Review: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

WordWorldForest CoverUrsula K. Le Guin is, of course, an absolute legend within science fiction, and I have yet to find a book of hers that wasn’t at least great. That includes The Word for World is Forest (WWF), which tells the story of Terran’s attempt to run a lumber colony on the world of the Athsheans. This novella, first published in 1976 during the Vietnam War, forms a part of Le Guin’s Hainish novels.

Le Guin’s success in her art rests primarily on her mastery over three areas: world-building, writing, and ideological/thematic exploration. I will thus investigate each of those elements as they relate to WWF.

Le Guin is a master of world-building—both in general, as well as in this novella specifically. The Athsheans are wonderfully conceived—they are different enough from humans to seem absolutely wondrous, yet the details (both big and small) that Le Guin provide about them are so wide-ranging and so internally consistent that the Athsheans feel absolutely real. After reading this book, it feels more likely that the Athsheans exist somewhere out there than that they do not.

Beyond this, Le Guin’s world-building outside of the Athsheans (ie, the elements common to all of her Hainish works) is equally masterful. I am particularly impressed by the way in which Le Guin writes about light-speed travel. It seems to me that most science fiction writers take the easy way out and invent a method of faster than light-speed travel in their books, avoiding all the implications that a cosmic speed-limit would impose. Not Le Guin. Le Guin faces those implications head on, investigating them more fully than any other writer I’ve yet read, and the worlds and inter-world relationships she creates from those implications are a masterful feat of the imagination.

In general, Le Guin writes beautifully. For me, Le Guin’s writing is good enough that I would enjoy reading her books regardless of the quality of all other elements that make up her book. WWF is not an exception to this, but neither is it among Le Guin’s best works in this regard. This should not deter you, however, as the standard that Le Guin has set is high enough that even WWF, which is not her bets work but is still a pleasure to read from beginning to end, is far and away above the average science fiction writer.

I will split my discussion of Le Guin’s ideological exploration in WWF into two parts: the spoiler-free part, and the spoiler-y part (which will come after my concluding paragraph). First, the spoiler-free part. Le Guin does a good job of exploring a wide range of themes within WWF, and Le Guin is particularly good at tying all of those themes together into a coherent discussion that runs throughout WWF. Where Le Guin falters from her usual standard is that, I feel, the construction of her book runs against one of the arguments that she would like to make through her narrative. This makes the argument somewhat less potent than what she usually achieves.

In conclusion, WWF is not Le Guin at her absolute best. But make no mistake, WWF still is a great book, and one that I would heartily recommend.

Now, for the spoiler-y section.

For the most part, I merely want to explain my point that the construction of WWF runs against the argument that WWF wants to put forth. One of the main arguments in WWF is for mutual understanding between the Athsheans and the Terrans. The novella makes it clear that violence results from a failure to do this—every antagonist in the story justifies their violence through a false understanding of the Athsheans, and the most likeable character (Lyubov) argues for attempts to understand the Athsheans.

WWF itself fails to do this, however. WWF can be read as a critique of the Vietnam War, with the character of Davidson standing in for the military higher-ups within that war. Le Guin says as much herself in her preface to later editions of the novella. Le Guin also discusses Davidson’s characterisation—that he is represented as being pure evil. I think this is an accurate description of Davidson, who is perhaps the most one-dimensional character that Le Guin has ever created. This characterisation is the reason that WWF works against the argument it wants to put forth: in a novella that argues for understanding others, the character of Davidson represents a failure to understand the proponents of the Vietnam War.

This, of course, does not doom the book in any way. As previously mentioned, this aspect of the book is just one thematic exploration among many. That this one strand is lacking potency does not mean that I would not recommend this book to others.

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