Berkley Books, 1976
Little by little I’m trying to read everything Ursula K. Le Guin has ever written. This was number three. It was very different from The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. It’s much shorter, and feels more like Le Guin is using the form for the purpose of exploring a hypothetical culture of her own creation than using the form to develop a full-fledged plot. Not that there isn’t plot, or character development, or a story to be invested in. It’s just that in The Word for World is Forest, Le Guin the anthropologist takes precedence over Le Guin the novelist. The culture she creates is fascinating in its own right, but just like in the aforementioned novels, it is especially so because of the ways it acts as a foil to our own. Le Guin has the remarkable skill all great science fiction writers have of making the reader re-evaluate their own culture by forcing them look at it in new ways. The central opposition between the Athsheans of the Planet Athshe, and the humans of Earth is the ability to murder.
“You gave me a gift, the gift of killing one’s kind, murder. Now, as well as I can, I give you my people’s gift, which is not killing. I think we each find each other’s gift heavy to carry.”
The phrasing of this quote is odd, and to understand it fully you have to read the book. The theme of whats being said, however, can be understood well enough without context. The concept of two cultures meeting; one which is accustomed to war, and one which has never developed the capacity to murder, is what I feel to be the premise of the story – the idea that Le Guin may have started with – and from that premise an entirely unique culture emerges.
One of my favorite things about the story is the varying degree of humanity that is seen in the different human characters and in the few other aliens that stop by to check up on the colony. You see the worst of humanity, the best of humanity, and an optimistic future where lives are valued over monetary gain. For as many horrifying things happen in the story, the message is ultimately optimistic. In this hypothetical future, the universe as a whole is getting better. The humans of Earth are struggling to do the right thing, but there are enough good people that things manage to move in the right direction despite those who so desperately try and move in the wrong direction. It reminds me of the way in which I feel our culture is slowly but surely changing now despite those who would try and prevent it.