Series: Hainish Cycle #2
Published: July 6th 2010 by Tor Books
Genres: Science Fiction
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I’ve seen a lot of interest on Twitter in the past few weeks in Ursula LeGuin’s work. She’s one of my favorite authors for a reason–her science fiction novels provide a lens into our own world, and are deeply thoughtful. They come from an anthropological perspective, rather than straight-up adventure, and every time I read one I’m blown away.
The Word for World is Forest is a good example. It’s less than 200 pages, and easy enough to read in one sitting, although you won’t be able to stop thinking about it. It’s the story of a forested planet. A military from Earth comes and establishes a colony there, harvesting timber and sending it back to Earth. Each chapter alternates between the perspectives of members of the Terran settlement and the Althsheans, a race of green fuzzy peaceful humanoids who originally inhabited the planet.
Contact between the Althsheans and the Terrans went precisely as well as you probably expect. The Terrans don’t understand the Althsheans, and tell themselves that they are dumb and not-quite-human. They enslave them, rape their women, and brutalize them. Then one day an Althshean named Selver has seen too much, and leads an uprising.
The Althsheans of course are not stupid–they’re just different. Their sleep patterns are different than the Terrans, and they live partly in an altered half-dream state of consciousness that gives them a deep connection to the forest. They are nonviolent as a whole, but instead have other rituals that take the place of confrontation. Selver’s uprising changes everything. And while there are repercussions for the Terrans, there are also just as deep consequences for the Althsheans and their way of life. Even if the Alsheans are freed, there’s no way of undoing what happened. There’s no going back to the world that was before.
But this isn’t just a story of societies meeting one another–it’s also an examination of the interplay between individuals and society. Most of the Terrans are not evil or racist per se when left to their own devices. But one particular Terran, a man named Davidson, is quite dangerous. He sees himself as a hero and the Althsheans as an enemy to Terran civilization. He preys on the darkest impulses of some of the Terrans, and it’s enough to complicate the balance. Because it only takes a small group of people behaving badly to sow the seeds of distrust. One bad apple spoils the bunch.
The Word for World is Forest spoke to me in so many ways. On one hand, it is a story of hope, but on the other hand, there is a deep recognition that what is done can not be undone. It reminds me of things I keep hearing–“Not all white people are like that.” “Not all Americans hate Islam.”
Denial or even truce weren’t enough to keep the Terrans from murdering the Althsheans–the ‘good’ Terrans first had to know what the ‘bad’ ones were doing, and only then could they take a firm stand against it. Words alone aren’t enough, they have to be followed by actions. The Terrans would never have woken up had the Althsheans not fought back, and neither side emerged unscathed. And even then, even in the end when the Althsheans are able to live without fear of the Terrans, their influence on Althshean society is inescapable.
The book is perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 1977 when it was originally published, and serves as a stark warning for our time.