Cannonball Read IV: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Word for World is Forest was written by Ursula K. LeGuin in 1972. It roughly follows the same thread as Avatar, Pochahontas, Fern Gully, and countless other books and movies that tell the story of colonization with an environmentalist message, either through metaphor or more direct means. Normally these stories aren't my thing - I'm not convinced we need more fictionalized accounts of colonization. Don't we know this already? Colonization is an ongoing process that we participate in every day, but I'm not sure that the story of how colonization is initiated is really one that we need to hear over and over again.
I digress; I was in the science fiction section looking for the first of the Earth Sea Chronicles by Le Guin, one of my favourite authors, and found this instead. I picked it up because I figured that Le Guin might have some interesting additions to the genre, and that she may explore some more complex themes. She certainly did, and it took me quite some time to realize that when she wrote this, it may have been much more ground-breaking than it is now.
Le Guin paints the story of a planet in the process of being colonized by humans. And not the nice, enlightened humans from "Star Trek." In this version of our future, we're still sexist, racist and primarily occupied with our own economic gain over such benign concerns as quality of life or morality (have I mentioned that I prefer the "Star Trek" version of our future?). The humans are harvesting the forest, which covers the whole world, and using "volunteer labour" from the sentient life form on the planet, the Athsheans. When one of the human generals kills an Athshean woman by raping her, it sets off a violent sequence of events that changes the peaceful nature of the Athshean people.
The rape is really one of the primary things that sets this story apart from other similar narratives about colonization. This particular general is a horrible beast of a man and he clearly doesn't see the Athsheans as anything more than clever, violent animals who are in his way, but that doesn't stop him from viewing them as sexually compatible. It's a terrifying truth about power and race relations that this has been a common enough occurrence in our history (and as much as I hate to admit it, our present) that its absence from other similar narratives is notable, and I was glad that Le Guin saw fit to not gloss over this pattern.
I was a little bit surprised, however, that Le Guin didn't really include any female characters. Sure there was one Athshean female elder who played a tertiary role, at best, but this book certainly wouldn't pass the Bechdel test. However, I imagine that Le Guin wasn't really trying to get into gender in this particular book, and she may have clouded the plot by adding too many different concepts. It is also quite possible (and I won't know until Le Guin finally accepts my dinner invitation) that she, in the tradition of ecofeminist thought, sees colonization and environmental devastation as a patriarchal pattern of domination. While I generally agree with this viewpoint (not that men are the cause of these problems, but the patriarchal system of power is), I don't think that it really accounts for how women can play a role in upholding these same patterns. However, I don't think gender is what Le Guin is trying to really talk about here, which surprised me because my favourite novel by Le Guin is The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel primarily about gender.
While if you've seen Avatar, Pochahontas, Fern Gully etc., or read any of the number of books on this topic (the powerful and beautifully written Island Beneath the Sea pops to mind, though it's certainly a different plot altogether) this novella might not introduce any new concepts to you. However, it's a beautifully written early addition to this particular type of story. It's also a quick read, which means it is a great cannonball filler book.
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This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.
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