The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

This post was developed and authored by Catherine Engh, Ph.D.

Core Text

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Word for World is Forest. Tom Doherty, 1972.

Summary

When the inhabitants of earth run out of trees, they colonize the planet Athshe, dispossessing the small, green, furry humanoids who live there and harvesting the wood from their forests. After Army Captain Davidson rapes the wife of an Athshean named Selver, Selver is impelled to enact his violent dreams of retaliation in the “world time.” He decides that the Terrans must be killed because they are destroying the forest and because the new arrival of women portends an expansion of their population. The Athsheans, who had been previously adapted to non-violence, view Selver as a God and follow him to war against the Terrans. Though the Athsheans outnumber the Terrans and successfully oust them from their planet, they act against their cultural and ecological imperative to non-aggression and their society is permanently transformed by their act of violent resistance. The novel contains an allegory for the Vietnam war, but also for the processes of deforestation that continue today across the world. Interestingly, in this book, ecological issues are inseparable from social and psychological ones: the psychology of the Athsheans is rooted in an “ecological” sense of balance between dream and reality and the destructiveness of the Terrans results from their failure to think and feel ecologically, or interconnectedly.  

Teaching Resources

  • Ursula K. Le Guin, “Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” In this essay, Le Guin critiques what she calls the “hero” theory of the origins of human evolution. In this story, human civilization began when a group of men brought home an animal that they had slayed. Le Guin suggests that the story of the killer has overshadowed an older story in which the crucial technology is the “carrier bag” that is used to gather oats and other things. Le Guin identifies the carrier bag narrative with her feminist approach to science fiction as a form about “continual process” rather than “time’s killing arrow” and the hero’s dominion over alien others. It was a bit of a stretch for students in my composition class to make the connection between this essay and The Word for World is Forest, but those who did aligned the colonial mission to Athshe with the “hero” narrative. They noted that, in this story, the Athshean point of view allows us to see the consequences of the story about the killer. Significantly, too, the colonial mission fails and the Athsheans are left traumatized by their violent resistance. No one comes out as a hero in the end.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, “Deep in Admiration.” In this short piece, Le Guin proposes that one way to put a halt to a wasteful modern lifestyle might be to turn to poetry to “subjectify” the world, or to reframe things that we might otherwise consider as objects for our use as beings instead. Le Guin makes strong claims here for poetry as a medium that might help us resist the imperatives of extraction, imperialism and perpetual “growth.” Students were able to connect Le Guin’s call to prioritize human beings’ interrelationship with other living beings to the Athshean relation to the forest environment. 
  • Rob Latham, “Biotic Invasions: Ecological Imperialism in New Wave Science Fiction.” Latham reads Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest as part of a “new wave” of science fiction from the 1960s and 70s that offers an “anti-hegemonic strain of eco-disaster stories.” He sets the eco-disaster narrative apart from pulp sci-fi’s emphasis on “fearlessness and ingenuity of Euro-American peoples when confronted with hostile forces.” He argues that eco-disaster stories like The Word for World is Forest enable a potentially critical engagement with “the ideology of progress” and the triumphalist enshrinement of white westerners at the apex of development. Latham draws a helpful analogy between the Terran deforestation of Athshe and the historical enactment of “ecological imperialism” understood as a process in which Europeans gain an advantage over native people by transforming the environment through deforestation and the introduction of new microbes and weeds. Students who cited this essay in their papers seemed most interested in Latham’s characterization of the colonial project as represented in Le Guin and his discussion of Le Guin’s distinction between military and communication technologies. 
  • Douglas Barbour, “Wholeness and Balance in the Hainish Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin.” This is an old essay, but one that I think is still useful. Barbour is interested in the way that light/dark and wholeness/balance imagery works in Le Guin’s ouvre. His reading of The World for Word is Forest makes a useful metaphorical connection between the psychology of the Athsehans, who balance “dream time” and “world time,” and the forest environment, which Le Guin describes as a space balanced between light and darkness. In contrast, the Terrans are psychologically unbalanced because they want to turn the forest into a well-lit prairie and are uncomfortable with its dark complexity. The essay really psychologizes the imperialist project, but so too does Le Guin. Students loved this essay. The taoist concept of balance between dark and light was a bit difficult for some to grasp; I’d encourage instructors to reiterate to students that the message here is not that “darkness” is evil and “lightness” is good, but that a balance between these forces is embodied in the forest.  

Writing Prompts

  • How does Le Guin build a critique of the “hero” of Western science and technology into her novel?
  • How does the forest function as a metaphor for psychological and/or social (im)balance within Le Guin’s novel?
  • How does Le Guin prioritize a message of kinship, affinity and/or interconnection in her fiction?

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