Review: The Word for World is Forest, Ursula K Le Guin (1976)

img_0465I picked up a 1976 paperback edition of this novel from the wonderful Ubu Books in Brighton’s Open Market.  Brighton used to be full of great second-hand bookshops: I have very fond memories of many of them from a period on the dole twenty years or so ago, when I’d spend afternoons wandering around town meandering through them, before taking my purchases to the Great Eastern pub and ensconcing myself in the corner there to read.  The great joy was the unplanned nature of the browsing, and the accidental discoveries it allowed.  Sadly, these biblio-havens are thinning out – but Ubu remains.  I recommend you visit if you are ever in that part of Brighton.
In my youth I read a fair few of Le Guin’s books, hooked by the A Wizard of Earthsea trilogy.  This was one I missed. Reading it now both took me back, through its recognisable style, and encouraged me to revisit more of her work. A happy accidental rediscovery.
The book itself is a good short novel. The plot occasionally feels a little too schematic and didactic.  It is clear throughout that Le Guin has something to say.   She is generally effective in conveying it:  I felt the shame one must assume was intended as the destruction of the colonised planet’s flora and fauna unfolded, and its native inhabitants were abused and enslaved, with the colonising humans largely either callous or cruel.  Though perhaps a caricature made up of only the worst of colonial behaviours, this all seemed plausible enough.
However, and I felt this was not intended, I also disliked the native Athshean people.  They seemed like a hippy’s wet-dream of a noble savage: green Ewok type creatures that live in harmony with the forest and exist within both world time and an Aboriginal seeming dream-time.  This patchouli infused vision of a life unspoiled by modernity provoked something of an allergic reaction in me.
The two groups are in a lopsided conflict, as whilst the native Athsheans hugely outnumber the colonisers, they are both technologically less advanced, and culturally pacific.  As the plot develops, the Terran humans do show restraint, and the Athsheans demonstrate their own potential for brutality and savagery, but it remains black and white as to who has the moral high ground. Thankfully the plot is not quite as simplistic as I’d feared after the first two chapters, but nor does Le Guin paint with many shades of grey here
The book is rescued by Le Guin’s writing.  On the first page we’re effectively introduced to the nature of Don Davidson as he first imagines the new women sent to the colony, with the ‘212 buxom beddable breasty little figures’ playing through his mind, before bullying his manservant. She also does a fair amount of world building in the space here (169 pages in my edition), and is good at conveying the cruelties of the colonial experience without dwelling on them. Before reading it, I didn’t know it was an angry reaction to the Vietnam War (her ‘frustrated anger and shame went pretty directly into the book’), but the parallels soon became obvious even from this historical distance, though I felt it just about remained the right side of allegorical.
Not the most subtle of books, I enjoyed it, and it left me wondering how the world of Athshe and its people would progress, so for me at least, it works as more than political allegory.