Sunday, October 29, 2023
Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 30: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin, Ursula K. "The Word for World is Forest." Again, Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison, ed. New York: Doubleday, March 1972.
This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories here. I am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.
ISFdb Rating: 8.90/10
My Rating: 8/10
"Two pieces of yesterday were in Captain Davidson's mind when he woke, and he lay looking at them in the darkness for a while."
Humans are in the process of colonizing Athshe, a planet covered almost entirely with forest. Some settlements on the planet act as military bases and administration centres, while others act as lumberyards, like New Tahiti, where the loggers are clear-cutting the dense forest, preparing the lumber for a one-way trip to Earth. As with early colonial invasion on Earth, settlements have enslaved a number of Athsheans, or "creechies" as they are derogatorily called. Athsheans are small in stature and covered in green fur, and live what humans consider to be simple and primitive lives. Moreover, Athsheans are non-aggressive, have no recorded acts of violence against one another, no war of any kind, and live entirely in peace. They are forced to perform menial tasks under the administrative guise of "autochthone volunteers," and are looked upon as inferior and treated poorly. While a few humans are sympathetic to the Athsheans, wanting to learn of their rich culture, their world view and unusual lucid dreaming, to the point of befriending some of the natives, most are indifferent or downright aggressive toward the furry green beings.
When a female Athshean is brutally raped and killed by a human soldier, her husband begins an uprising, forever changing the nature of his people.
An undisguised anti-colonial novel that has been likened to a treatise on Vietnam, given its date of publication, as well as a statement on the founding of the Americas, really it can be read as a criticism of all forms of colonialism humans have experienced. "It's just how things happen to be," one human conqueror remarks early on. "Primitive races always have to give way to civilized ones. Or be assimilated."
Le Guin's sympathies, and the readers', are with the Athsheans, though she does give a broad range of character to the humans, from the caring Lyubov who teaches Athshean revolt leader Slever and essentially lays the foundation for his later vengeance, to the marine Davidson, a cold-blooded "virile" brute (Le Guin's words). From their names, humans are given international scope, as we have colonists named Muhammed, Juju and Raj, and so forth, yet Davidson is the only one given a nationality, as he is born in Cleveland, so the unsympathetic virile colonial brute is an American. With "hoppers" he and his group of loyal followers try to mow down the "creechies" in their jungle, dropping jelly bombs that set the forests on fire. This scene is a portrait of the American war in Vietnam.
My favourite section of the novella is Chapter II, where we travel with Selver among his people, village to village, and learn of their culture, of their dreaming and understanding of the world which is vastly different from the colonialists, with their own ideas of "dreaming" and their own notions of madness. In particular, a very different experience of killing and for the Athsheans, not knowing the concept of murder. This living directly on the land and a connection to its people can be a representation of North American Indigenous peoples.
Overall it is a strong story. The first half is, however, stronger than the latter sections, which were a little more familiar, and even Avatar-like (but of course precedes any Hollywood take on colonialism), and ends on a more realistically grim reality. The end made the work a little over-long, as Davidson's struggles just aren't as interesting as the Athsheans or their relations with humans.
Evidently Le Guin titled the story "The Little Green Men," and her editor for Again, Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison, pressured her to re-title it "The Word for World is Forest," which she eventually, and reluctantly agreed to. I like Ellison's title, which refers to the fact that the Athsheans have the same work for "world" as they do for "forest," and this title evokes their view of the world in which they live, as for them society is the world, and their world of Athshe is their single society. This point is also important as it is in contrast with the humans naming their planet Earth, which is synonymous with dirt. Le Guin's title, on the other hand, takes the classic idea of aliens from outer space, the concept of "little green men," and essentially humanizes them, which should be the objective when encountering a new people, rather than othering them.
For more of this week's Wednesday's Short Stories, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.