Dossier: Le Guin, Ursula K. The Word for World is Forest [Again Dangerous Visions, 1972; Berkley / Putnam, 1976]
Executive Summary: The Word for World is Forest’s story revolves around the revolt of the native population of an Earth colony, New Tahiti. New Tahiti is even more of a water world than Earth, landmasses on the world is restricted to islands and a sub continental sized landmass. The title of the novella reflects the fact that all of these islands, save the island that men have deforested and destroyed, have a forest ecology. In the Hainish verse of Le Guin, humans are not native even to Earth, and their progenitors, the Hain, seeded many worlds, including New Tahiti, with what we would call Terran like plants and animals, although evolution over the last couple of million years since that seeding has had its way on individual worlds. Thus, there are plants and animals which are close and familiar to human norms and then there are beings like the native Athsheans, who are hominids like humans, but are short, only a meter tall, and are green furred.
Since Earth is an ecological wasteland, the primary function of the New Tahiti colony is as a logging colony to ship valuable wood back to Earth. Humans from Earth are rapidly destroying the native forest in their logging efforts, and not so incidentally, the health of the entire ecosphere. The future of the natives, even as slaves to the humans, is in serious doubt. The Athsheans are not technologically advanced, having only reached the iron age, and so they were easily cowed by firearms and high technology. They are used as indentured servants but are regarded as being lazy even in that.
The Athsheans, however, finally revolt successfully against their colonial masters in an extremely bloody uprising that kills many of the humans, including all of the women. They then defang the humans of most of their superior weaponry and restrict them to a small area until the next interstellar ship can arrive and remove the survivors.
For Davidson, we get a full thrusted 1950’s style of male protagonist striding across the page, with all the casual violence and misogyny that SF protagonists of that age are known for. He treats women dismissively, casually inflicts violence and suffering on the natives, has abhorrent views on men not as infected with toxic masculinity as himself, and a complete lack of sense of self awareness about any of this. Le Guin takes what would be the heroic led in many of the books she grew up with and shows the very questionable underpinnings of the psychology and nature of such a hero.
For Lyubov, the scientist, we see a more nuanced view of women and their potential role in the colony, in society. He is shown in his own chapters as a typical man of the colony, even if Davidson mentally derides him in his mind as “effeminate”, further showing the slant and bias of Davidson’s point of view. Like any of the male colonists, he is very happy that there has been a new colony ship full of women, enjoys their company sexually but laments they are not entirely mature and forthright. He is the only human to really start to understand the Athshean pattern of governance and wishes, too late, that the colony ships had brought “a couple of grannies along” to better understand Athshean society.
Finally, there is our Athshean protagonist, Selver. It is from his semi-omniscient point of view that we get the major worldbuilding of the novel as regards to how the Athesheans see themselves, and how their societies actually work. Davidson and even Lyubov, for his sympathies for the native inhabitants, simply doesn’t see or know about. We find that the Athsheans, at least as far as the “Forty Lands”, it is women who run the cities and towns, men who go on trading and exploring journeys, Men have power and authority within the Men’s Lodges, but in the end, Selver is only listened to by women like Ebor Dendep because of his ability to dream, because he is taken to be a god.
The ultimate fact of the inciting of the events of the novella, as revealed in the text, shows what Le Guin is doing here. The Athsheans are enslaved. Their forests are being cut down. They are physically abused by the Humans. There are intimations by Davidson and some of his like minded Humans that the Athsheans should simply be wiped out entirely,.It is ultimately, none of that that is the inciting incident that causes the Athsheans to rise up against the humans and reclaim their world. It is the fact that Selver’s wife was sexually assaulted by Davidson, and subsequently died, that caused Selver to start his result, that made his revolt happen. In the end, it is violence against women that was the bridge too far.
This further shows that among other things, the novella is criticizing those earlier works that a character like Davidson would have been the hero in. Instead of a world where men are men and women be submissive to them, and reinforcing that toxic cultural norm, in the novella, Le Guin shows us that sort of world--and then shows us just how those sorts of assumptions look from the outside, from a society that does things very differently.
Hope for the Future: The Word for World is Forest is ultimately a feminist critique of older styles of science fiction. It provides a way to show a science fictional future that ultimately breaks away from the harmful stereotypes and limited values of those earlier novels, and so doing proves the hope and idea that when Humanity heads to the stars, it will be with the chance of becoming better than we were.
Legacy: The novella's polemic, strong, unyielding tone meant that it had an immediate impact on readers, especially since it was in the high profile Again, Dangerous Visions anthology edited by Harlan Ellison. It deservedly was nominated for and won a Hugo award. It's anti-colonial and ecological themes were likely the greater focus of readers at the time, given the Vietnam War, and the realization and maturation of the work into recognition for its gender and feminist ideals is something that has become a function of seeing it placed within the Hain-verse.
In Retrospect: Is the novella as great or as groundbreaking as The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed? Perhaps not. Is it an important landmark of the Hainish cycle of stories and novels, a part of her exploration of gender, feminism and sexuality? Absolutely. In the midst of its more explored and obvious themes, Le Guin, even in the straitjacket of what is arguably a very polemic text about ecological devastation and destruction, finds room to also explore feminist themes and ideas that are a running theme of her work in general.
For its time: 4/5
Read today: 4/5.
Wollstonecraft Meter: 8/10