(1972 / 2014) Ursula K. Le Guin, Gollancz, £8.99, pbk, 128pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20578-9
The Word for World is Forest was first published in 1972. This edition includes introductions by Ken MacLeod (2014) and the author (1976).
In the distant past the Hainish visited and settled on many worlds thus leading to several variants of 'human' life forms of which Homo Sapiens is but one. At the time of this story, we too (of planet Earth) have ventured out into the stars and are colonising other planets. One of these is Athshe, a world mostly covered in water but with a number of islands, each of which is covered with forest and peopled by another variety of Hainish descendents. The Athsheans are small, furry, and live a simple life; they have only the simplest of tools, and, through their ability to enter a controlled dream state, lead a gentle life fully integrated into their world. They are extremely peaceful, rarely engage in violence, and the thought of killing another is almost beyond their comprehension. Their word for forest is also their word for world; to them they are the same thing.
When the Terrans arrive they see a world ready for exploitation; the trees are to be felled and shipped back home (wood is extremely valuable on a home world which no longer has any) and the cleared land is to be planted for crops. Almost needlessly to say, the first island (expressively named Dump Island) to be thus cleared was an ecological disaster and is now barren, the soil having been quickly eroded away. Many of the Terrans see the Athsheans as inferior and a nuisance, fit for nothing except slave labour, and not very good at that either, whilst the Athsheans cannot understand why anyone would want to harm the forest or destroy their world. Although their temperament is to be peaceful and not resist the Terrans, the treatment the Athsheans receive eventually forces them to respond and that in itself changes them; it seems to them that the only thing the Terrans understand is killing - and that will mean them having to learn how to do so.
The first chapter illustrates the Terran perspective by introducing us to Captain Don Davidson, a man who believes in his own superiority and that of his fellow Terrans. To him the Athsheans are useless and he would happily kill the lot of them and get on with exploiting the planet. He has no qualms about this; to him this is the natural order. He is undoubtedly the worst example but many of the Terrans have little or no regard for either the local people or the forest; they are more than happy to ignore the rules, enslave or kill the natives, and get on with exploiting the place. It comes as a surprise to them all, though, when the Athsheans on Smith Island rise up, kill the Terrans in Smith Camp, and destroy their buildings and equipment.
In the second chapter we are introduced to the Athshean perspective and learn something of their ways. Selver, a particular victim of Captain Davidson, was a Dreamer until his capture (or his joining the Voluntary Autochthonous Labour Corps as the Terrans put it). On seeing his wife raped and killed by the man, he leads the revolt on Smith Camp. Afterwards he journeys to other islands to tell the people what has happened and of the threat posed by the Terrans. As we learn more about the Athsheans it becomes obvious that these are an innocent people who in all probability will soon be wiped out by the uncaring, exploitative Terrans.
The situation becomes more complicated as the Shackleton, a supply ship, happens to be in orbit during the revolt. It sends down a party to investigate, a party which includes the non-Terrans Mr. Orr (a Hairy Cetian) and Mr. Lepennon (a Hainishman), both of whom are clearly very important people. Until now, as the space ships do not have FTL drives, colonies on planets such as Athshe are effectively self-governing, acting under the orders and regulations they were first given; Earth is 27 light years away and any updates to orders will take a very long time to arrive. However, the Shackleton is carrying an ansible, a device which allows instantaneous communication across any distance. The Terrans of Athshe now find themselves under the direct and current orders of the Terran government and their status on the planet and their expectations of their mission have suddenly changed.
Dr. Raj Lyubov, an anthropologist who has been studying the Athsheans and, in particular, befriended Selver, speaks on their behalf. Whilst the majority of the Terrans would like to gloss over the atrocities they have committed, Dr. Lyubov reports his findings to the investigation and ensures that the off-worlders and the Terran government are aware of what is really going on and of the nature of the Athsheans.
It would be nice if everything was resolved there and then but, of course, it is not. The troubles between the Terrans and the Athsheans continue until more violence brings about a final ending. Once they have learned to kill, the Athsheans are not quite the peace-loving people that they had been.
This was written only a little after America's war in Indo-China and it is easy to see the inspiration for the story. As we know now, many of America’s troops regarded the locals as second rate if that, and many broke the rules of engagement and forgot the reasons why they were there. Many members of the Vietcong have since explained that it was the atrocity of certain American activities in their country that drove them to war; there is nothing like a bombing attack which destroys your village and kills your family and friends to encourage you to fight back against an enemy you had not realised you had.
The story takes a touch under 120 pages to tell and it tells it well. It is in no way rushed nor does it skimp on details or explanation. It is simply well written, the scenes convey the story efficiently, and the story teller gets on with telling the story rather than padding out the page count. True, it cannot be read quickly - all the words matter! This is the sort of writing that got me into science fiction: a good and interesting story well and concisely told (current writers please take note!).
Ursula K. Le Guin is a Hugo winner and reading this it is easy to see why. Although short as novels go, it has a good story, is well conceived and executed, and is an excellent read. It has certainly earned its place in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series!
It reminds me that it is time I (re)read some more Le Guin!
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