We’ve heard it all before. Cold-hearted outsiders arrive in virgin forest and start to devastate it in their hunger for raw materials. The peaceful forest dwellers face slavery, oppression or slaughter as the technologically advanced arrivals lay waste to their home.
Written back in 1972, The Word for World is Forest has become dated simply because it’s a familiar story to modern readers. Many critics complain that later authors have plagiarised Le Guin’s ideas in this novella, but I feel that the setting itself is such an obvious one that lots of people have independently come up with the same idea.
Along with masterpieces like The Dispossessed, TWFWIF is part of Le Guin’s ‘Hainish Cycle’. This is a series of disconnected stories set in a universe where various planets (including earth) were colonised by aliens way, way back in time. Contact subsequently became lost between the worlds, only to be slowly re-established millennia later.
The result is that many different types of humans have evolved on each planet, giving Le Guin a vast canvas on which to play with ideas. These modern fairy tales may examine what would happen if everyone was a hermaphrodite, such as in The Left Hand of Darkness. In TWFWIF, the inhabitants of Athshe are a hairy, ape-like species, albeit one with advanced powers of intellect, which they call ‘dreaming’.
A clever touch is that the story switches viewpoint between the humans and these simian primitives, so we see the story told from both sides. The leader of the primitives, Selver, has become as violent as the humans in order to lead a resistance movement. Indeed, the relationship between him and a kindly human teacher is reminiscent of the chimpanzee leader Caesar in the modern series of Planet of the Apes films.
Selver is no witless victim. He knows all too well what the outsiders have in plan:
That too is clear, to those of us who’ve seen them cutting down the world. He said the yumens are men like us, that we’re indeed related, maybe as close kin as the Red Deer to the Graybuck. He said that they come from another place that is not the forest; the trees there are all cut down; it has a sun, not our sun, which is a star. All this, as you see, wasn’t clear to me. I say his words but don’t know what they mean. It does not matter much. It is clear that they want our forest for themselves.
As an aside, I wonder if our planet is called some variant of ‘Earth’ or ‘Terra’ in all languages? I’ve never come across another people who use a different concept to describe the land beneath their feet, though Arthur C. Clarke once famously said,
How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when it is clearly Ocean.
As with all Le Guin’s work this is still a pleasant book if you want a quick read after wading through some huge magnum opus, but things have moved on a lot since the early 1970s when this novella first appeared.