“I don’t know.  Do men kill men, except in madness?  Does any beast kill its own kind?  Only the insects… There is a wish to kill in them…”

  • Spoken by Selver in The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t often like science fiction; I find it too extremist, too preachy, and too depressing.   But I loved reading Le Guin’s The Complete Orsinia so much that when I saw this book in an airport bookstore (Raleigh, North Carolina has a fantastic used bookstore in the Terminal 2) I picked it up.  The cover is a gorgeous example of the best kind of new wave sci-fi cover art, done in a spectrum of emeralds and limes that evokes all the green and growing things.

The story is much what you would expect from the title.  Earth, having depleted all her own natural resources (any day now) has started colonizing other planets.  This tale is set on the planet Athshe, a forest world populated by gentle, monkey-like beings who are at one with nature and meditate daily.  Due to their passivity, they are immediately subjugated and enslaved by humans.  The story is told mostly from the point of view of a captain of the human colonists, a self-centered asshole named Davidson, and an Athshean named Selver, who takes on just enough of the aggression of his conquerers to revolt.  It is horrible to be inside Davidson’s head- he is a caricature of the vindictive, power-hungry, tribally-driven capitalist.  The Athsheans, too, are overly simplified in a noble-savage sort of way, although Selver is unique.

It is not Le Guin’s best work.  She tries for an intimacy with her characters that feels forced, especially with Davidson, whom she cannot portray fairly because she clearly hates him. She tries for fairness with a side character, an anthropologist who studies the native people, but he is the only positive representation of humans. I would expect more from her than a one-sided story of species oppression and the collective loss of innocence.