The Word for World is Forest – Ursula K. Le Guin

Althshe is a tranquil, forested world that has in recent years been colonized by people from Earth, who prize its rich soil and, particularly, the natural wood that is only a memory on their planet. Of course, the colonists have also already discovered the perils deforestation, which quickly destroyed the soil on one of the continents. But Althshe is not uninhabited; millions of green-furred humans living in the forests and the colonists have conscripted many as a labor force, calling them volunteers because slavery is illegal. Althsheans are not hard-working by earth standards, frequently entering into a semi-conscious dream state, but they are tractable and without any conception of violence.

That is, until Davidson rapes and kills a female Althshean, which prompts a male, her husband Selver, to attack him in the street. Only the intervention of other humans, including the intellectual Lyubov, stops him from killing Selver then and there, which Davidson attributes to their weakness.

Davidson’s actions, however, set in motion a chain of events that have catastrophic consequences. In the language of the Althsheans, Selver becomes a god—that is, a person who introduces a new concept into society. Selver’s contribution: violence.

The Word for World is Forest is one of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, in which the humans from Terra begin to colonize habitable planets of nearby stars, only to discover that the planets are already inhabited by humans whose evolution has progressed along a different track. The Left Hand of Darkness is another part of this cycle. On Althshe, humans adapted to live in an idyllic, forested planet where men and women share leadership and define themselves in relation to their intimate relationships. Men’s role in this society is to tap into the dream while waking and sleeping, a trance-like mystical state that allows them to guide society. The role of women is to lead the community. Displays of prowess are achieved through song.

Outside a few scenes with Selver, the reader is invited to experience this society through the lens of humans from Terra: the curious and sympathetic Lyubov and the hostile and bigoted Davidson.

This is the third of Le Guin’s Hainish novels that I have read, but will probably not be the last. Set in the near future, the series takes what I love about Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men in that it envisions different evolutionary paths, but then sets an actual story around a particular theme. Thus where The Left hand of Darkness is fundamentally built around gender politics and power dynamics, The Word for World is Forest addresses environmentalism and colonial exploitation, complete with the gendered constructions of the passive Althsheans. Despite winning the Hugo award for Novella in 1973, The Word for World is Forest is in my opinion not as strong a story as either The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, both of which are both more subtle and more powerful in their stories. This judgement, though, is given in light of the high bar set by the other two novels rather than as a condemnation of this slim, beautiful story.

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For the first time in a while I’m reading two books at once, the graphic novel Watchmen and am continuing my run of fantasy books written by women with Robin Hobb’s Ship of Magic. Watchmen isn’t written by women, but the prose streak remains intact.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with that fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me personal loyalty: and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance.

I am late come to the works of Ursula K. Le Guin having once starting–and giving up on–her fantasy books. This year I returned to her books, first with The Dispossessed and now The Left Hand of Darkness. Like The Dispossessed, I found Left Hand (published 1969) to be a somewhat raw book, but powerful, thoughtful and, in many ways, Important.

The planet Gethen (also known as Winter) is perpetually in the grip of an ice age, with bountiful fish, but few mammals and no birds. The hominids who live on Winter adapted to the environment, both in terms of their resistance to extreme cold and in other adaptations that are designed to ensure their survival. The habitable zone on Winter, such that it is, is divided into multiple political units, with the two most important being the kingdom of Karhide and the country of Orgoreyn. The former is a decentralized state subdivided into small landholdings ruled over by local lords and family units; the latter is a centralized and centrally planned state run by a central council and shadowy agencies. Neighbors, Karhide and Orgoreyn usually allow trade across the border, provided that one has the proper paperwork for Orgoreyn, but are diametrically opposed. There are, however, some people in Karhide who believe that the kingdom should be somewhat more like Orgoreyn and are willing to go to great lengths to make that happen.

Into this uncertain political situation enters Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen, the political organization of the planets with human species on them dedicated to facilitating trade in cultural, intellectual, and technological innovations. He lands first at Karhide, but his situation soon becomes endangered when a coup against his primary benefactor, Prime Minister Estraven, forces both men (independently) to flee to Orgoreyn. Of course, this change is not necessarily for the better.

Genly’s “otherness” is particularly pronounced on Winter because he is what they would call “a pervert”–that is, someone whose anatomy is like that on earth. Gethenian are what Genly terms ambisexual. Their normal state of being is neither male nor female, but with the potential to be one or the other. Once a month they go into a state of “kemmer,” hormonal arousal that becomes further excited by contact with others in kemmer. (As a hormonal change, kemmer can be manipulated through artificial hormones, but this is generally frowned upon.) Kemmer changes their anatomy to express either male or female anatomy, with no predisposition to one or the other, and only remains in this state if, when in female anatomy, the Gethenian becomes pregnant. Genly is a pervert because he is “always in kemmer.”

At its heart The Left Hand of Darkness is driven by elements of thriller as Genly races from one place to another, one step ahead of forces that will destroy him, and the relationship between Genly and Estraven, but the details of Gethenian anatomy strike me as the most important part of the book. Le Guin, through Genly’s eyes, asks how this anatomy fundamentally shapes Gethenian cultures and how the different political units exploit their anatomy for their own ends, insidious and otherwise. Moreover, Genly is forced to reckon with his own preconceptions about gender in terms of how he addresses people. For instance, he frequently defaults to calling Gethenians “he” and “son,” while also judging those he considers effeminate, despite those terms being blatantly wrong.

The Left Hand of Darkness could have been a viable story set on earth, but the way Le Guin weaves in anthropology, mythology, and mysticism makes it exceptional. This book is a powerful meditation on duality, in terms of countries, gender, cultures, and sexualities. It is optimistic about the possibilities for empathy and understanding, but keenly aware of the tragedies that must be overcome to get to that point.

My copy of The Left Hand of Darkness also had an introductory essay about the nature of writing, reading, and science fiction. In this essay Le Guin argues that people don’t read science fiction and dismiss it as “escapist” actually find it “depressing” because they consider it extrapolative and must arrive “somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.” Le Guin denies that her novel extrapolates from the present, saying:

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The essay continues to talk about mistaken trust in artists of various sorts, and refers to reading as a form of “insanity. It is an essay that may be argued against, without a doubt, but it also performs the function of a good essay: it is provokes discussion.

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I just finished Stefan Zweig’s posthumous novella Chess Story. Next up, I am still working my way through Better Angels of our Nature and am planning to start Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man later today.

The Dispossessed- Ursula K. Le Guin

Now, you man from a world I cannot even imagine, you who see my Paradise as Hell, will you ask what my world must be like?

The winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, The Dispossessed has its faults, but is a revelation nonetheless. The novel, subtitled “an ambiguous utopia,” follows Shevek, a physicist across two timelines, brilliantly interweaving the themes and events of the two toward the seminal events of the story, a departure and an un-narrated return. This is a narrative technique I have a fondness for and Le Guin executes it well, but the brilliance lies in that the technique mirrors Shevek’s research on Sequency and Simultaneity. Content and form are matched, but I am getting ahead of myself.

At its heart, The Dispossessed is a story of exploration. Shevek is raised on the “anarchic” moon/world Anarres where, a hundred and fifty years before the story, the most fervent followers of the revolutionary preacher Odo fled to found a new society. Their language is constructed to do away with prejudices and superstitions, their names assigned by a computer, and their society based on the principles of individualism and equality. Society is governed by economic “syndicates” that are voluntary associations for people to pursue vocations. While everyone is free to do as they wish, the behavior is regulated by community and traditional pressures. Everyone pursues what is best for them and their community and everyone makes sacrifices. Shevek finds out that there may not be a hierarchy, but some people are able to exert power over others as he is repeatedly thwarted in his scientific pursuits by a petty, conservative scientist. Even beyond influentially located opponents, he comes to realize how much power the entrenched bureaucracy has. This may not be problematic for the individual who can seamlessly integrate into society as needed, but is devastating for one whose social fabric requires being knotted with a particular set of people.

When Shevek tries to live the revolution, he learns that there are social consequences–particularly when he decides that his purpose includes becoming the first person in nearly 200 years to go back to the land of the “profiteers,” Urras, whence their ancestors fled all those years ago. Yet, once he manages to make this journey, Shevek finds that his study of temporal physics is easier, but also that there is gross inequality and that there are as many or more limits on his personal freedoms.

The Dispossessed is bursting with ideas. In the Anarres timeline, there are questions of love, family, and intimacy in a society based on extreme socialization, the problem of communal subsistence and sacrifice in times of hardship, power and influence in a society formally without hierarchy or religion. In the Urres timeline, there is an issue of gender equality, inequalities based on wealth, and money. Spanning the two are the ultimate issues of freedom and happiness, combined with the way in which language governs how people interact with the world around them. Framing all of these, as well as the story as a whole is the very basic idea of walls. The story begins:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of a boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.

Looked at from one side, the wall enclosed a barren sixty-acre field called the port of Anarres…It was in fact a quarantine…It enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free.

Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine.

Though he never addresses it directly, Shevek seems to hate the wall, but nevertheless must decide which side he wants to be on.

I have owned this book for a while now, but had it independently talked up by several people whose literary opinions I respect, so I moved it up my list and was immensely rewarded. I was swept away by The Dispossessed, which quickly became one of my favorite science fiction novels. That said, there were times that I found Urras, the Earth-analog, to be a little bit too on the nose with its Cold War parallels (the novel was first published in 1974). Le Guin does transcend this in the end, and notably manages to tell the story from the point of view of an outsider plopped down into the middle of the conflict, while also positing a different sort of stalemate between the two worlds, both of which sometimes refer to the other world as their “moon.” Shevek has his preferences between the two, but both may be considered an “ambiguous utopia.”

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Next up, I am about halfway through Yasushi Inoue’s Tun-Huang, which is fine, but not nearly as exceptional as a lot of what I’ve read this year thus far. My expectations might be high at this point, but it is disappointing me nonetheless.