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The Word For World Is Forest

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Originally appearing in the 1972 anthology Again, Dangerous Visions (edited by Harlan Ellison), this approximately 32,000 word novella won a Hugo in '73, and was also nominated for Nebula and Locus awards. As far as I know, even when it has been released in book form on its own it has not been revised or expanded, although some have an added introduction by the author. The currently available paperback is 189 pages with large print and margins, and does not include that intro. I'm sure this was only the second time I've read it, so it has been around 43 years, give or take, depending on when I first bought that anthology. A few recent searches seem to indicate many people thought Avatar ripped off the story, although at the time of its release most references were to films like Dances With Wolves or historical events such as Pocahantas. Le Guin says her point of reference was the United States' involvement in Vietnam.

I don't have as high an opinion of this story as some, certainly not as high as for most everything else by Le Guin I have read. There are at least two other novellas from that year I think were more worthy of a Hugo, and the Nebula winner was better too. It wasn't really appropriate for its original venue either, since it is neither daring, audacious, or disturbing, as Ellison had intended his anthologies to be. It is cliched and heavy-handed instead, the worst part being the blatantly stereotypical characters, most especially Colonel Davidson. He embodies the worst traits of human psychology, arrogance and bigotry at the forefront, while at the same time thinking he is always in the right and anyone who disagrees with him is either weak or insane. This is another of the Hainish Cycle, although it concerns an expedition from Earth to the planet Athshe, which the Hainish call "World 41" and Earth renames New Tahiti. It is predominantly a forested world, and that is what interests Earth. Granted, at this point Earth had a devastated eco-system, but to go to such lengths just for wood? No other resources are mentioned, so it seems suspect that so much money and effort is expended simply for lumber.

The only redeeming parts are when the focus is exclusively on the native inhabitants of Athshe, or when they interact with Raj Lyubov, the human expedition's psychologist, who had established a mutually beneficial relationship with the native Selver. But Le Guin spends more time on Davidson's demented agenda than the Athshean culture. This takes place about seventy years after events in The Dispossessed. The ansible had been in use for a while, but it had not been perfected at the time of the first landing on Athshe, so the Earthers were still acting on orders from when the expedition was first launched. When a ship from Hain arrives and realizes the perilous situation, they present the colony with an ansible intended for another world, since Earth has just joined their new League of All Worlds. Davidson is convinced the ansible is fake, since orders received through the device tells them to cease the subjugation of the native species and limit the deforestation to small areas. He intends for his own ideas to take precedence.

It is perhaps best to follow Le Guin's suggestion, and consider all of these works as separate, non-connected stories, or else ignore any inconsistencies. Hain has told everyone else that all sentient species they have encountered were descended from previous Hainish colonization, and yet all the various forms of "humans" are quite physically diverse. Is it a matter of evolution under different conditions, or did Hain conduct genetic experiments on each world? The inhabitants of Athshe are small, about three feet on average, with soft, green fur, yet the Hainish consider them just as human as Earthers or Cetians (from Urras/Anarres in The Dispossessed.) Another fault of the story is the fate of Athshe is unresolved. Did the native species return to its peaceful, bucolic ways, or were they forever changed by contact with Earth? As far as I know, Le Guin never revisited this world in another story, but I wish she had, or else had expanded this story to novel length to answer that question.

Related Links:
The author's Official Website
ISFDb and Wikipedia on the Hainish series


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Ursula K. Le Guin



Nebula & Locus

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