Wednesday, March 18, 2009

“The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula Le Guin

Title: “The Word for World is Forest”
Author: Ursula Le Guin
Series: Hainish Cycle
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 128 pages
Publisher: Panther

Since the Internet has denied me the opportunity to use a ready blurb, I shall revert to a nutshell plot compression. “New Tahiti” is a prospering gold mine of a logging colony for Earth, who during the industrialization has lost its natural forests and is in dire need of wood material. Enslaving the native Athsheans and forcing them into destroying their own fragile ecosystem and abusing them on a daily basis seems like a common practice among the morally loose human military force. This goes until Selver, an Athshean who lost his village to the colony, his wife to a rape and his ability to dream like all in his race, reverses the roles and liberates the colony.

General Thoughts: It’s always a pleasure to have an Ursula Le Guin title in one’s hands and even better when it is a novel from her Hainish Cycle. I decided to return to her since I had two more books lying around from the cycle and it was February, at the time when I decided that I had to participate in the Sci-fi Experience. Considering the length I knew that this title would be somewhat more concise and tightened, developing in a short span of time. My intuition didn’t lie to me and I read a very fast paced and yet tranquil story about revolt and colonization. If this makes any sense at all.

Revolution in life and in fiction is a flash fire of an event that only needs a spark, a last drop to make everything crumble and Ursula Le Guin delivers. I can’t vouch for anything special regarding the prose, since translations tend to lose some of that unique voice, but what shines through is Le Guin’s intriguing storytelling. What makes an impression with “The Word for World is Forest” is that the novel was written in a certain historical context relevant to the generation, which witnessed history in that segment and must carry a stronger meaning to those who can relate to the message. I myself only guessed some references to the real world and that was with the help of the foreword.

Characters & Depth: Thinking about the cast I see Le Guin toy with an interesting idea, which ties together Selver and Captain Davidson, both of whom are adversaries, in a strange bundle. More or less a certain sense of patriotism and duty to one’s nation and people is the basic behavior encoded in the novel. Le Guin portrays the patriot soldier, who is ready to sacrifice all that he has and is in doing what is best for his people.

In the case of Selver slavery and need of a symbol, which will return hope, pushes him through a metamorphosis and he becomes a god in his people’s eyes, a champion to lead the Athsheans into salvation. At the same time we read of the same idea, but twisted and tarnished into something vile and a incubator of all the human sins. Captain Davidson is pure evil, vulgar and primal, and the only villain, who had managed to irritate me and make me want to stab him myself rather than wait for justice to prevail. Atrocity in his eyes is what has to be done. Sacrificing for him means killing his own men, if it meets his purpose and proving himself right means a secret coup. Nevertheless both men are two polar sides of the very same idea. Interesting concept.

Worldbuilding & Believability: Athsheans are an ingenious product of Le Guin’s imagination, which are my favorite from all her creations so far, partially because of their affinity towards nature and then because of their interesting use of dreams in their life and culture. Le Guin presents a society, where spirituality and tradition have prevailed over the need to excel in science and the material. Divided in gender specific roles and matriarchal in nature of government Athsheans coexist in harmony and peace in their communities and the concept of violence, war and slavery do not exist, until humans arrive to colonize. Up until then this species is the picture of a utopia, where intelligent life sustains development and yet manages to continue unity with the environment. The desecration of this purity and the adaptation to the humans’ ways of handling conflict and life is just for me personally a clear message that nothing good lasts and the utopia will remain a farfetched dream.

The Verdict: To be quite honest although it was a well written piece of fiction and had some sizeable conflict and tension it didn’t turn out to be a page turner. I liked it and think it has a lot of sense and sends off a major message, plus the original novellas won a Hugo award, but me and “The Word for World is Forest” lacked the chemistry. Nevertheless I do suggest you read it. You won’t be wasting time reading it.

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