The Word For World Is Forest, by Ursula Le Guin

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Jan 22, 2008
Humans have landed on the planet of Athshe, enslaved its small, furry inhabitants and started to chop down its forests. One of the Athshe, Selver, leads a rebellion, with brutal and tragic consequences.

In a foreword to her 1973 novel The Word For World Is Forest (TWFWIF), Ursula Le Guin warns the reader that this is an angry, partisan book, and she’s right. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really help it. The villain, Don Davidson, is such a raging alien-hater that even the Mobile Infantry from Starship Troopers would probably kick him out: not least because, before the story starts, he rapes Selver’s wife – who resembles an Ewok – to death. He’s also racist to the other humans, goes renegade and beats one of his assistants unconscious. He is a bad man.

In fact, a comparison with Starship Troopers is quite interesting: both books are about as subtle, and both dwell (depending on your views) on the contrast between “warriors” and "intellectuals”. But TWFWIF feels less dishonest and more realistic, even if its human characters are basically cartoons. After all, work such as the enslaving of the Athshe would attract depraved people like Davidson, who would go berserk when they had the opportunity.

On the subject of cartoons, it’s worth pointing out that TWFWIF is quite similar to the film Avatar, except with small fluffy Ewok-people instead of giant blue elves. However, TWFWIF is subtler, and ends not with victory but with the sense that, even if the Athshe are safe now, evil has now entered their little Eden. There’s also an interesting discussion of dreams among the Athshe: they seem to see dreaming and reality as the same thing, and regard humans as insane for not doing so.

Unlike Avatar, TWFWIF is short, and much of the action is off-screen. A less-assured writer would have begun the book with the humans arriving: instead it begins just before the rebellion starts. I was slightly surprised by the lack of female characters, which from a writer like Le Guin felt like a strange omission. I wondered if a point about male aggression was being made here, but I don’t think it is (there’s a minor plot point about the lack of women in the colony).

Overall, The Word For World Is Forest tells an important story, but treads ground that has been made familiar by later stories. It’s powerful and effective, but perhaps a little too short and too caricatured for its own good.
While I think about it, does anyone remember a book by Anne McCaffrey called Dinosaur Planet? I vaguely recall that it had two types of human from low and high-gravity worlds, who were used for "brains" and "muscle" respectively. They were vegetarians, and the high-gravity people started eating meat and went on the rampage as a result. I must be half-remembering it, but it seems to be another of the "allegedly civilised colonist gets the chance to run amok and goes absolutely nuts" subgenre - although beating up the natives on a planet full of dinosaurs is unlikely to get you very far.
I remember Dinosaur Planet and its sequel. It was a long time ago, and I don't remember much about the plot -- just that it was a long wait for the sequel (the ending of the first book being a bit of a cliffhanger) and then when the second book was finally published, the ending of that was disappointing. A bit too neat and easy. But the parts you mention vaguely ring a bell.
they seem to see dreaming and reality as the same thing, and regard humans as insane for not doing so.
I remember reading something about a tribe on a pacific island (I think), who believed something like this.
Their doctor/medicine man/whatever would hear someone speak of their experiences and ask "Was it in the awake time or in the dream time?"
Dreaming experiences had almost more significance than woken ones.

I can't remember where I read this. It was when I was a sboolboy, so it was possibly in one of the Von Daniken books, which became all the rage soon after I first read most of Le Guin's books. So it may just be rubbish.

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