The Word for World Is Forest – Military States, Translators, and Humans who Change Everything

I wasn’t planning on writing about Ursula Le Guin’s Hugo award winning novella turned novel The Word for World Is Forest, but the 5 hour audiobook fit in nicely to my 6 hour drive to Tennessee. I was struck once again by the connections I see between the work of Le Guin and that of China Mieville, as well as the way this fit into some of the thinking I’d beendoing about representations of the military state.

The Plot: Terran colonists take over the planet Athshe (which means “forest”), calling it New Tahiti, cutting down huge swathes of forest, planting farms, and forcing the indigenous people into “voluntary” labor. The health of these slaves quickly deteriorates because their natural rest cycle is completely disrupted by their human masters; Athsheans sleep rarely and frequently engaged in lucid dreaming throughout the day, which the Terrans punish as laziness. Since they don’t sleep and because they are intraspecies non-aggressive, meaning they do not attack each other and they do not attack the humans whom they recognize as men and women as well, Athsheans (or “creechies” as the Terrans call them) make ideal workers. This happy state for the humans begins to change, however, begins to change when the Athsheans learn murder. Athshean Selver, who served the humans for a time until his wife was raped to death by a particularly cruel and xenophobic human named Davidson, leads a group of Athsheans into Davidson’s camp, killing all the men and burning the buildings. At this point, the off-planet government steps in and orders the humans to have no more contact with the Athsheans unless invited and to free all of the laborers. While most humans comply, Davidson gathers a group of like-minded followers and begins systematically wiping out Athshean villages in his area. In retribution, Selver and his followers attack the main headquarters of the human colonists, killing all five hundred women and many of the men and taking the rest prisoner. Selver orders that the humans remain in the already cleared area of Central until the government spaceship returns, at which point they will leave the planet for good. After Davidson is defeated, the human comply and return to Terra on the next flight.

First of all, I want to call attention to some of the gender issues at play here. For starters, Davidson is, to me, a hilarious character, drawn straight out of the macho-man days of pulp sci-fi; he cares a great deal about being masculine and hates anyone who isn’t. One of the things I really liked about this novel was the fact that Davidson is painted as quite the psychopath, casting into doubt all those previous heroes of sci-fi. Secondly, I wish to call attention to those five hundred women, women who either can to the colony to be brides to men they had never met or to be prostitutes. Having just rewatched 28 Days Later, I was struck by the fact that in our representations of a military state, women become a commodity almost instantly, for both sexual purposes and for reproduction. Women are what allow men to think that their work has some kind of purpose. The Athsheans  quickly realized that the presence of women meant that the humans could establish a permanent settlement; not the guns, not the machines, but the women.

The second thing (and really the more important for the purposes of this project) is the title of the book itself. Raj Lyubov, a scientist studying the Athsheans and their advocate in colonial matters, explicates some of the implications of the word “Athshe.” Terrans are bound to dirt, Athsheans are bound to trees; Terrans imagine themselves as clay, Athsheans imagine themselves as branches. I really appreciate the way this novel highlights the workings of ideology at a word-by-word level. One of the most important words is “sha’ab” which, Lyubov tells us, has many meanings (he explains that many words in the Athshean language are like coins, having two meaning). The primary meaning of “sha’ab” is “god,” and thus Selver is called when he begins fighting against the Terrans. The secondary meaning is “translator,” and it is upon this meaning that Lyubov spends some time ruminating. He comes to the conclusion that the “translator” aspect of the word refers to a individuals ability to translate what they see in dreaming into reality.

After Selver “translates” murder into reality, his people are fundamentally changed, and it is this aspect of the novel that reminds me the most of Mieville’s Embassytown, though the change in the Ariekei is arguably much more extensive than that in the Athsheans. Still, I find this idea of “translating” dreams into realities very interesting, especially since this kind of translating is very much bound up in language. At several points, the narrator notes that a Athshean says, “The whole land with be like the dry beach,” because she has no word for “desert.” As Lyubov examines the word “sha’ab” his mind is immediately drawn to the fact that Selver worked with him as a translator, making Terran-Athshean dictionaries. They spent a great deal of time sharing words to refer to what happens during dreaming. All of this highlights for me the necessity of a word in order to recognize a thing. Athsheans never killed each other until the humans came and gave them both the word and practice.

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