The Word for World is Forest by Ursula Le Guin
Reading Le Guin’s novella “The Word for World is Forest” in 2010, it’s hard not to draw the parallels with James Cameron’s “Avatar”: an exploitative colonial force of humans encounters a technologically primitive but psychologically advanced people on a paradisiacal world, and the encounter forces the peaceful natives to take up arms against the invaders. Le Guin’s Athsheans differ from Cameron’s Na’vi in more than appearance, though (the Na’vi are tall, blue, and lithe; the Athseans are short, green, and hairy): they don’t require a savior from the human world to goad them to action, and remain thoroughly alien to the end.
Reading “The Word for World is Forest” in 1973, when it won the Hugo Award, the obvious parallel would have been the Vietnam War. The diurnal “creechies,” as the Terran colonists call them, live in tunnels beneath dense forests, and their shuffling good nature belies a deep and complex culture. When finally forced to violence, a series of increasingly brutal retaliations and counter-retaliations commences, including a very My Lai-like massacre led by a Captain Davidson who makes Lieutenant Calley seem a model of civilized restraint. Deforestation and “firejelly” are the invaders’ primary weapons against the Athseans. In case anyone were to miss the parallels, Le Guin includes a Vietnamese officer among the colonials, who observes of the futility of a thousand Earthlings surrounded by three million Athseans,
You can’t disable a guerrilla type structure with bombs, it’s been proved, in fact my own part of the world where I was born proved it for about thirty years fighting off major super-powers one after the other in the twentieth century.
Global politics aside, “The Word for World is Forest” is another example of what Le Guin does best: she constructs a human (or human-like) society based around some novel quirk (for the Athseans, it’s a culture built around lucid dreaming), throws it up against an external challenge, and chronicles how it adapts to the challenge. Her best novels, of which this is surely one, are instances of experimental anthropology. Selver, the waking-dreaming “god” who arises from the horrors of his world’s invasion, is a wholly Athsean creature, and his innovations fit wholly (if uncomfortably) within his culture.
The Athseans’ story also follows a classic Fall-from-Eden arc: Selver introduces violence, and a particularly merciless variety at that, to a previously pacifist culture. Once introduced, the innovation can’t be undone:
“Sometimes a god comes,” Selver said. “He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He brings this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.”
As is typical of Le Guin, “The Word for World is Forest” packs a universe of ideas and dilemmas into 189 pages in a way that much longer books seldom contain. Simple as the story is, it is dense, rich, and troubling long after it’s over.