The Word for World is Forest

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that writing The Word for World is Forest was “like taking dictation from a boss with ulcers.” Eager to play around with the ideas of pioneering sleep researcher Dr. William C. Dement, she intended to make a story about the functions of dreaming-sleep. Instead, however, “the boss wanted to talk about the destruction of ecological balance and the rejection of emotional balance.” In the end, both Ursula and the boss got their way: The Word for World is Forest is a beautiful, nuanced novel about ecology and dreaming.

This is a book that’s really easy to get undergraduate-thesis on. It’s got it all: postcolonial anxiety, gender issues, the environmental angle, and what seems to be a clear-cut parable about the culture shock between indigenous peoples and white imperialism. It takes place a few indeterminate centuries in the future, in a logging colony and military base called “New Tahiti” on the planet of Athshe. Every square foot of Athshe is covered in forest, and the native inhabitants are small green-furred creatures that the colonists enslave and refer to as “creechies” (the most accurate-sounding made-up racist slur ever). At the outset, “creechies” seem sluggish and disinterestedly obedient, and hence are roundly abused as sub-Human; in reality, however, they exist in a lucid, liminal state that holds the same cultural gravitas as Australian Aboriginal “Dreamtime.” The Asthshean “dream time” is as real to them as what they call “world time;” they don’t sleep, but enter these states at will, and consider the human use of hallucinogens to induce uncontrolled dreaming to be a blasphemy of the nth degree. All this is ignored by the humans — or, as the Asthesheans call them, “yumens.”

The setting is insanely seductive: deep moss giving slightly under the Asthesheans’ feet as they run from village to village, the heaviness of rain on bough, the impenetrable tangle of forest ceasing only at the edge of each continent, at the sea. The forest is understandable as both nurturing and frightening, home and alien.

At the time of its writing, The Word for World is Forest was inevitably a thought piece about the Vietnam war. In terms of current pop culture, the thing this novel most closely resembles is James Cameron’s Avatar; to quote Gary Westfahl, “another epic about a benevolent race of alien beings who happily inhabit dense forests while living in harmony with nature until they are attacked and slaughtered by invading human soldiers who believe that the only good gook is a dead gook.”

Of course The Word for World is Forest isn’t as stupid, nor is its conflict as simple as tree-huggers vs. oil-guzzlers. The Asthshean solution to the yumen problem is as dark as the human solution to the creechie problem: mass genocide. Oh, spoiler alert! None of the Asthesheans have ever contemplated (or, rather, dreamed of) war before the arrival of their captors, but faced with their situation, they invent it. The Astheshean who brings the concept to his people becomes a kind of translator-god, moving ideas from the Dream world to grisly reality. Since the dream time is real, once evil is introduced to it, evil becomes real. All it takes is someone to move the ideas around.

Unlike in The Lathe Of Heaven, dreams do not hold an extranormal power in this novel — they cannot alter reality in any other capacity than the individual acting on subconscious influences does. According to Ian Watson’s essay in Science Fiction Studies, the dreamers of The Word for World is Forest are basically shamans, “simply in conscious rapport with their dreams; the dream is principally a heuristic tool and—in time of crisis—a decision-making apparatus which permits the total individual to be involved in shaping his destiny.” Dreams generate ideas into conscious being, perhaps by necessity, perhaps by primitive reaction to stress, and the tragic reality in this novel is the dream of death, the nightmare.

The Word for World is Forest was originally a novella published in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions, an essential anthology. Ellison, a real hard-nosed M.F.-er, insisted on the name: it was originally called “The Little Green Men.”

Supplemental Materials:

Space Canon review of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven
Space Canon review of Again, Dangerous Visions
Some words for Forest: bos, الغابات, անտառ, meşə, гора, 森林, skov, mets, metsä, forêt, δάσος, foraoise, foresta, יער, 숲, saltus, bosque, floresta, лес, skog, Wald.

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3 Responses to The Word for World is Forest

  1. “The Little Green Men”? Haha! Love it.

    Another mirror-held-up-to Vietnam classic: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman.

  2. Jordan says:

    Oh! One of my very favorite UKLG books! Such a gem. The ideas of gods as those who manifest ideas from dreams to waking is such a lovely, much-more-subtle variation on the Lathe of Heaven. Also, I love the idea that gods are both mythic and tragic; by facilitating an idea’s jump from dreaming to waking, they become kind of stuck between the two worlds of inspiration-dream and manifestation-waking. A certainly bittersweet take on making one’s dreams come true!

  3. Steve Rust says:

    Thanks so much for your insights into Le Guin’s remarkably timeless novel. Unfortunately it remains relevant because indigenous cultures remain under constant threat from the spread of global capitalism and it’s right hand: militarism. Not that i’m biased.

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