The title of Ursula LeGuin’s novel about a foreign planet full of humanoid creatures that worship nature and dreaming isn’t fully understood until the point in the novel where one of her characters likens our use of the word “earth” to mean both our planet and that dirt stuff we walk around on, but once that connection is made the title seems obvious and perfect.
And perfect is a word I feel comfortable using when writing about this novel because it is as close to flawless as any book I’ve ever read.
It’s technically perfect. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s characters are well-rounded, or at least multi-faceted. There is a hero and a villain. There is an interesting but familiar world. It has closure, and a message.
But it’s perfection lies not in the presence of these aspects, but rather their subtle beauty, and the elegant writing in which they are wrapped. I’ve read LeGuin. I have a few of her Earthsea novels under my belt, as well as The Lathe of Heaven, and I’ve really enjoyed all of her writing. This book puts her in the top tier of my favorite authors; a list that keeps growing as I age.
If you’ve never read or heard of The Word for World is Forest, chances are you know its story because billions of people worldwide saw the movie Avatar. Le Guin gets no credit, and certainly no residual cashflow, for Avatar, but she damn well should because after reading this book I realize that nothing in Avatar is in any way original. It’s 90% The Word for Words is Forest (TWfWiF), 5% World of Warcraft, and 5% Assassin’s Creed (so much gaming influence is surprising, and maybe not accurate but it’s where my mind went while watching that film).
TWfWiF’s plot takes place on Athshe, a planet that is mostly water. What land exists on Asthe is covered in trees. The ecology is very similar to that of Earth, and in fact it is implied in the story that humans are distant cousins to the race of humanoids in the book, the Athsheans (themselves described as around half human height and covered in short, soft, green fur with large nocturnal eyes). Humans have interplanetary flight, and discovered the Athshean planet. In a particularly vicious assault on human historical patterns by Le Guin, the first task of the humans in the book is to subjugate the natives and start mining the planet. The commodity here is the trees, and humans send tons and tons of lumber back to the home planet, which itself has been completely farmed of all planetary and animal life (not that far-fetched if we continue this way).
Sound familiar yet? Switch trees for Unobtanium (christ…), and you have the story of Avatar, the only difference being Cameron changed the natives from shorter green people to taller blue people, and used the conceit of a machine that allows a protagonist to see through the eyes of a native instead of, as a book would do, showing the story through the eyes of a native. There are likely more explosions in Avatar because…well, Cameron. Does it sound familiar outside of Avatar? That’s because Lucas borrowed the Athshean idea and planet, but cutesified the Athsheans and called them Ewoks and made them much, MUCH dumber. I don’t mind borrowing ideas from well-told stories, some of the best are simply that, but this wholesale thievery is a little much for even my liberal ideas. At least give credit where it’s due.
I digress. The book is much better than Star Wars or Avatar, and so it speaks for itself much better than I could speak for it. It’s also incredibly prophetic; impressively so as it was written over 40 years ago, before the term global warming was being tossed around every time someone walked outside and saw the sun.
Le Guin wrote TWfWiF in response to the Vietnam War, and evidence of that is littered across its pages. The word napalm is never used, but instead “fire jelly,” and Captain Davidson, the macho brute/villain of the novel, is not far removed from the pitch-perfect performance of Ed Harris in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (more than once I envisioned him yelling something about the smell of fire jelly in the morning). Yet, the book stands up in today’s war-torn and nature-domineering world every bit as much as it did in 1972. Replace Davidson with any number of Republican politicians or generals, and replace Athshe with the Amazonian rain forests, and you likely have a non-fiction piece. Denial and avarice are timeless themes.
I enjoyed the Earthsea novels, and plan to read their full contingent, but Le Guin has captured me with this more adult, more important story. It’s speculative fiction, which pretentious types like to dub genre fiction, but it’s every bit as literary and important as anything you’ll find on your college literature syllabus. I’m not sure I can sing its praises enough, but at a mere 189 pages why not read it for yourself? You can borrow my copy, so long as I get it back exactly as I lent it to you.