The word for world is forest, by Ursula Le Guin

The word for world is forest Book Cover The word for world is forest
Ursula le Guin
Science fiction
Tor Books
first published March 1972

A novella - or short novel, I'm not sure - by Ursula Le Guin, in classic Le Guin style.  (If you notice it listed as part of what looks like a series, it's because the Hainish Cycle books take place in the same universe - but not in a way that makes a reading order very relevant.)

The planet Athshe is a peaceful paradise, covered in lush forests, inhabited by a gentle branch of humanity - because there are humans out there, in the universe, grown from the same genetic material as ourselves, but they haven't necessarily followed the same evolutionary path.   When the invaders - colonists - arrive, their call the Athsheans monkeys.  Animals. Rats.  It's easy, because the Athsheans are so harmless.  They don't seem to even understand when they're being tortured - or enslaved.

In order to defend themselves, the Athsheans have to change.  The change is forced upon them, and it's not a benign one.

I found it difficult to say much about this book, because the author paints villains with little nuance - it was exhausting to read the constant barrage of the bad guy character's thoughts and actions.  That exhaustion wasn't relieved or made worthwhile by the story unfolding around the main characters.  I understand what Le Guin is going for, and she does it excellently, I just don't particularly enjoy it.   I like my social science fiction with a little more nuance.  A little more subtlety, actually.   It's uncomfortable to be stabbed in the eye with whatever points are being made, and I don't have much patience for it.

Who should read this book? People looking for a quick example of how science fiction handles "real issues" and not just rockets and lasers. (They would have a wide range of titles by the same author to pick from, though!)   Possibly school kids - I'm pretty sure I could have been a huge fan of this if I'd read it when I was in that special "starting to discover people are stupid and mean and racism and sexism are real things help what's going on and where do I point my anger"-phase.   Thing is, though I still have all the same buttons, it takes a different kind of story to press them,  now.   The word for world is forest is not going into my memory as anyone's required reading.  (If I wanted to talk about some of the same themes, I might instead mention C.J. Cherryh's Downbelow Station.)

One comment on “The word for world is forest, by Ursula Le Guin

  1. I have not read this, but I tend to agree with you. I LOVE science fiction that delves into real issues and tries to explore them, but I also prefer subtlety. I think it has something to do with being an English major in some ways, and a slow methodical reader in others. I like to puzzle out the message. I like the story to flow as a story first and a soap box second, even if I agree with the author’s point. I also like the gray area between with villains. A bad guy who is strictly bad seems unrealistic. Even Lex Luthor thinks he is doing the right thing, despite the way he goes about doing it. Perhaps I am just drawn to lawful evil rather than chaotic evil or true evil. Thanks for the post.

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