the same term, not denying them their humanity, at least not on linguistic terms. Similarly, Earth (often referred as Terra in the novel) men use the offensive term creechie even when they find irrefutable evidence of their intelligence. So, the language these two humanoids use are important on many levels.
Most of the novel focuses on the conflict between the peaceful Athshe dwellers and Earth colonizers (mostly men but a shipping of 500 young fertile women arrives soon into the story).
“But old women are different from everybody else, they say what they think.”, one character say complementing whether they were wrong not to bring any old women with them on this planet. I have no doubt they were wrong to do but there is so much wrong with the whole colonization - and that is what basically takes place, no matter how much everyone tries to be hush hush about it.
Trees have disappeared from Earth of future, so every log is worth its weight in gold (if not more), making it perfectly profitable to send a space ship on a remote planet. The human society of the future naturally doesn't allow for colonization of any kind, but as always where there is money, people find it easy to invent new names for old evils. As I already said this story is mostly about the conflict and bloodshed between Terra men (us Earthlings) and Athshe people but there is mention of other alien races and they have a small (but apparently important) role to play. Specifically, Hatians and Cetians appear as observers. “The most winning characteristic of the rather harsh Cetian temperament was curiosity, inopportune, and inexhaustible curiosity; Cetians died eagerly, curious as to what came next.” These humanoids from other planets at one point become worried observers of shameful human treatment of Athshe's natives.

When it comes to Earth/Terra men, there is a definite conflict between the two men. You could call them the protagonist and antagonist of this novel. While Selver is the representative of the forest humanoids, Captain Davison and Raj Lyubov ( the anthropologist in the colony) are perhaps the representatives of our Earth/Terra humanoids. The two men hate each other and I found their contrasting very interesting.
The story opens with a human character, captain Davison who is an especially shameful specimen of human kind. Some might think him a cardboard villain (for how anyone can be so vile?), but I think people like him actually exist and what is worse they often have a terrible influence on others. Good people often close their eyes on what captain Davisons of this world do, letting them do their dirty work (and sadly perhaps it will be always be so, or at least as long as profit rules). While Captain Davison is enough to make you feel ashamed to be a human being and to 'root' for the aliens, there is one scientist/anthropologist Raj Lyubov, who does all he can in a terrible situation and understands the complexity and the intelligence of the native aliens. “But to the Athsheans soil, ground, earth was not that to which the dead return and by which the living live: the substance of their world was not earth, but forest.” He understands their connection to the forest and what exactly the men from Earth are destroying . “A forest ecology is a delicate one. If the forest perishes, its fauna may go with it. The Athshean word for world is also the word for forest.”

Who are the aliens? Humanoids that live perfectly in accordance with nature, are non violent by nature and besides being a dream for local ecology, they also have some wild talents that make them mysterious and fascinating such as (seemingly supernatural) ability of magic dreaming. These forest humanoids practice 'dreaming' in ways the men who set to colonize this planet cannot dream of. They dream wake, they can do things Earthlings cannot even imagine. The treatment humans give them is shameful. In this sense, Le Guin takes after Stanislaw Lem, in that she nurtures a similarly depressive first contact theory that advocates that humans will face alien life form with disgust. In Lem's case the first contact is often impossible to make, while in Le Guin's case it is challenging but not impossible. It's mostly the closeness of human mind, xenophobia and plain greed that makes contact almost impossible in this novel.

You could say that Le Guin even goes a step further because she paints us humans from Earth as someone who shows utter disregard to alien life despite being made aware of its intelligence.

Earth men who come to colonize Athshe's are made aware that the creatures living there are as human as they (from a genetic point of view) but most of them to choose to ignore that and treat them worse than animals. Profit rules as always but there is more at work there. Le Guin digs into some shameful events of human history (genocides and colonization) and perhaps even warns us of how easy it will be to repeat those violent patterns in the future, for have we ever been truly free of them? “For if it's all the rest of us who are killed by the suicide, it's himself whom the murderer kills; only he has to do is over, and over, and over."

Raj Lyubov saves the life of one native- Selver and makes friends with him. They teach each other about one another and their cultures. While Selver's people immediately recognize Earthlings as humans, they cannot possibly grasp while Earth men treat them so cruelly and finally Selver starts to question 'our' humanity. Sever makes the following argument: “I don’t know. Do men kill men, except in madness? Does any beast kill its own kind? Only the insects. These yumens kill us as lightly as we kill snakes. The one who taught me said that they kill one another, in quarrels, and also in groups, like ants fighting. I haven’t seen that. But I know they don’t spare one who asks life. They will strike a bowed neck, I have seen it! There is a wish to kill in them, and therefore I saw fit to put them to death.”

When Ray Lybov says: “I like Selver, respect him; saved him; suffered with him; fear him. Selver is my friend.”, he is perhaps already aware that theirs will be a bitter sweet friendship, one covered in blood and tears, for there is much that separates them.

The Word for World is Forest broke my heart, but I loved it. This is a short book but it is very eventful. I felt for the characters and was engrossed in the story. I read it in one breath, I simply couldn't put it down once I started reading it. This is the kind of science fiction novel that I love to read. Educating, intelligent and complex. The kind that makes you ask questions and keep you guessing. It's still very much a relevant read. There is one quote from the Dune series (by Frank Herbert) that kept hunting me while I was reading this novel: " There is no escape, we pay for the violence of our ancestors. " Is there any escape? Will there ever be any escape from violence? This novella doesn't give any clear answers on the future.

"What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.”, says Selver, one of the principal characters and the principal Athshean protagonist. Interpret is as you want. I would like to think there is some hope for us all after all.
Profile Image for Allison Hurd.
Author 3 books702 followers
November 18, 2018
I had to sit with this one a bit before reviewing. A hard-hitting look at imperialism, humanity and the appropriate use of violence, once again Le Guin manages to distill everything into a perfect clarity that is at once easy to follow and vastly complex.

CONTENT WARNING: (no actual spoilers, just a list of topics)

Things to love:

The writing. As usual, Le Guin is absolutely brilliant. Eloquent, logical, emotive, she is a master at word choice and construction that conveys so much with so little.

The Athsheans. Others have said it before and better, but the alien species is such a perfect balance of "not at all like us" and "totally relatable." They felt alien but not inscrutable. I was able to scrute them just fine. ;-)

Selver. I think his point of view was so critical to this. Between the xenophobe and the collaborator, we get the first hand account of a man who is oppressed in his body but not in his soul, who changes fate confidently and with great turmoil.

The chilling parallels. Ugh. It was work to read this short novel, though it was of superior quality. It just feels so much like reading the news that I may have missed a few things due to rage blackouts.

Things I wanted but did not get:

-Condemnation of neutrality. It was set up that we would see that remaining neutral in the face of injustice is to side with oppression, but it didn't quite feel like that was explored fully. By the end I'm not sure this was intended at all, actually. Hard to say if this was part of the pointed language at Vietnam, and so I am missing some context, if Le Guin didn't see this part of it, or if I just missed something in my previously described rage strokes.

-Women. Again I wanted to see myself more in her writing. This book does a lot of surgical strikes at racism, sexism, casual oppression and so on but I kept wanting to hear the counterpoint that I never got. Perhaps this is an intentional thing, an erasure that conveys violence as much as the actions against womenkind in the text, but I felt like if this is about the hurt we do ourselves, I wanted to see everyone's hurt.

-More on the aliens. There were so many great hints and so little time spent on the significance. I'd have loved a few more looks at what life is like when it was so divided as it was for the Athsheans. What message did they have for humanity that the Hainish could incorporate?

Overall a powerful read that I recommend highly as a part of the Le Guin Political Theory workshop I feel every serious political scientist and/or fan of speculative fiction should read. Her work shines so bright, it's hard to believe they're not considered a part of the classics.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,549 reviews1,825 followers
May 8, 2023
This is a very short little book that I read through in a few hours. The edition I read had two introductions - possibly to give the book extra fibre or to provide it with essential minerals or something. One of these introductions was by the author herself in which she wrote that she felt it was a preachy novel, and that the title was not her choice.

It is certainly true that this is not a nuanced story. Forest living people are exploited by colonizing humans, the forest lovers strike back, saving themselves and their planet from destruction.

LeGuin wrote it in the shadow of the war in Vietnam, but perhaps the colonisation of the Americas, or Australia, or New Zealand was also on her mind.

This is not a Lawrence of Arabia fantasy, unlike say the film 'Avatar'. Salvation comes from the internal dynamic of the forest dwellers. Their culture takes dreams and dreaming very seriously, and that devote themselves to analysing and understanding their dreams. After publication, LeGuin writes in her introduction an anthropologist asked her if she had been aware of a people in Malaysia who would analyse each others dreams over breakfast, which goes to show that it's hard for one person to be more creative than people as a whole, everything has been thought of before and probably more than once.

Ursula LeGuin's father, the Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, was friends with Ishi who was the last known survivor of the Yahi people and had been living in isolation. Several of LeGuin's stories seem to touch on this family experience with two people from essentially alien cultures coming into contact and perhaps becoming friends, or not, in this novel two aliens do come into contact and manage to gain some understanding of each other's cultures. Human culture in this book is militarised, arrogant, and utilitarian and essentially unable to absorb or learn from this instance of contact between the two individuals.

The aliens with their dream culture have rich inner lives, are wise in self knowledge and deeply connected to each other and their environment, the humans however are alienated, self absorbed and acquisitive, everything outside of themselves exists only for them to exploit.

LeGuin uses a deus ex machina to resolve the conflict, it requires the reader to believe that there is a profound difference between the human colonists and the humans in government way back on earth. This novella comes after The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia but before The Left Hand of Darkness, but you don't have to be familiar with either to read this one.

This story may not be subtle, but it does have momentum and atmosphere.
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,401 reviews11.7k followers
September 18, 2010
In all honesty, the basic premise of this novella is the one I've read/seen many times before both in fiction (the latest version is James Cameron's "Avatar") and reality.

A group of evil and greedy Terrans is in a process of colonizing a new planet - Athshe. What it means, as you can guess, is that Terrans destroy Athshe's ecosystem by cutting down the planet's forests and sending wood to their mother planet Earth (which by this time is nothing but a barren desert) and enslave and abuse the native people who they consider to be imbecilic animals but choose to rape their females anyway. What's more is that through their heinous actions, Terrans affect the psyche of the whole planet's population, forcing the people to react to the invaders' atrocities in a way that is foreign to their inherently non-violent nature.

But of course, Ursula K. Le Guin, a great writer that she is, creates a completely unique and meaningful tale using this age-old story. As always, her world-building is impeccable. I am always amazed at how imaginative Le Guin is - there is no stone unturned, she creates an entirely original system of culture, social order, ecology, physiology, language, and thought process. The result is a remarkable work of science fiction firmly grounded in brutal reality of our past and present.
Profile Image for Silvana.
1,151 reviews1,118 followers
June 1, 2020
A friend of mine - Diane - said that this is Le Guin's angriest book. I only read four books of her so far but I see the point. The book made me angry too. Colonization, treatment towards women and the natives, racism, sexism, environmental abuse, I could go on. In just fewer than 200 pages, Le Guin managed to weave those unsavory elements and some despicable characters (active and enablers) into a raging narrative.

I also enjoyed the parallel of world = forest and god = interpreter. Highly recommended, go read it if you haven't.
Profile Image for Nickolas the Kid.
306 reviews70 followers
November 18, 2020
Η Ούρσουλα Λε Γκεν μέσα από αυτό το βιβλίο προσεγγίζει σε βάθος το πρόβλημα της οικολογικής καταστροφής του πλανήτη με τον δικό της ξεχωριστό τρόπο. Με όχημα για ακόμη μια φορά τους φανταστικούς της κόσμους, η συγγραφέας αποφεύγοντας τους διδακτισμούς και τις γραφικότητες, προσπαθεί να ευαισθητοποιήσει τον αναγνώστη δείχνοντάς του ουσιαστικά το είδωλο του μέσα από ένα λογοτεχνικό καθρέφτη.
Η μανία μας για εξουσία και πλούτο μας έχει κάνει άπληστους και αχάριστους. Μας κάνει να ξεχνάμε ότι τίποτα σε αυτό τον πλανήτη δεν είναι δικό μας αλλά δανεικό. Κι επειδή ξεχνάμε τη φύση μεταλλασσόμαστε σε παράσιτα, τα οποία πάντα στο τέλος εξαφανίζονται. Η Λε Γκεν μας ωθεί να βρούμε τη χαμένη μας ανθρωπιά μέσα από τη μουσική, τα όνειρα και τη δημιουργική επιστήμη.
Το βιβλίο γράφτηκε το 1972, τότε που η οικολογική ευαισθησία μας ήταν μάλλον σε λήθαργο. Σήμερα, το βιβλίο μοιάζει τόσο επίκαιρο που θα έλεγε κανείς πως γράφτηκε την τελευταία δεκαετία. Έπρεπε να φτάσουμε στο παρά πέντε για να αναρωτηθούμε τουλάχιστο αν υπάρχει ελπίδα να περισώσουμε τον πλανήτη μας. Κι όπως σε πολλά σημεία του βιβλίου τονίζει η συγγραφέας, η όλη καταστροφή ξεκίνησε από καλές προθέσεις....
910 reviews256 followers
July 30, 2017
And people still think Avatar had an original concept.
(Though I'll admit the visuals are gorgeous)

Le Guin did it first, and did it better. The Word for World is Forest is heartwrenchingly beautiful, all the more for its continued relevence nearly half a century since first publication.

Her introduction to this edition is also exquisite, and discusses not only the need and reasoning behind the writing of this story, but also the need for the creation of any such story.

"The pursuit of art, by artist or audience, is the pursuit of liberty. If you accept that, you see at once why truly serious people reject and mistrust the arts, labelling them as "escapism". The captured soldier tunneling out of prison, the runaway slave, and Solzhenitsyn in exile, are escapists."

She later describes how easy, fluent and yet unpleasurable this story was to write, and how she struggled against making it into a "preachment". It isn't, she succeeded (though as she also states, "the moralising aspects of the story are now plainly visible").

The Word for World is Forest is just as easy, fluent and yet painful to read as its creation appeared to be. But for all that it shows the utmost horror of human exploitation, it also shows beauty. A few years after publishing this book, Le Guin learned of the Senoi people, in Malaysia, whose cultures, customs and use of dreams are (or were) strikingly similar to that of the Athsheans. Humans are capable of humanity. Art such as this is only one way to express that, but perhaps the most essential way of all.
Profile Image for Berfin Kanat.
393 reviews145 followers
August 16, 2019
...ağaçların altında belki de başka hiçbir yerde olmadığı kadar evinde hissediyordu kendini.
Nasıl da üzücü bir kitaptı. Orman ve Dünya kelimelerinin aynı anlama geldiği bir gezegen, orada yaşayan masum bir halk ve medeniyet götürme adı altında o gezegeni işgal eden, ölümü ve köleliği götüren vahşi insanlar. Kitabın tanıtım yazısında Dünya kurtulsa bile aynı dünya olabilecek miydi peki? deniyor ya, en çok da bu kısım üzüyor okuyucuyu. Kısa göründüğüne bakmayın, derin bir kitap o yüzden odaklanarak okumak lazım. Ursula'nın yazdığı her kitap güzel, Dünyaya Orman Denir ise çok güzel olanlardan.
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