“The Word For World Is Forest” by Ursula K. Le Guin – review

I’ve read a lot of Ursula Le Guin – all of her Earthsea books, most of her Hainish cycle (of which The Word For World Is Forest forms a part), quite a few of her essays. But nothing quite prepared me for this book. Reading it, it felt like someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over my head.

It’s short – more of a novella than a novel – and it moves at a cracking pace, even by the efficient standards of Le Guin, who rarely if ever wastes words.

It was written in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, and in many ways is a cry of rage and despair at that horrible, wasteful conflict. It is angry and raw in a way that will come as a shock to those readers more familiar with its author’s other, more subtle work. Le Guin herself admits as much in her author’s introduction to the SF Masterworks edition:

“I knew, because of the compulsive quality of the composition, that it was likely to become a preachment…”

She also admits that her main antagonist in the book, the violent, monstrous Captain Davidson, gets as close to being two-dimensional as a character created by such a gifted writer could:

“Davidson is…purely evil – and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions.”

Nevertheless, this alarming tale of the attempted colonization, by humans, of another world, whose peaceful inhabitants, the Athsheans, are spurred into rebellion by their maltreatment, is more than just a thinly veiled portrait of the geopolitics of a particular era. Le Guin is far too good a writer for that. For though her sympathies undoubtedly lie with the struggle of an oppressed people against a despoiling invader, she emphasizes clearly and firmly how the very act of rebellion – however noble the cause – can change those who rebel in negative and irrevocable ways. The Athsheans call the leader of their uprising, Selver, a “god”, and Selver’s human friend, Lyubov, realizes that in the native language “god” does not just mean supernatural being, but also “translator”:

“Selver had brought a new word into the language of his people. He had done a new deed. The word, the deed, murder… But…was he speaking his own language, or was he speaking Captain Davidson’s? That which seemed to rise from the root of his own suffering and express his own changed being, might in fact be an infection, a foreign plague, which would not make a new people of his race, but would destroy them.”

This theme – of the dehumanizing capacity of violence, however necessary it may seem – is something familiar from other Ursula Le Guin stories, and indeed it is clear that Captain Davidson is such a hollowed-out figure precisely because violence is all he understands. As Selver – whose wife Davidson has murdered – says to him:

“‘We’re both gods, you and I. You’re an insane one, and I’m not sure whether I’m sane or not. But we are gods… We bring each other such gifts as gods bring. You gave me a gift, the killing of one’s kind, murder.”

In his introduction Ken MacLeod writes of Le Guin:

“She remains subversive, and her work dangerous reading, because it changes the reader and makes them look at the real world in a different light.”

I cannot think of a higher recommendation.

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