When I was travelling for the holidays, I stopped by a bookstore to browse for a while. I didn’t have anything in particular that I was looking for, but when I came across a copy of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novella The Word for World is Forest, I immediately picked it up. In part, it’s because it’s a novella by Ursula K. Le Guin, and in part because the story was captivating to me: a piercing, environmentally-minded story that felt all too relevant in the days and weeks after the 2016 Presidential election.
I’ve talked about Le Guin before over the course of this column, but I wanted to go back and look at this novella. Published in 1972, it’s a story set in her Hainish Cycle (which includes books like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed). Like those novels, Le Guin injects her own sense of outrage and activism concerning the Vietnam War and environmentalism to tell a story that’s just as intriguing and relevant in 2017.
Raised in an intellectual household, Le Guin’s father was an anthropologist and her mother was a writer. A fan of science fiction from an early age, she sold her first story in 1962 to Fantastic Stories, and her first novel, Rocannon’s World, in 1966.
Le Guin first began writing ‘The Little Green Men’ while she was living in London. The story was for an upcoming anthology edited by Harlan Ellison, Again, Dangerous Visions, Vol. 1., a sequel to Dangerous Visions, which had come out the year before. In her introduction to a later edition of The Word for World is Forest, Le Guin noted that she “had been helping organize and participating in nonviolent demonstrations, first against atomic bomb testing, then against pursuance of the war in Viet Nam” throughout the 1960s, but while in London, she had no such outlet. Frustrated with the escalation of the war: “it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of noncombatants in the name of ‘peace’ was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of ‘man’.”
It was out of those frustrations that she began writing ‘The Little Green Men’, which would eventually be retitled The Word for World is Forest. “I have said elsewhere that I never wrote a story more easily, fluently, surely — and with less pleasure,” she noted in the introduction.
The novella is set on a forested world known as Athshe. Humans have arrived at the planet and set up a colony in order to log the vast forests. Along the way, the colonists enslaved the planet’s natives, the Athsheans, to help with their efforts. Due to their treatment, the traditionally non-violent aliens rise up against their human oppressors. While they do succeed in getting the humans to flee the planet, the Athsheans now have to contend with the legacy of violence in their culture. In her afterword in the anthology, Le Guin noted that writing the story “was a little like taking dictation from a boss with ulscers. What I wanted to write about was the forest and the dream…But the boss wanted to talk about the destruction of ecological balance and the rejection of emotional balance. He didn’t want to play. He wanted to moralize.”
The novella appeared in Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972. Reviewer Gary K. Wolfe said that it was “probably the most distinguished world to emerge” from the anthology, and in 1973, it earned Le Guin a Hugo Award, as well as a nomination for the Nebula in the same year. The novella came right at the beginning of the environmental movements in the United States, and as opposition to the Vietnam War was at its heights. Le Guin uses the story to examine to diametrically opposed cultures and the point at which they clash, with echoes of both movements clearly sketched out in the book. Where science fiction can be used as metaphor for real world events, The Word for World is Forest lays out these issues starkly, with harsh industrialists seeking only to clear-cut a vast natural resource, no matter what the consequences for the natives who live there. The forest is a stand-in for our own relationship to the world.
In an interview with Larry McCaffery, Le Guin recounted how the story came out from her frustrations while living in London, noting that she usually tried to separate out her activism from her fiction. That frustration “may have hurt that book from an artistic standpoint.” However, she pushed back on the idea that there was a contradiction between the two: “Art is action. The way I live my life to its highest degree is by writing, the practice of art. Any practice, any art, has moral resonances.”
It’s interesting, reading The Word for World is Forest in the early days of 2017, especially as politicians promise to roll back environmental regulations and dismiss the research conducted by scientists. While Le Guin’s story might have been written nearly a half century ago, it feels as though it could have been conceived yesterday.