Le Guin’s Word For World

Background

Ursula Le Guin’s novel The Word for World is Forest was published in 1972 and is the 6th book in her Hainish Cycle. The Hainish Cycle consists of a number of science fiction novels and stories by the author. It is set in an alternate future history in the Hainish Universe in which civilizations of human beings on planets orbiting a number of nearby stars, including Terra (Earth), are contacting each other for the first time and establishing diplomatic relations, setting up a confederacy under the guidance of the oldest of the human worlds, peaceful Hain.

In this history, human beings did not evolve on Earth but were the result of interstellar colonies planted by Hain long ago, which was followed by a long period when interstellar travel ceased. Some of the races have new genetic traits, a result of ancient Hainish experiments in genetic engineering, including people who can dream while awake, and a world of androgynous people who only come into active sexuality once a month, and can choose their gender. In keeping with Le Guin’s style, she uses varied social and environmental settings to explore the anthropological and sociological outcomes of human evolution in those diverse environments. 

Main themes:

  • Reestablishing a galactic civilization
  • Ecological Awareness/Sensitivity to environment
  • Non-violence
  • Feminism
  • Anti-colonialism

Connections to other texts

  • Thoreau’s Walden (1854)
    • An illusion of progress is held by the humans. They attempt to colonize “New Tahiti”. In an era consumed by a capitalist economy, Thoreau is anti-consumption. Even with the settling of new places, he vouches for staying put. He is like an Athshean in this way; opposing the humans of this novel who want to colonize everything in sight.
    • Contrasting to Thoreau’s “lyrical outbursts” I found Le Guin’s writing to be not as poetic. Her writing reminded me more of Robert A. Heinlein’s with her strange, coined terms such as “Fatty Bigdome”
    • Walden Pond becomes a symbol of almost everything Thoreau holds spiritually, philosophically, and personally grand. Almost the entire planet of Athshe is water. Water as a symbol for the tranquility of nature and an escape from society; goodness. Humans haven’t been able to really colonize water historically… water is the only untouched place on this planet.
  • Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949)
    • Land ethic – held by Athsheans
  • Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962)
    • Instant gratification attained by “bandaid” solutions such as chemical pesticides 
    • Ethics of technology
    • The ideas that Carson writes about with humans using technology to seemingly “help” and do the “best” thing is easily translated to Le Guin’s novel. The humans we read about are all too eager to colonize this newfound planet advocating for a kind of instant gratification and do not see the error of their ways –Davidson’s catch-phrase is even “hurry-up quick!” 
  • Feminism
    • Val Plumwood and dualism
    • Davidson’s binary views
    • Terms defined against each other
      • Water v. Woods – Water represents the parts of the world that man has not yet figured out a way to colonize.
      • Yumans v. Creechies
    • The humans in the text not only dehumanize nature, but other races (even though they are not human anyway… the respect is not there) and sexes. Example pg 23 of Le Guin. 
    • The role of women: small role. Lyubov is described as effeminate – seen as a negative trait by Davidson. 
  • Perception of nature as Eden
    • In “The Trouble with Wilderness” author William Cronon says that wilderness is “likened to Eden itself” (p.72).
    • In “Unearthing Herstory” author Annette Kolodny makes a reference to nature as an Eden, as well. Using the word Eden to define nature as a perfect unachievable goal (p. 171). 
    • Le Guin joins the ranks, and likens nature to Eden, as well. On page 12 she writes, “Cleaned up and cleared out, the dark forests cut down for open fields of grain, the primeval murk and savagery and ignorance wiped out, it would be a paradise, a real Eden” (p. 12). How does Le Guin use Eden here? Is it different than the way Cronon and Kolodny use it?

Discussion Questions

  1. What differing social and political systems do we see in the novel? And what real world social systems is Le Guin trying to mirror?
    1. Political: humans govern creechies
  2. How does this novel challenge or not challenge accepted depictions of race and gender?
  3. Do you see any connections with Le Guin’s characters and the writers we have read?
  4. How can we connect this with feminism?
    1. Concepts that are dehumanized in the book include: Nature, the “creechies” (which sounds like creatures – officially making them unhuman, and women are all de-humanized in this book; a concept that Pullman touches on when she contrasts masculine qualities with feminine ones such as reason v. emotion. Women are depicted as more emotional, making them animalistic – non-human – thus, the creechies/creatures are the same.) Relates to Pullman’s dualism which is literally Davidson’s way of life (he sees everything in black and white)
    2. Athsheans taking on characteristics of oppressors; becoming violent
  5. Are there any connections with The Word for World to other works of fiction/film?
    1. Avatar Specific similarities include the notion that the Earth’s resources have been used up, the extraction of resources in an exploitative manner from another planet, a native population on that planet which lives in close harmony with their world, and a rebellion by those natives against the exploitative human colonizers. A key difference lies in the roles of the “benevolent” humans in both works: Raj Lyubov in The Word for World is Forest, Jake Sully and the human scientists in Avatar. While Lyubov made an impression as a “sensible” human and did help mediate peace between the Athshean people and humanity, he is not the savior of their race, and he does not survive to claim any “prize” from it. Additionally, in The Word for World is Forest militarism is regarded by the Athsheans – especially Selver – as an unfortunate but necessary addition to Athshean culture, and one that may destroy their way of life. In contrast, militarism is seen less critically in
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