Ursula Le Guin is one of the most important science fiction writers of the twentieth century, whose works such The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossesed continue to be very influential. Ursula was an activist in the USA in the campaign against the Vietnam War, and The Word for World Is Forest clearly emerged from that experience. Much of the war was fought in forests between the Americans, who had vast military techonology, and the guerilla army of the Vietcong, who had no such weaponry, but were armed instead with an unrelenting desire to be free.
The novel is set on Athshe, a planet entirely covered by forests in which live the Athsheans, a small, peaceful, highly intelligent, humanoid race whose bodies are covered with green fur. The planet is colonised by several thousand Earthmen – who rename it New Tahiti – and begin cutting down the forests and shipping the wood back to Earth. They make virtual slaves of the Athsheans, using them as labourers or for sexual gratification as there are few Earth women.
The three main characters are the Earthman Davidson, the Earthman Lyubov, and the Athshean Selver. Davidson is a military man who regards the Athsheans (or “creechies” as the colonists call them) with contempt: “the creechies are lazy, they’re dumb, they’re treacherous, and they don’t feel pain”. He personifies the masculine mindset, reflecting to himself: “the fact is the only time a man is really and entirely a man is when he’s just had a woman or killed another man”. Lyubov, by contrast, tries to underestand the Athsheans, their culture of singing , their symbiotic relationship with the forest, and the fact that the Athsheans dream when they are awake as well as when they are asleep.
Davidson rapes Selver’s wife who dies. Selver realises that the Earthmen intend to destroy the forest, and therefore his people, unless they are stopped – and begins to dream of a way of achieving this. He tells his people:
If we wait a lifetime or two they will breed, their numbers will double or redouble. They kill men and women, they do not spare those who ask life. They cannot sing in contests. They have left their roots behind them, perhaps, in this other forest from which they come, this forest with no trees. So they take poison to let loose the dreams in them, but it only makes them drunk or sick. No one can say whether they ‘re men or or not men , whether they’re sane or insane, but that does not matter. They must be made to leave the forest. If they will not go they must be burned out of the Lands, as nests of stinging-ants must be burned out of of the groves of the city…Tell any people who dream of a city burning to come after me..
Selver co-ordinates attacks from thousands of Athsheans on the Earth settlements, killing many men and women, and setting fire to the buildings. His friend Lyubov dies in one of the attacks. Selver pens the survivors into a compound and negotiates a truce. This is broken by Davidson who organises attacks on the Athshean cities in the forest. Finally, Selver captures him alive, and tells him:
Look Captain Davidson..we’re both gods, you and I. You’re an insane one and I’m not sure whether I’m sane or not, But we are gods…We bring each such gifts as gods bring. You gave me a gift, the gift of killing of one’s kind, murder. Now, as well as I can, I give you the my people’s gift which is not killing. I think we each find each other’s gift heavy to carry.
Davidson is not killed, but put on a treeless island, to live alone. Emissaries from Earth and other planets arrive who prepare to evacuate all the surviving Earth colonists. One of the envoys asks Selver whether Athsheans are now killing Athsheans. Selver replies sombrely :
Sometimes a god comes…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 bring this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is 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 pretences. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending now, that we do not know how to kill one another.
As well as the background of the Vietnam War, there are clear resonances in the novel of the way that native Americans were treated by European colonists who raped and killed them and took their land; and the similar experience of the Aborigine peoples of Australia, who also talk of a “dream-time”.
While Selver and Lyubov have some complexity as characters, with Selver feeling that what he has unleashed is dreadful but also feeling that he has not other choice, Davidson is one dimensional, a man in thrall to his own needs and desires – and with no empathy for others. Reflecting some years later Ursula acknowledged this flaw in the novel. “….he is purely evil – and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions. It looked into itself and produced, from itself, Captain Davidson. I do not disclaim him“.
Whether she intended or not, Ursula’s novel is very much a feminist riposte to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) – written against the backdrop of the Cold War – which imagined a future society in which you can only become a citizen by serving in the military. It is in fact a paean to the alleged virtues of the military “code of honour” , a code unpicked by Ursula in this novel to reveal its true reality: racism and murder.
The Word for World Is Forest had some influence on “Kinda”, a 1982 Doctor Who serial written by Christopher Bailey, his first script for Doctor Who. Like Ursula’s novel “Kinda ” is set in a forest with a people confonting colonists and is a psychological, rather than an action serial, with layers of meaning and a number of spiritual reference. Bailey says that he tried to write it without any people being killed, and that he name the main characters after Buddhist terms, including the Mara (“temptation”), Panna (“wisdom”), and Anatta (“without self”). Incidentally Panna was played by the wonderful Mary Morris who, among many other roles, appeared in the BBC science fiction series A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough as the scientist Madeline Dawnay.