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nataliya

nataliya

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” 
― Stephen King, On Writing.

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"If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals."— J.K. Rowling

'The Word for World is Forest'

The Word for World Is Forest - Ursula K. Le Guin

"Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will."

 

In every book by Le Guin there is that special something for me, something that grabs a firm hold of my mind and heart and stubbornly hangs on, refusing to let go, burrowing deeply, growing roots, sprouting shoots that will go on to quietly, unobtrusively, almost imperceptibly change my mental landscape forever - by making me really think, by challenging established ideas, preconceptions and expectations with unexpected quiet subversive subtlety.

 

"But even the most unmissionary soul, unless he pretend he has no emotions, is sometimes faced with a choice between commission and omission. “What are they doing?” abruptly becomes, “What are we doing?” and then, “What must I do?”

 

The idea, the storyline Le Guin uses is not new; in fact, it appears to be as old a human nature itself - just like that scene in the beginning of Kubrick's 'Space Odyssey', when proto-us make the definite step on the road from ape to human by learning how to use tools as weapons of murder. Throughout ages, we have fought to prove that we are stronger - ergo better - than whoever happens to be *Them*, scarring our history with bloodshed, hatred, exploitation, dehumanization, prejudice, murder. After all, strongest survive, as evolution postulates. Isn't that true?

 

 

"You know the people you’re studying are going to get plowed under, and probably wiped out. It’s the way things are. It’s human nature, and you must know you can’t change that."

 

No, Le Guin's premise is not new, and, of course, she's not the first one to see the injustice ingrained in it. We find ways to justify the advantage of brute strength - be it of a human or an entire nation - but, feeling bad about it somewhere deep in the human core, feeling the appeal of the idea of justice, we also root for the underdog, the oppressed, the seemingly weak, and we hope that 'payback is a bitch'.

 

"But you must not pretend to have reasons to kill one another. Murder has no reason."

 

And so we think we know how this story will go, right from the opening pages of this short book, the pages that seem to forgo the subtlety and go straight for the divide between Good and Evil. The Evil being the technologically superior ruthless Earthlings carelessly and brutally exploiting the resources and the inhabitants of a lushly green planet known as the Forest to its people. The Good being 'the natives', the seemingly harmless, attuned to their environment and themselves helpless race of humanoid Ewoks, immersed in the culture based on nature and dreaming. The inevitable clash between the 'native' Selver and the 'outsider' batshit-insane macho Davidson should represent this struggle, and we know that the underdog should win, and humans should be taught a lesson in the nature of true humanity, and that the life on the planet should continue in the lovely ways that recover from human influence and proceed to prosper in the satisfying feel-good way.

 

"[...] and above all Athshe, which meant the Forest, and the World. So Earth, Terra, meant both the soil and the planet, two meanings and one. But to the Athsheans soil, ground, earth was not that to which the dead return and by which the living live: the substance of their world was not earth, but forest. Terran man was clay, red dust. Athshean man was branch and root."

 

 

But this is Le Guin writing, with her sharp mind and a knack for anthropology, and the understanding that the present world hinges on political negotiations much more than the idea of justice. She knows that the epic showdown and the happily-ever-after may look good on page and screen, but in reality there are scars that do not heal, and that the reaction to every action does not just go away after it has served its purpose, that most victories are Pyrrhic and that things can never be the same as though nothing had happened - because it did happen, after all. Because in order to protect themselves and their way of life the Athsenians in Le Guin's novella had to go against their nature itself, to change, to adapt - and therefore never be able to return to the hopeful "it can be now as it was before". Because change cannot be undone. Because cruelty and hatred begets same.

 

"But had he learned to kill his fellowmen among his own dreams of outrage and bereavement, or from the undreamed-of-actions of the strangers? Was he speaking his own language, or was he speaking Captain Davidson’s?"

 

Le Guin's book was written in the heyday of the Vietnam war, and it's easy to see the parallels to it reading about Americans in battle machines fighting people in the forest. But it's just as easy to see parallels to the more mundane events that are present in our everyday lives. The questions periodically raised in the media about what's more important: preserving the livelihood of the farmers or saving a rare species of beetles? Ensuring livable wages to people in sweatshops overseas or cheap running shoes to the consumers in the Western world? Preserving delicate marine life systems or cheap oil drilling to ensure current wellbeing of people needing the fuel? And let's not forget the age-old and completely wrong paradigm of "If you're not with us, you're against us!" and the appalling idea of patriotism as hating the Other, so aptly summarized by quite caricaturish and terrifying in his self-righteous madness Davidson: "See, where we differ is that with you Earth doesn’t come first, actually. With me it does."

 

This story is unmistakably a 'Le Guin', with its anthropologically-themed musings, impeccable and original world-building, the marring of the lines between good and evil, the greyness between black and white, the emphasis taken away from the action and to the politics, the belief in the role of the government in ensuring the semblance of peace and order, with its somewhat dry and cerebral language occasionally permeated by the descriptions so brilliantly vivid it's breathtaking. And just like every book by Le Guin I've read so far, I'll recommend it to all my friends without hesitation.

 

"Maybe after I die people will be as they were before I was born, and before you came. But I do not think they will."