I have already established elsewhere (well, HERE) that Ursula K. Le Guin is god, for a variety of reasons. Now, since she is not the Christian god or any of that shit she is not by definition infallible. Which is on the one hand a good thing, cause how could you argue against an author and one of her works if she’d be an infallible god? On the other hand it’s not such a good thing, because it means that UKLG’s works can also sometimes be less than stellarly awesome (gasp! I know…). And as of right now, I’d like to discuss one of those less than stellarly awesome works of hers: The Word for World is Forest.
So, long before that obscure Avatar rip-off Le Guin came up with the idea of a very forest-y planet herself, one that is inhabited by a humanoid species totally in tune with their environment and exploited by a humanoid species originating from our beloved planet Earth (sometimes also written Erth, at least in random Futurama episodes, but I digress (of course)). Those exploiting dudes are of course mainly the military types who do not favor communicating with the autochthonous population. respecting their wishes and livelihood. So yes, in principle, The Word for World is Forest presents the premise of the Avatar story, only that instead of some metal they need timber for Earth (cause there is none left) and the humanoids aren’t big blue cats, but little green-furred people who are absolutely non-violent. And there is no ridiculously unbelievable love-story. Ermh, well, not that kind, at least.
So, to get the shiz right out of the way, I should clarify why I think that this novella (novel, novelette, you choose it…though this story set in her Hainish universe won the HUGO Award for best novella in 1974) is sub-par compared to Le Guin’s other works. The primary reason being: it’s heavy-handed. It is well written, beautiful prose, there are interesting ideas, it is a fairly complex set-up, but it is nevertheless heavy-handed. And what makes Le Guin so awesome to read usually is her general un-heavy-handed-ness. So, there.
Every moral tale could of course be accused of heavy-handed-ness. But if your main antagonist (Davidson in this case) is so clearly a dumb-ass villain who does not listen to others and therefore wreaks havoc upon everyone’s heads and asses and ultimately upon himself, the moral tale becomes a little stale. The military dudes are asses, those who work with them might not be, but are corrupted by the structures, and the autochthonous population living in harmony with their environment (comprised mainly of forest, which is why their word for their world is the same as the word for forest) is totally super-awesome. That doesn’t read like complex characterisations and innovative storytelling precisely because it isn’t. And even though I wasn’t born in 1972 when the thing was published my guess is that even then a plot-progression of that kind felt like old news (despite then being a very current comment on the war in Vietnam). Oh, Ursula.
Well, mostly “Oh, Ursula” because Le Guin is such a terrific writer. And since she is, she can’t help but bring glimpses of awesome even in moments of mediocrity.
The biggest piece of awesome in this novel is of course the Athsheanean society. Not only because they look distinctly different from humanoids such as us since they are smaller and have green fur all over, but also because Le Guin, with a few well placed strokes, creates the impression of a fully formed society with very distinct patterns of human interaction. Not only are they non-violent in the sense of they don’t kill each other, but they have established a social system that channels anger, envy, and the like into singing contests and permits a maximum of physical interaction that is not sexually charged and thus not avoided but embraced as a means of communication. Furthermore Le Guin tries to establish interesting ideas on gender roles without hammering home a female utopia void of realistic inequalities and imbalances. She writes about a political system that is highly decentralized and offers most of the organizational power within the social structures to the women in society. However, Athshean men still have their Men’s Lodges, and since it’s them who claim to be the great philosophers (and Dreamers) of Athsheanean society, androcentric structures that favour male dominance are still discernible, even if decidedly less pronounced than in our society, but therefore still relatable to readers of our day and age who encounter androcentric structures and sexist practices on a daily basis.
Then there is another thing I think is awesome about The Word for World is Forest, even though this is precisely why I am conflicted about it. Captain Davidson and his portrayal are on the one hand extremely stereotypical and his single-mindedness and unwillingness to question himself are a tad too convenient for getting across The Message. On the other it is an interesting instance of an author trying to create a character and his mindset in a way that helps us (who do not think like that) to understand or at least get and idea of why he does the things he does.
And she draws the character well. The more time we spend in his head, the more we realise how little his own inconsistencies and incongruence can become apparent to himself, since he subscribed to such an extreme method of compartmentalization, that basically everything relates back to him accepting things because he thinks of them as god-given (or rather genetetically pre-set) and therefore unchangeable. That he changes his own rules set up for others all the time cannot bother him, because he cannot see it. Athsheans are horrible because they do not adhere to Terra human rules, and Terra human rules are awesome because they are so functional, but he has to break Terra human rules in order to work for the greater good, otherwise Athsheans would break Terra human rules… etc. It’s a fascinating read to follow the circular (non-) logic of Captain Davidson and a successful undertaking in my opinion, however, I’m just not sure that that’s the way it is. As with the general plot heavy-handed-ness, this characterisation works well in terms of making it easier for me as a liberal (in the socio-political sense) reader to get an idea of why he does what he does and it resonates with stuff I’ve read and heard about extremists and terrorists and dictators and other shitheads in how they structure their worldview and justify what they do by applying standards they deny others. But exactly because it reads so well and seems a reasonable enough explanation it feels a little false, because if another liberal writes a character like that and liberal me reads it and finds it plausible, the real conservative wacko-mindset is totally out of the picture and only an imagined feature that bends to “our” liberal will. It’s kinda like saying “all homophobes are just closeted homosexuals” which seems to makes sense and sounds reassuring but which ultimately isn’t true (I think) and just picks out the general idea of homophobes having issues with sexuality (either other people’s and/or their own) and exaggerates that point. It makes for a neat little explanation from an outside point of view, but it nevertheless is just that, it never really amounts to the inside point of view.
But there is the dilemma: I probably wouldn’t read and love Le Guin if she was some conservative dumbfuck (and if you are a conservative reading this, please reconsider your political stance before asking me to reconsider my statement) and actually thought like that. It might still just be the same. But because she is exactly not that I recognize that she sets out to make sense of the actions of people whose actions actually don’t make much sense. I applaud that, but at the same time it creates this disbelief-gap for me, cause I know she doesn’t think like that, and reading the thought of such a character knowing she doesn’t think like that makes me question the overall plausibility of that characterisation. And all of that is of course true for basically ever yother character in every other novel, however, since we are struggling with the issue of heavy-handed-ness of this highly moralistic tale this conservative-wacko-inside-view feels forced and cheap (and too convenient), despite its efforts and even despite is actual probability.
In conclusion I can just repeat that this is definitely not Ursula K. Le Guin’s strongest work. However, it is Le Guin, so it is still strong work compared to basically everything else. Ergo: Go read it!