Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 August 2016
Classic SciFi 8: Ursula K Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest, 1972
The Word for World Is Forest is a science fiction novella by Ursula K. Le Guin, first published in 1972 in the anthology Again, Dangerous Visions, and published as a separate book in 1976.
Dangerous Visions 1967 was a path-breaking collection of stories edited by Harlan Ellison that helped to define the new wave of Science Fiction, particularly in its depictions of sex in science fiction. Dangerous Visions: almost single-handedly… changed the way people thought about science fiction wrote Editor/Writer Al Sarrantonio. (Wikipedia)
I read Dangerous Visions when I was in Canada in the early 1970s and it certainly had that effect on my girlfriend and I. I remember one story in particular where a person masturbating with a crucifix achieves time travel. My memory may be faulty but the flavour is not.
Again, Dangerous Visions 1972 though not as path-breaking was a worthy sequel. The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin won a Hugo for Best Novella, which we also read in 1973 in Canada.
The Word for World Is Forest is not the first protest novel in Science Fiction, a genre whose attraction is partially the highlighting of human stupidity. Rork! by Avram Davidson 1965 highlighted in Classic Sci Fi 3 is a good example. Le Guin began The Word for World Is Forest as a protest novel and it would be interesting (if impossible) to know how it facilitated the nascent but growing green movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Le Guin says she went out of her way to avoid polemicism. Wikipedia says that the novel has received positive reviews from later critics and scholars but notes that some have called it lesser Le Guin because of its polemical style.
I don’t agree with this. I think Ursula K. Le Guin skirts the line well. However, I was initially worried when I began the novel this time, because of the first chapter where Captain Davidson is introduced as a truly awful (but credible) personality. Davidson is an exaggeration, but we’ve all met types like him not only in the 1970s. The novel settled down after Chapter 1 and one forgives the strong negative depiction of Davidson as a necessary starting point to portray the events that follow. Davidson, of course, gets crazier and crazier as the novel progresses.
I need to make a confession here. I’m not much aware of the other Le Guin novels. I tried but I could never get into the Earth Sea series nor The Left Hand of Darkness. I can’t remember if I ever began The Dispossessed.
There are spoilers below but it probably won’t interfere with you enjoyment in reading The Word for World is Forest.
We begin with the point of view of Captain Davidson who is the commander of a logging camp named Smith Camp; and, we view the world of New Tahiti through his eyes. New Tahiti is a planet of warm shallow seas, islets, archipelagos and five big lands in an arc across the northwest quarter of the sphere. All the land is covered in dense forest.
Davidson doesn’t have much time for anyone who is not as rough and tough as he is. He doesn’t have time for the spesh’s (specialists), whom he sees as weak, or anyone who gets in the way of the task of logging and supplying old Earth with desperately needed timber. He sees himself as a patriot and, though he pretends to be reasonable, is implacable and intolerant of anything that gets in his way. We learn that the local inhabitants the small green-furred Athsheans are used as slave labour at the camp. Davidson reveals that they are labelled demeaningly as ‘creechies’ (a corruption of creature) and he has nothing but contempt for them.
Davidson is flying to Centralville, the headquarters of the colony, because a shipload of young women have just arrived, mostly brides but also recreation staff and he wants to get first pick of them.
When he returns to Smith Camp, he finds it burned to the ground. He lands to investigate and is overpowered by four Astheans. One of whom he recognises as Selver, who was a personal servant at headquarters and later a personal assistant to Raj Lyubov, the colony anthropologist.
A few months previously Davidson had raped and killed Selver’s wife Thele. An enraged Selver attacked Captain Davidson and kept attacking him whilst being beaten to a pulp. Only the intervention of Lyubov saved Selver’s life, though he is terribly scarred in the face, which is why Davidson recognises him.
The Athsheans had previously been regarded as non-aggressive by Lyubov, which potentially gets him into trouble at the enquiry over Smith Camp, but times have been changing outside the colony and two senior aliens on the newly arrived ship are sympathetic to Lyubov. They realise that the colony has problems and is out of touch with what has happened over the past twenty-seven years (the time period for dispatches to arrive). They agree to leave a new instant communication device intended for another colony behind. Those on New Tahiti are very suspicious of this instant communication device (Ansible) and the orders they now receive directly from Earth.
The Athsheans are an unusual race because the men have lodges and are ‘dreamers’ both when asleep and sometimes awake, dreaming is integrally involved in their culture and decision-making and they cannot understand why humans are unable to dream in a controlled way. The Athshean women run the practical side of things, but occasionally defer to the men when important dreaming occurs. Selver has had a new dream of conflict and killing. This makes him a God but not a happy one. Nevertheless, when the Athsheans are stirred up they can be ruthless. A decision is made to take over the human colony and to kill all the women to prevent breeding.
A more detailed story summary is given in Wikipedia. As the book is a novella, much of the necessary information is given in summary through the viewpoint characters. The pace is hectic, we are in the middle of rapidly changing events, despite which, we seem to get a rounded overview of the world, its colonisation and the beliefs and behaviour of the Astheans. Unlike many other earlier and contemporary science fiction novels, the Astheans are anthropologically believable.
A background premise to the fictional Hainish universe in this and some other Le Guin novels is that Earth and New Tahiti were originally colonised by Hains. All intelligent life forms in the League of Worlds are distantly related, including the Astheans. The forests of New Tahiti have recognisable tree forms and wildlife. However, one only needs the briefest sketch of this in the novella for things to make sense.
The key characters
There are only three main characters. The others are merely there for support. The book would make a good play.
Captain Ron Davidson begins the novel as commandant of Smith Camp. He is portrayed as relentless and uncompromising. His view is never shadowed by doubt. His internal monologue reveals his hatred and contempt for people different from himself. He can mimic being reasonable but this is never more than skin deep. He is implacable. He believes he is a patriot but only on his terms. His hatred is directed towards the Athsheans whom he sees as non-human and inferior. His contempt is also directed towards women and anyone he does not respect as strong, capable and physical. The natural environment is something to be conquered and tamed.
Selver is the main protagonist. He is training to be a dreamer when the Terrans colonise Athshe. He and his wife are enslaved at headquarters. He is initially a manservant to a group of officers before Raj Lyubov takes him on as an assistant and interpreter. They form a bond and Selver helps Lyubov understand the language, the culture and the dreaming of the Athsheans. After Selver’s wife is killed and he is beaten, Lyubov nurses him back to health and allows him to escape. Selver is depicted as highly sensitive and intuitive. He dreams and tells his story to the other Athsheans who begin to see him as a god, who interprets his own experiences and dreams to mean that the Terrans must be killed or forced off-planet.
Raj Lyubov is an equivocal character perhaps typical of an anthropologist. Unlike Davidson, he reflects continuously on his actions and tries to analyse them objectively. He has great sympathy for the Athsheans and can see the damage the colony is doing to the Athsheans and their environment. He feels deeply conflicted and guilty which causes migraines. He is prepared to destroy his own reputation and potentially betray Earth to protect the Athshean people, but he also knows that his interventions are likely to be ineffective.
Biography of Ursula K Le Guin
Ursula Kroeber Le Guin was born in 1929. She is an American author of novels, children’s books and short stories. She has influenced many other writers. Her father was an anthropologist and her mother a writer. (Wikipedia gives more details.)
Ursula Le Guin’s Introduction 1976
My copy of The Word for World Is Forest is the 1976 republication, with a six-page introduction written by Le Guin. She says:
All through the sixties [in the USA] I had been helping organise and participating in non-violent demonstrations, first against atomic bomb testing, then against the pursuance of the war in Viet Nam.
She goes on to say that she was in England in 1968, a guest and a foreigner. And 1968 was a bitter year for those opposed to the war. She says that from such pressure internalised in 1968 the story ofThe Word for World Is Forest was born.
The nature of Evil
Le Guin says of her opposition character:
But Davidson is, though not uncomplex, pure; he is purely evil — and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions.
The nature of evil is quite difficult for middle class people. Robyn Davies born in 1950 (a generation younger than Ursula Le Guin) in Tracks 1980 says of Kurt the German camel trainer who was supposed to teach her.
I still laboured under the nice middle class delusion that everyone was a good guy at heart if you could just get to the bottom of their problem, but he was to knock that foolishness out of me eventually.
I think Ursula Le Guin would have laboured under the same illusion. I probably do too but maybe to a lesser extent.
I do think that some people are evil but they are usually, like Kurt above, and eventually Davidson, relatively ineffective. I am more concerned by reasonable people, who whilst not evil in themselves embody evil in their actions. Sadly, I am thinking in this context of societal leaders. The very current responses of President Erdoğan of Turkey, while I am writing this, in using a coup attempt to remove unrelated enemies, is one example. Another current one is President Assad of Syria, but one doesn’t have to go back much to think of several examples much closer to home.
The Mai Lai massacre occurred in 1968, as did many events in the escalation of the Vietnam War (Mai Lai was a similar scandal, but more brutal than Abu Ghraib in Iraq). Although the Mai Lai massacre not was broken to the world until November 1969 by Seymour Hersh. (For Hersh’s take as an old man on the killing of Osama bin Laden refer to my third article the Last Days of Osama bin Laden 3: The killing).
Many people have commented on the similarity in key narrative features between between David Campbell’s 2009 film Avatar and The Word for World Is Forest. Although the aliens in Avatar are tall blue and furry (like the Masai) and the Athsheans small green and furry. (Does one dare to suggest that Ursula Le Guin was thinking unconsciously of the Vietcong? I think not.) Some even suggest that the key weakness of Avatar was following the polemic nature of The Word for World Is Forest.
I’d like to think that David Campbell would have acknowledged inspiration from The Word for World Is Forest but his legal team advised against it.
Locus Magazine often the arbiter of science fiction and fantasy gives the best analysis of Avatar’s sources including The Word for World Is Forest and suggests as Campbell himself said that all energy is borrowed.
Avatar was an expensive film, at the time the official budget was USD $237 million, other estimates put production at $280 to $310 million and promotion at $150 million, but it was also the first film to gross more than $2 billion, so it was not unsuccessful. Campbell has signed with 20th Century Fox to produce three sequels. The first is scheduled for 2018.
Yet, Avatar also failed to deliver. It was the most expensive 3D movie ever made and was meant to usher in the 3D era. Around the same time Sanyo was banking on 3D TV to generate its profits for the future. Yet, the public has never really taken to 3D movies or TV and probably never will.
A human example of the Athshean dreamers
Ursula Le Guin also states in her 1976 Introduction that Dr Charles Tart asked her if she’d modelled the Asthsheans on the Senoi people of Malaysia, whose culture includes and is indeed substantially based on training in the use of the dream. Le Guin says she hadn’t heard of them, but is not surprised at the synchronicity.
The original article on the Senoi is truly amazing (below). It shows that we are capable as human beings of improving ourselves societally. With simple techniques, not only dream interpretation, if introduced in early childhood and continued throughout life, we could change our social, medical and psychological well-being. These ideas were well covered by Aldous Huxley drawing on the works of others in Island 1962, but we haven’t made much progress.
With current interest in the idea of lucid dreaming the Senoi are quite prominent on the Net. The synchronicity of the Athsheans and the Senoi is startling and worth further study.
Many people today remember the Vietnam War dimly if at all (or as the Vietnamese call it the American War). The Green Movement has flourished to some extent, but the term ‘Greenie’ in some of our societies is used as one of contempt or derision. Whilst the majority of us have become environmentalists at heart, we feel incapable of remedying the environmental destruction that is all around us.
The change towards derision for environmental radicals was captured perfectly by The Young Ones on BBC TV from 1982 to 1984, shown by his housemates’ contempt for the paranoid hippie Neil, who cares for the environment deeply.
Sometimes we like to think we are more mature and cynical than those naive people in the 60s and 70s who believed in the possibility of creating a better world. My take is that though many things have happened since the Vietnam War to learn from, including the repudiation of that war, our societies haven’t learned much. The Iraq war is the classic example of not learning. As is the rise of a class of people in our societies who think it is OK to kill any of us as soft targets because killing politicians, generals and captains of industry — hard targets — is simply too hard. These terrorists will inevitably fade away, without achieving anything.
Similarly, the rise of domestic violence and violence against women in general, in unbelievably brutal ways in so called advanced Western societies matches anything that Captain Davidson does in The Word for World Is Forest. In this sense The Word for World Is Forest is not dated and is as contemporary as the day it was written.
Wikipedia says: The novel contrasts good and evil very explicitly. I don’t think that this is a bad thing, nor do I think the didactic tone detracts at all from the story. Wikipedia says that the other Hainish books of Le Guin are more complex, but I think that this may detract from their message. Another very simple book Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (to be reviewed later in this series) is far more powerful than the complex novel Speaker for the Dead, envisaged beforehand, which follows it.
The Word for World Is Forest is a great novella. Sure it isn’t complex and it is somewhat diadactic, but it is fast paced and a great read at 120 pages. And it is as fresh now as the day it was published. Highly recommended.
Key words: Ursula Le Guin, The Word for World Is Forest, Harlan Ellison, Dangerous Visions, Again Dangerous Visions, Robyn Davies, Tracks, Orson Scott Card, Enders Game, Speaker for the Dead, Vietnam War, protest, Green Movement, Senoi people, Malaysia, The Young Ones TV Series, Avatar Movie, David Campbell, the nature of evil, evil, violence against women, Mai Lai Massacre, Abu Ghraib, Seymour Hersh
Wikipedia on Dangerous Visions
Ted Gioia A Look Back at Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions 1967, Review 2014
Wikipedia on Again Dangerous Visions
Coilhouse on both
Ursula Le Guin
Wikipedia on Ursula Le Guin
The Word For World is Forest
Wikipedia on The Word For World is Forest
Goodreads on The Word For World is Forest
Wikipedia on Avatar
IMDB on Avatar
Ursula Le Guin was referring to Charles Tart Altered States of Consciousness 1969, which contains a short article by Kilton Stewart Dream Theory in Malaya 1935.
With the wonders of the Internet a copy of this article is available online at Jonhassell.com with permission. It disappeared and came back! I’ve taken a copy and will post just in case.
PDF of Kilton Stewart Senoi Article
There are six novels in the Ender’s Game series