"A forest ecology is a delicate one. If the forest perishes, its fauna may go with it. The Athshean word for world is also the word for forest." - Raj Lyubov
Reading a science fiction novel is an experience not duplicated while reading from any other genre. It's not often the prettiest writing, it's not a house of poetic metaphor; one simply doesn't read science fiction for the words alone - one reads science fiction for the ideas; the ideas that make you stop, and start dreaming of the implications all your own.
Right from page one you can tell than The Word for World is Forest is science fiction because you're forced to pull a double take. The scene opens with a burly man starting his day expecting a delivery from light years away. Not a quick trip to the corner store, not a child's interpretation of the drive to grandma's house, not the college cross-country roadtrip... but light years. It makes you wonder.
The Word for World is Forest was written by Ursula K. Le Guin in 1972, winning the Hugo Award for a novella in 1973. It's a story of another world, in another when, with simple characters acting out extraordinary moments in their lives.
"Terran man was clay, red dust. Athshean man was branch and root. They did not carve figures of themselves in stone, only in wood."
There is a classic structure to Le Guin's eight chapter work. The hero of the work is a native of the land. His name is Selver, of the Ash. He is Athshean. The villain is the immediately introduced Captain Don Davidson, a Terran man who believes himself to be the most capable soldier on New Tahiti. There is a third critical character - Captain Raj Lyubov. Lyubov is a Terran, but he is a scientist on World 41 to make sure the operation goes smoothly, and to learn about the native inhabitants. Lyubov is most accurately described as the antihero of the story, as he acts often out of self interest instead of the good of the group.
All action throughout the story takes place on a planet referred to as New Tahiti, World 41, or Athshea depending upon the audience. It is a deeply wooded planet, nearly equal amounts of forest and ocean cover the globe's topography. The key locations, where pivotal events occur, are all Terran settlements: Centralville (Eshen), Smith Camp (Kelme Deva), New Java Camp (Rieshwel), and Dump Island (Rendlep). All parentheticals are the Athshean name of the place, as pieced together by context clues in various dialogue throughout the story.
"A bad dream?" Ebnor Dendap inquired.
"They're all bad, and all the same," Selver answered.
Science fiction, as a genre in my opinion, gets a bad rap. As alluded to earlier, there aren't many Shakespeares writing science fiction. In some cases the simplicity of work may be confused to be a guide of appropriate reading level, or appropriate age of the intended audience. While Le Guin has an easy-going show-and-tell writing voice, The Word for World is Forest is most definitely not a childrens' book. The story of Selver versus Davidson, and by extension Selver versus Terran humans, is one which rooted in racism and raw violence. This battle, both physical and (to one party) deeply emotional, is also set against a backdrop of an offstage rape of a wife and a centerstage rape of a land's natural resources. While it comes with no MMPA rating, the story is designed for mature audiences.
"For if it's all the rest of us who are killed by the suicide, it's himself whom the murderer kills; only he has to do it over, and over, and over."
The Word for World is Forest is not, ultimately, a warm tale of contact with another intelligent civilization. Instead, it is a tale of a collision with such a group of non-terran humans. I watched a single-car accident through my rear-view mirror the other week; the driver lost control of the vehicle on wet roads and sideswiped a Jersey barricade traveling near 50 mph. The car bounced into the air (remaining upright) while the trunk and hood flapped uselessly open. The car drifted, while traffic respectively slowed behind it, downhill - all the way back across the highway to the median. This is the ending to most collisions. One party is reparably harmed, the other is either similarly harmed or unaffected. Keeping to that metaphor, The Word for World is Forest is an investigation between a forward moving Terran expidition, and a static civilization that is already there. The drama of the story lies within the question of whether the Ashteans can, like the highway barricade, withstand the barrage they are about to endure.
"Sometimes a god comes," Selver said. "He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He brings this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this; it's done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another."
Small type are words exclusively of Ursula K. Le Guin