On the planet Athshe, there is no word for war, there is no concept of murder, there is no language of hate. The world is one vast, green, gentle forest full of people who live between the world-time and the dream-time, who resolve their conflicts by means of ceremonial singing. Then the Terran League discovers Athshe's existence and a pattern of "colonization"-very similar to the exploitation of "primitive" cultures on Earth-begins to destroy the planet and its people; and, eventually, one young Athshean named Selver learns how to hate. On reading the back cover of "The Word for World is Forest" the novel struck me as being somewhat simplistic: good aliens live in tune with nature, evil destructive humans rape their planet, revenge ensues with tidy moral at the end. I was pleasantly surprised. The contrast between humans and Athsheans is much more than good-bad or nature-machine; the story is about more than the forced loss of innocence. Over the course of the novel Selver, whose wife was raped and killed by one of the human officers, becomes a god: he is the means by which new concepts are brought into the culture, and the concept which he learns and then teaches is war. The book is as much about the irreversible exchange of truly alien ideas as it is about anything.
Despite its seemingly formulaic premise, "The Word for World is Forest" is a thought-provoking and somewhat disturbing short novel written in Le Guin's usual poetic prose. It begins with the beautiful trick of transplanting the reader into the mind of the aggressor-Captain Davidson, the rapist and murderer of Selver's wife-and letting the reader absorb first his attitudes about the planet and its natives, then presenting the action from Selver's point of view, so that the reader finds all Davidson's stereotypes about the Athsheans suddenly shattered: a very effective switch, especially since it is obvious that Davidson is an unpleasant fellow, but so far there has been nothing to contradict his assumptions. The rest of the book will continue to change viewpoints in similar fashion, presenting different aspects of the action until finally, at the end, some resolution and understanding is discovered. The last line is both heartbreaking and irrefutable; it closes the book with the same strength with which it opens, and leaves the reader thinking. The book may not be as well-known as other stories set in Le Guin's Hainish universe, but it's a strong read whose points are subtle enough to keep the story from hitting the reader over the head with the moral but clear enough to raise questions. Also, like everything else Ursula Le Guin has ever written, it's done in language that reads like a dreamscape; which, considering the Athshean lifestyle, is most appropriate. "It doesn't take an old man or a great Dreamer to recognize a god! Where you go, fire burns; only the blind canot see it...I dreamed of you before we met here."