Review: The Word For World Is Forest – Ursula K. Le Guin

It starts with the title. I loved this book before I had read a single word because of it. I am happy Le Guin was talked out of calling it “The Little Green Men“, as was her initial intention.

The word for world is forest. Not earth, or rock, or soil. Or mall, or semi detached, or gated community. The root is roots, and smells, and noises, and living within and as part of the great ecosystem that once covered much of this planet.

This is a book about racism, colonialism, exploitation, and the environment. Le Guin pushes the action to the far future and a distant, forested world, but she wrote it very much with Vietnam on her mind. Or the American War, as it is known there.

This a future run as per current day trends and assumptions: the using up of all resources on earth until barren, the desire to “develop” earthlike planets across the galaxy once our own is exhausted.

With ships and communication capable only of near-light speed, our intrepid colonists are left pretty much to their own devices once settled on a new planet. Their mission: to prepare the planet for settlement, to be rapacious frontiersmen. And, most importantly of all, to keep the supply of precious wood flying back to the luxury and trinket hungry earthlings.

Le Guin’s sympathies are entirely with the inhabitants of this world, the Athsheans, a complex and sophisticated matriarchal society of waking dreamers. But there is also nuance drawn in the characters from Earth, with the exception of the necessarily stupid and evil Captain Davidson.

The colonialists come from a liberal future with the sophistication to at least euphemise their use of slavery. Among the tree fellers and engineers are scientists, who attempt to study and understand the beings they are killing while sending impotent reports back to the distant home world.

This is not a hopeful book. While intergalactic politics halts the destruction of the Forest world, and it seems that a more enlightened form of hominid may rein in the racist humans, there is no going back. Selver, the brutalised Asthean turned brutaliser, is forever changed by the experience. The dreams of his people now contain nightmares. And those nightmares, like ours, may prove impossible to escape from.

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