Given Ursula Le Guin’s penchant for mixing real world social, political, and cultural concerns, it should come as no surprise that her voice could be heard on the Vietnam War. The Word for World is Forest, published in 1976, is some of Le Guin’s most overt commentary on war and colonization. A revision of her eponymous 1972 novella, the novel comments directly on the presence of major political powers in less-developed areas for profit, all in highly personal and well-told fashion.
The Word for World is Forest is set entirely on the planet Athshe. Humanity (called the Terrans) has arrived and set up mining, logging, and other resource-based enterprises, enslaving the indigenous to perform labor in the process. A smaller, greener, hairier version of humanity, the natives also sleep in a significantly different fashion. In fact sleeping little at all, they rather fall into a state of lucid dreaming at random periods of the day. Thinking them to be lazy and avoiding work, the humans, in particular a man named Davidson, routinely beat and otherwise abuse the Athsheans, forcing them to perform the labor whose profits are sent to Earth. It isn’t long, however, before the natives rebel against the humans, the resulting fight deciding the sentient fate of Athshe.
The Word for World is Forest being part of Le Guin’s Hainish series, it isn’t surprising that one of the characters is an anthropologist. Named Lyubov, he has been sent to study the Athsheans, in particular their strange mode of dreaming. The knowledge he finds in effect humanizing the natives (otherwise belittled as “creechies” by Davidson and other pro-Terran characters), his portion of the narrative gains the Athsheans a high degree of sympathy. It goes without saying Lyubov’s voice of reason is not always respected, providing the plot a major point of tension.
Potential complaints of the novel are that it is simplistic. At roughly two-hundred pages, a lot more could have been said to give matters a realistic feel. Le Guin does perfectly balance plot, world building, and characterization, just none are developed too deeply. The sides presented, for example, lack nuance and are easily pigeon-holed into pro- or anti-Athshean factions, little gray between. Had Le Guin graded her premise and characters a little finer, the book would have a more affective impact.
In the end, The Word for World is Forest is a short but powerfully-worded polemic on US economic and political interests in sci-fi form. Initially written in 1972 but revised into a novel in 1976, the social and cultural interests of the Vietnam War are plainly at stake. (Given the novel has no spurious material, focus maintained throughout, I can only assume the novel is an improvement on the novella.) Cutting no slack, Le Guin imaginatively envisions a culture of aliens invaded by humanity for profit, undermining corporate and political interest the entire way. Characterization and plotting are representative rather than realistic, but detract only slightly from Le Guin’s message given the parallel to the situation in reality. An inspiration for the film Avatar’s plot, (though never formally acknowledged by Cameron), those looking for a quick paced and politically motivated book will find the story a meaningful piece of science fiction that takes full advantage of genre tropes in communicating its import—only in a fashion that condescends to a broader spectrum of reader intelligences. (Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is better commentary on Vietnam in this regard.)