Le Guin’s amazing sci-fi masterpiece, The Word for World is Forest, explores what it means to be human.
In a future where humans have met outer space humanoids or beings of intelligence, culture, community, and language. In other words, beings that are more like us than we are like animals or plants.
The novel explores community, military, hierarchy, power, slavery, war, murder, gender, identity, transcendence, dreams, and culture change.
Le Guin introduces us to a world named New Tahiti that humans are colonizing … and where the local humanoid race isn’t accepted as fully human. Culture differences make negotiation and discussion difficult for the radically dissimilar peoples. Humans enslave the rather submissive people of Athshe, mistaking their docility for ignorance and simplistic thinking.
The goal of humans on New Tahiti is to set up a imperialistic colony that will become a permanent human settlement and provide resources, the most common being lumber, back to Earth.
The story is told in several chapters with each chapter being narrated by one of three characters, a human military commander named Captain Davidson, a researcher of the native inhabitants employed by the military named Raj Lyubov, and a recently widowed, native Athshean named Selver who becomes a god to his people.
Le Guin’s book has many similarities to James Cameron’s famous movie, Avatar. In both Avatar and The Word for World is Forest humans are taking resources from a planet and thereby destroying the native people’s habitat, scientists and military officers have conflicting agendas, important neurological or mind connections between beings, and the costs of war.
However, my opinion is that The Word for World is Forest is more sophisticated, realistic, and demanding for it’s readers. It is a book that questions what being an outsider and different really means, whether we are talking about men and women, Caucasians and Asians, or humans and humanoid aliens.