Top positive review
Memorable and brutal. Hard to put down, difficult to read.
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on November 10, 2022
I remember scrolling reviews from some of Ursula K. Le Guin's earlier stories (Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions) and noticed that quite a few readers warned not to start with them. They're kind of dated, they said, Le Guin's later work is much better, these are far too simple, et cetera. For what it's worth, I read her first three novels back-to-back-to-back and I enjoyed them. The golden-age sci-fi trappings like telepathy are a little pulpy, perhaps, but they're full of heart and harrowing adventure.
Me, though, I would recommend readers not start with The World for World is Forest. Because if this had been my first experience with Le Guin, if I had just picked this up off the shelf and jumped right in cold, I think I would have given up before the end of the first chapter; I would have written it off as the worst kind of indulgent, heartless, golden-age claptrap we typically only see these days in parody.
Now that I've finished the book I can confidently say it's one of my favorites, but it's brutal. I wouldn't let my kids read this. I probably wouldn't recommend it even when they're older. I've seen this 1976 novella compared to the James Cameron's Avatar, but that film feels like an optimistic, Disney-fied adaptation. (To be clear, Avatar is not an adaptation of this work. In one of her compilations, Le Guin said Avatar "resembled the novel in so many ways that people have often assumed I had some part in making it. Since the film completely reverses the book's moral premise, presenting the central and unsolved problem of the book, mass violence, as a solution, I'm glad I had nothing at all to do with it.")
The premise: Humans set up a small colony on the forest world Athshea, rename it New Tahiti, and start chopping down trees so the lumber can be transported back to Earth. The peaceful Athseans who live there are either ignored, pushed out of the way, or enslaved under the guise of volunteer labor.
The Athsheans are endearing and adorable, more adorable than Ewoks, and it makes their treatment all the more difficult to stomach. That, combined with Le Guin's straightforward prose (she doesn't dress up concepts like rape and murder and slavery in analogy or metaphor), made this a devastating read. Nicknamed creechies, these little people are recognized as intelligent, kind, and even as bona fide humans — and still, they are trash. The antagonists of the book can't decide whether these meter-tall, green, hairy humanoids are slaves, sexual playthings, or glorified insects. Here are a few things said about them in the first few pages:
"Davidson knew how to handle them; He could tame any of them, if it was worth the effort. It wasn't, though. Get enough humans here, build machines and robots, make farms and cities, and nobody would need the creechies any more. And a good thing too."
"You think hitting one is like hitting a kid, sort of. Believe me, it's more like hitting a robot for all they feel it. Look, you've laid some of the females, you know how they don't seem to feel anything, no pleasure, no pain, they just lay there like mattresses no matter what you do. They're all like that. Probably they've got more primitive nerves than humans do. Like fish."
"I'd broken [the Athshean's] arm and pounded his face into cranberry sauce. He just kept coming back and coming back. The thing is ... the creechies are lazy, they're dumb, they're treacherous, and they don't feel pain. You've got to be tough with 'em, and stay tough with 'em."
These thoughts belong to Captain Don Davidson, who I feared for a horrid moment might be the book's protagonist. I'm not sure how believable his attitude was (he acts less like a colonizer and more like an exterminator), and even harder to swallow is the idea that murder as a concept is alien to Athshea. They appear to be at the top of their food chain, and resources are so plentiful that war has never seemed necessary. Their "combat" is usually handled by aggressive singing, for crying out loud. And so when the humans arrive, Athsheans are stunned by their cavalier attitude towards intelligent life.
"They can step on us as we step on [insects]. Once I saw a woman, it was when they burned my city Eshreth, she lay down in the path before a [human] to ask him for life, and he stepped on her back and broke the spine, and then kicked her aside as if she was a dead snake. I saw that. ... If they are men, they are evil men, having denied their own gods, afraid to see their own faces in the dark."
Indeed, the chief import from Earth is murder. Not death, not killing (they're meat eaters), but the concept of one person killing another for any reason. And it's a lesson learned only through repetition, only after they witnessed the deaths of so many fellow Ashtheans at the hands of what they thought were people just like them. When main character Selver commits murder for the first time, the realization hits him like the apocryphal apple on Newton's head. "When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretenses. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another." And the feeling that results is not that Earth provided the curse of knowledge or anything like that, but that Earth simply ruined another world, ruined it beyond recognition or repair.
The jig is up from the first page — it's already too late, and there's never any hope for reconciliation. When the book begins, with Davidson laying in bed daydreaming about women migrating to the planet, he has already taken a liking to a female Athsean for her "frail, frightened grace." He's already had her brought to his quarters, and he's already raped her to death ("a result of the physical disparity"). He's already fought off her surviving husband and "pounded his face into cranberry sauce." And the belated Athsean uprising has already begun.
After the violence has died down, Selver approaches one of the survivors and the man is so astonished by the uprising that he concludes Selver and his fellow Ashtheans don't even understand what they've done. "'You're children,' Gosse said with hatred. "Children, savages. You have no conception of reality. This is no dream, this is real! ... You killed the women—the women—you burned them alive, slaughtered them like animals!"
And Selver leans in close and says, "Should we have let them live? ... To breed like insects in the carcass of the World? To overrun us? We killed them to sterilize you. ... You are not children, you are grown men, but insane."