The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K. Leguin

The Word for the World is Forest was originally (1972) published in Again, Dangerous Visions. Le Guin developed it into a 1976 novel of the same name, but the copy I read has only a 1972 copyright, so I guess it must be a reprint of the novella version.

The story revolves around the colony world of Athshe, where Earth humans (one of several human races in Le Guin’s Ekumen) are exploiting the native human people and forest resources; disguising their avarice and brutality behind a facade of standard procedures and official protocols.

Roughly every third chapter is told from the point of view of Davidson, one of the most brutal of the human colonists. He refuses to recognize the natives as human, and wishes his commanders would simply recognize what he sees as “reality” and give him a free hand to use whatever means or methods can most efficiently harvest the timber the colony is meant to return to Earth. These chapters read today as somewhat heavy-handed in their depiction of the military-industrial mindset. But to me they had more interest as what looks a lot like a direct attack on the practical hyper-competent hero of golden age SF.

From the title, I had expected the book to dwell more on ecological issues. But, while ecological destruction by the colonists is a major issue, its just one of several conflicts going on in the story. I had also expected a more downbeat ending, probably with ecological impacts spiraling out of control, something the colonists ought to have expected if they had only reflected on the quirks of the native language. Thankfully, instead of pushing through with the plotline implied in the title, the story took a direction and came to a conclusion I hadn’t anticipated.

Another point of interest here is that the story does something that is surprisingly rare in SF, and shows a culture in the midst of a major technological upheaval. A major plot element is the introduction of the ansible, a means of instant communication across interstellar distances, eliminating the light speed barrier to communication. Rather than take the new technology as established, Le Guin shows it being introduced for the first time to the colony world, where some colonists disbelieve it, others pretend they can ignore it, and some fall right into line with the instructions coming to them from Earth over the ansible link. Unfortunately the introduction of the ansible points out what is possibly the the one critically unbelievable aspect of the whole story: the idea of a colony seperated from its homeworld by a 27 year lightspeed gulf continuing to follow any orders at all from back home.

Even with these few faults, its clear why the story was so well received in the early 70’s, and the story can still be read as an important comment on its time (and on the SF of the time), even if it doesn’t have the ageless quality that would maintain its relevance today.

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