Tuesday, September 10, 2013

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

While chatting with the book club I attend, we were talking about books by Ursula K. Le Guin. It turns out that The Left Hand of Darkness is not available on the US Kindle store, which is surprising and disappointing. The Word for World is Forest was mentioned and this one is on the store. One of my friends claimed it sounded just like James Cameron's Avatar. I set off to prove her wrong...

Overall Impression
I think I may have been wrong: there were certainly tons of places were it felt like Avatar. However, there are also plenty of differences, too. Yes, the book is about natives on a planet being oppressed by humans and rising up against them. And while you do have a human figure that sides with them, it never feels like (a) he is reluctant, (b) he brings military/fighting skills on board, and (3) he goes fully native like in many of the stories from which Avatar and others are derived. The book itself is very short (~200 pages) and while it feels somewhat derivative (sharing so much in common with other, more recent stories) it still is an entertaining read.

The plot of the book is somewhat formulaic, but maybe that's because so many books, movies, etc, deal with similar issues. A human society is exploiting a native culture, the native culture rises up and despite their technological setbacks manages to turn the tables around and protect themselves. The story oscillates between the humans and the "Athsheans" so we get to see both sides of the story. It's a very cool moment when we realize that while both individually consider themselves to be 'men' they do not see the other as such because of how different their cultures are.

The story revolves around three main characters, though of course there are many more. First up we have Captain Davidson, who is in charge of one of the logging camps. He comes off like a stereotypical army man: he is disciplined, strong, masculine, racist, and utterly sure of himself. You can tell that he's going to stir up trouble. Second, we have his opposite: Lyubov. This is a researcher on the native Athsheans (or creechies as Davidson and others call them). He understands their culture and is opposed to their slavery. He is the hallmark of a good person and is trusted by some of the Athsheans. Finally, we have Selver, one of the Athsheans. He was part of the slaves the humans used and was the first to turn to violence when Davidson raped and killed his wife. He is extremely well-respected among the Athsheans, which means great changes start to take place.

Setting / World Building
The story is set in a human colony on another world, New Tahiti aka World 41 aka Athshe. The world is mostly ocean, but has several large, densely forested islands. Earth no longer has any forests and so gathering the wood here is the main goal of the humans. There's also plenty of mention of panspermia, which is the theory that life originates on one world and travels to others (say in bacterial form). There are several human species out there in the galaxy (one of which claims to have been the original) and so Athshe has trees very much the same as those you would find in old Earth. The "humans" that evolved, however, are very much different: small and fuzzy with green, brown, or forest-toned fur. They have an interesting culture that involves dreaming and non-violence.

An interesting note is the place of women in the story. Le Guin is, of course, a woman, but this was written in the 1970s and that colors some of the story. The human colony has very few women; a batch of them recently arrived and all the men are excited for the entertainment they will now get. You can almost imagine that the reason why the humans were so messed up was the lack of women in the colony. The Athsheans have a more balanced society, but they have a rigid structure: women are traders and leaders, men are hunters and dreamers. It sounds better, but think about it this way: do women have a specific place in society or can they fill *any* space in society? Why can't women be hunters and men traders? This is, I would hope, what modern society is moving towards: a true equality regardless of gender.

Final Thoughts
This is a short book with a simple premise and story. It's told very well through 3 separate viewpoints. The characters, though clearly defined, appear somewhat two-dimensional. Perhaps, though, this is just a limitation of the short nature of the story, at just barely 200 pages. Still, I enjoyed it for its simplicity. At the very end, one of the characters poses an interesting question which is not clearly answered: have the Athsheans now learned to kill each other? Having seen their society through their own eyes, we see the depth of the question and wonder what will happen with their world now.

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