The Word for World is Forest
Before there was Avatar there was Ursula K. Le Guin‘s THE WORD FOR WORLD IS FOREST (Amazon). Written in 1972, and the winner of the 1973 Hugo Award for best novella, Tor decided that the current furor over sustainable ecology would make this novel a timely re-release. At the very least it’s an entertaining comparison to Cameron’s blue-peopled visual extravaganza.
The similarities will be obvious from the start: humans can now travel to the stars and will take other planets’ natural resources for their own use; the nature-loving natives who just want to preserve their way of life; the racist Army dude who is willing to do anything to fulfill his objective.
If this story reads as predictable, it’s because, well, it was written 40 years ago, and the story has been used in many different incarnations since then. Le Guin was a trailblazer with not only her stories and characters, but with her ecological and race-relation themes. It’s worth it to see the origins of some of these ideas (see also Shawn’s review on LITTLE FUZZY (EBR Classic). Here it starts off with the interesting dilemma: the planets were all seeded thousands of years ago by a main race, so the ‘aliens’ are actually distant cousins who evolved differently from the same stock. So, how different are the three-foot, green-furred Athsheans from Earth’s humans? The answer to that is actually very important.
A quick read, TWFWIF is told from the PoV of our three main characters: Captain Davidson, Captain Lyubov, and Selver. Davidson is running a remote logging camp on the planet New Tahiti and is having trouble with the natives he calls ‘creechies’, which they’ve been using for menial labor, but they’re lazy and incompetent. Not only that, but the landscape gives them trouble: after logging an area instead of making it farmable for soybeans, the land turns into mush. The scientist Lyubov, however, doesn’t see things the same way as Davidson. The natives’ tribes are named for the different trees which makes the forest an important part of their culture. Their ‘laziness’ stems from a culture with vastly different sleep cycles–in fact dreaming is an important and revered ability among the Athsheans. Then there is Selver, the native Athshean, who despite being raised in a pacifist culture, realizes that force will become necessary in dealing with the invading humans.
Le Guin explores the issues of a clash of cultures, despite a shared origin and how genocide can be caused by ignorance or greed. Another dominant theme is the importance the environment has on the Athsheans and how the humans’ interference will have horrifying repercussions.
As a result of a short story with a focus on the themes, setting, and storyline, the characters, while interesting, didn’t have enough time for an in-depth study and will feel like stereotypes. But that’s not really the point of Le Guin’s story, her intent is to make the reader reconsider the importance of culture vs environment.