The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K Leguin
Posted December 3, 2010on:
I originally reviewed this book here for SFRevu.
The Ashtheans have never known hatred, they have never known murder, they have never known distrust. The Earthlings bring them all these things, and such gifts can never be taken back.
On the edges of human colonized space, lies the planet Ashthe, or as the humans call it, New Tahiti. Soldiers, most ill equipped to be ambassadors to another race, are put in charge on a local level, told they have so many years until the colonists arrive, and told to make the island ready for human habitation. Far away from their central government, the soldiers can pretty much do whatever they want with no repercussions. And they do.
When the Ashtheans fight back with violence, the invaders are flabbergasted. They’ve brought civilization to these pathetic creatures, these creechies, how dare they fight back? What’s their problem? The problem is that the Earthlings refuse to believe this diminutive, undomesticated race could possibly be their equals in sentience or intelligence.
The novella is split between the viewpoints of Selver, the acting Ashthean emissary, and some humans including Captian Davidson and Captain Lyubov. Davidson would be a lovable idiot if he wasn’t such a mentally unbalanced and ignorant fool. Back home, he’ll probably be seen as a hero, macho, a real man’s man. Lyubov is the calm and collected anthropologist who studies the Ashtheans, even going as far as learning their language. Selver had at one time been Lyubov’s servant (more like slave, since they are not paid, and can not leave), and the two became close, learning from each other as they could. Suffice to say, Davidson and Lyubov do not get along.
Selver spends much of his time traveling from village to village, meeting with the elders, trying to decide as a people exactly what should be done, and how. Should they try to avoid the humans? try to get rid of them? How will their culture be irrevocably changed if they turn to violence? The Ashtheans are a peace loving race. Conflicts are resolved via meditation and group singings.
Their word for planet, for earth and and ground, is forest. In their language, the words for translator, changer, and god are also all the same – a god is someone who brings change, who brings something new to the culture. Selver tries to teach his new human friends about his culture, and in exchange they teach him what a gun is for. With that knowledge, Selver becomes a god among his people.
Is The Word For World is Forest a political novella? It can certainly be seen that way, but it doesn’t have to be. LeGuin could have made the invaders any fictional race, but she specifically made them human, and militaristic. Winner of the Hugo award in 1973, LeGuin has admitted the Vietnam War, which she was staunchly against, was a major inspiration for this work. But she easily could be talking about any war, any enslaved race, any oppressor, any conquistador, or for that matter any beautiful planet with floating islands and populated by tall and tailed blue folk. Cameron really should have given her some credit.
Who should take the time to read The Word for World is Forest? Well, besides everyone, anyone who enjoys social science fiction, anyone with an interest in anthropology, and anyone who knows that not only is there always two sides to every conflict, but that the history books are always written by the winners.