I just finished reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest, and don’t quite know what to say. It was written in 1972, but its story resonates with the wars going on in the Middle East, with President Bush’s childish and over simplified world view, with the terrible ease with which different people can misunderstand each other, can offend and abuse each other, and how that can spiral out of control until death stalks the streets bloody handed and mad eyed.
In some respects LeGuin’s tale is very simple; humans colonize a planet of peaceful creatures that are themselves distant descendants of man, and begin to predate on the land and its people with Belgian Congo styled callous brutality and indifference. The natives have evolved to appear but a meter tall, green furred and strange faced, and as a result it easy for the humans to treat them as animals, or simply not think the matter through.
The natives react, and given their numerical superiority, are unstoppable once roused. What elevates this story from bathos to tragedy are the elements working at creating peace and understanding. It is almost achieved, but then deliberately sabotaged by Captain Davidson, who’s madness desires confrontation and human superiority.
Reading the chapters told in Davidson’s voice is horrifying. Davidson is the paragon of the brutal alpha male, scorning intellect and thought, and valuing only bravery and strength as interpreted by him. In one nauseating moment he thinks to himself that a man is only truly a man after having sex with a woman or killing another man. But he is saved from caricature by LeGuin’s persuasive skills; by the end he is clearly mad, but for most of the book his thoughts and credo reflect many prevalent in today’s society, is echoed in Goldwater’s desire to bomb Vietnam back into the stone age, and in the current administration’s hawks who believe that the only way to deal with a problem is to use armed force, to raise Falluja and continue sending more troops into Baghdad.
What scares me is that I can imagine these people reading Davidson’s chapters and agreeing with him.
The Word for World is Forest is at once a cautionary tale and a tragedy. The natives learn the concept of murder, and it is a change to their society that cannot be undone. It shows how terribly delicate and tenuous any attempt at peace between two different cultures can be, and how easy it is for these attempts to be derailed. In Davidson’s character you have a repellent yet fascinating examination of a the blind wing-nut hawk who fundamentally does not understand anything beyond might makes right, even when that policy visibly fails before his eyes.
(LeGuin has created some incredible villains – see Dr. Haber in Lathe of Heaven, for example, and now Captain Davidson.)
So – while simple (while the humans are a complex lot, composed of all types, the natives are all peace loving and innocent), the novel is poignant, horrifying and beautifully written.