Review: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

If we do not learn the lessons we ought to have from the era of colonialism, we risk repeating those follies all over again when we take to the stars.

The planet Athshe is a veritable paradise. Small continents and a multitude of island chains dot an oceanic globe. The natives are short and green-furred; they live in relative peace, at least until “yumens” arrive in spaceships and begin setting up military bases and founding cities on their planet.

The narrative pits an xenologist who slowly begins to empathize with the Athsheans against a military commander bent on dominating everything he can see. The Athsheans, seeing no good way out of their predicament, slide out of their harmonious existence, and come to grasp a mindset of “othering,” whereby they decide that the humans, not demonstrating any basic moral or ethical code toward them, deserve exactly the same in return.

The Athshean culture is particular well realized, and Le Guin does an excellent job of bringing us inside the hearts and minds of individuals in that culture, an element of come to expect from Le Guin's writing. As is also typical for Le Guin, the economy of words is upheld at every turn, and each sentence and paragraph is loaded with meaning. I am certain I will come back to Forest in a few years and discover as much new meaning as any other Le Guin novel I've tried this with.

Although the themes remain timely and apt (Forest was written during the Vietnam War, but it could also describe the Iraq War or any number of ongoing US military activities), the text does not maintain the dialectical rigor I've come to expect from Le Guin. Davidson, the military commander, has far less humanity than I expect any military officer in the real world to possess. He is much closer to a stereotype than a fully realized character. And the Athsheans being endowed with built-in empathy as a result of a telepathic link with other members of their species feels a bit too convenient.

All in all, The Word for World is Forest is a compelling novel with an important theme at its core, a warning that can be extrapolated to any individual or group who finds themselves in a position of power over others.