Wednesday, 30 April 2008



The Word for World is Forest is a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in 1976 and based on her 1972 novella. It is part of the 'Hainish Cycle.


Several centuries in the future, humans from Earth have established a logging colony and military base named "New Tahiti" on a tree-covered planet whose small, green-furred, big-eyed inhabitants have formed a culture centered on lucid dreaming. Terran greed spirals around native innocence and wisdom, turning the ancient society upside down.

Humans have learned interstellar travel from the people of Hain (the origin-planet of all humanoid races, including the Athsheans, despite their appearance). The various planets have been expanding independently, but during the novel it is learned that the 'League of All Worlds' has been formed. News arrives via an ansible, a new discovery. Previously they had been cut off, 27 light-years from Earth, meaning a 54-year delay in question and response.

Athshe's plants and animals are similar to those of Earth, placed there by the Hainish people in their first wave of colonisation that also settled Earth. The Cetian visitor also states categorically that the native humans "came from the same, original, Hainist stock". It is not explained why they are green-furred and only one meter tall. Other distinctive humans such as the Gethenians are said to have been produced by genetic manipulation by the ancient Hainish colonisers.

The events of the novel occur after The Dispossessed, where both the ansible and the League of Worlds are unrealised dreams. Also well before Planet of Exile, where human settlers have learned to coexist. A date in the 24th century has been suggested.[1]

Plot summary

"The Athshean word for 'world' is the same as their word for 'forest'." Raj Lyubov, one of the novel's major characters.

Colonists from Earth take over a planet that the locals call Athshe, which means "forest," rather than "dirt," like their home planet. They follow the 19th century model of colonization: cutting down trees, planting farms, building mines, and enslaving indigenous peoples. The natives are ill equipped to comprehend this, since they're a subsistent people who rely on the forests, and have no cultural precedent for tyranny, slavery, or war. The invaders take the land of these tiny forest people without any resistance.

Earth has suffered some environmental disasters and people in North America have known starvation. The military culture has some familiar aspects, but there have been cultural shifts. Both drug-use and homosexuality are acceptable, even in the military. Some Terrans feel a rivalry with the other humanoid cultures, especially the Cetians. Former national rivalries have faded, with North Americans, Vietnamese and Indians working together harmoneously.

The innocent ingrained obedience of the Athsheans and the fact that they never seem to sleep makes them seem to be ideal slaves, practicing what in humans is called polyphasic sleep. One of the worst slave-masters is Captain Davidson (who is not the leader of the Terrans -- a common misconception), who regularly beats the "creechies", as he calls the Athsheans. But the fact is that they take a few dreamless catnaps spread throughout the day, and go into a state of lucid dreaming at will, and quite often. They also see the "dream-time" as a world just as real as the "world-time," and hate hallucinogens which the humans use, because they have no control over the dreams generated by the "poisons." Most of the "yumens" make no effort to understand this, and drive them harder when they catch them "daydreaming." Deprived of REM sleep, the slaves' mental and physical health deteriorates. The only human who begins to understand this is Corporal Raj Lyubov, who saves several slaves from grisly deaths at Davidson's hands. When a tiny native woman is raped by Davidson, and dies of her wounds, her husband, Selver, begins to dream of war.

No one had dreamed of war before, but Selver is able to share his dream, and sing his plans with the rest of his people. He organises a raid on a logging camp, killing more than 200 humans and humbling Davidson. To his people he has becomes a sha'ab, a word that means both a translator and a god.

Meantime a starship arrives bringing an ansible intended for another nearby world, and also two non-Terrans, a Cetian and a man of Hain. Via ansible, they learn that there is now a 'League of All Worlds' and that Terran colonial policies have changed. The ansible is left at the colony so that the Terrans can be controlled by their own superiors. Instructions are issued to free the Athshean slaves and generally moderate the policies.

Outraged by all this, and suspecting that the 'ansible' is a fraud or controlled by Cetians, Davidson secretly organises a raid and mass slaughter of a nearby Athshean tree-city. The Athsheans respond by organising a massive raid on 'Central', the main Terran base, which they manage to overrun.

One shocking detail is that the Athsheans intentionally kill the Terran women, reasoning that they will otherwise establish a fast-breeding Terran colony. This is indeed the intention, the settlers plan to make a permanent home on 'New Tahiti', not just to take its logs. For their part the Athsheans have no tradition of warfare and therefore no rules, and anyway their own women take part in the fighting.

The revolution upends the Athshean culture, but succeeds in ending Terran domination. For the atrocities he has committed, Davidson is exiled to an island of bare rock, that had been a thriving forest village before his rule, to be given food and medicine but no human contact for the rest of his life. The surviving humans (not including Lyubov, who was accidentally killed in the revolt) return home on the next ship to arrive.

Publishing history

The novella version, originally published in Again, Dangerous Visions, was a winner of the 1973 Hugo Award for Best Novella. Le Guin has stated in her introduction to the novel that the Vietnam War was a major influence on this work. Her original title was The Little Green Men, but Ellison changed it with Le Guin's reluctant consent.

An evidently relevant touch is the presence of Vietnamese people among the oppressor humans, presumably intended to convey the point that today's oppressed might turn into tomorrow's oppressor.

A copy of The Word For World is Forest is visible at the bedside of the character Joker in a scene set in Vietnam in Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket (this is an anachronism as the movie takes place in and around 1968, while The Word For World is Forest was published in 1976).


External links


The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia is a 1974 utopian science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, set in the same fictional universe as that of The Left Hand of Darkness (the Hainish Cycle). The book won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award in 1975, and is notable for achieving a degree of literary recognition unusual for science fiction works.


The story has many themes, as well as the creation of the ansible, an instantaneous communications device that plays a critical role in Le Guin's Hainish Cycle. (The invention of the ansible places the novel first in the internal chronology of the Hainish Cycle, although it was the fifth Hainish novel published.

The story is set on Anarres and Urras, the twin inhabited worlds of Tau Ceti. Cetians are mentioned in other Ekumen novels and short stories. An Anarian appears in the short story The Shobies' Story. Urras before the settlement of Anarres is the setting for the short story The Day Before the Revolution. In The Dispossessed, Urras is presented as having much in common with cold-war era Earth. It is divided into several states which are dominated by the two largest ones, which are rivals. In a clear allusion to the United States and the Soviet Union, one has a capitalist economy and patriarchal system and the other is an authoritarian system that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat.

In the last chapter of The Dispossessed, we learn that the Hainish people arrived at Tau Ceti 60 years ago. Terrans are also there, and the novel occurs some time in the future. A date of 2300 has been suggested.

Plot summary

The story takes place on the fictional planet Urras and its moon Anarres (since Anarres is massive enough to hold an atmosphere, this is often described as a double planet system). In order to forestall an anarcho-syndical workers' rebellion, the major Urrasti states gave the revolutionaries the right to live on Anarres, along with a guarantee of non-interference, approximately two hundred years before the events of The Dispossessed. Before this, Anarres had had no permanent settlements apart from some mining.

The protagonist Shevek is a physicist attempting to develop a General Temporal Theory. The physics of the book describes time as having a much deeper, more complex structure than we understand it. It incorporates not only mathematics and physics, but also philosophy and ethics. The meaning of the theories in the book weaves nicely into the plot, not only describing abstract physical concepts, but the ups and downs of the characters' lives, and the transformation of the Anarresti society. An oft-quoted saying in the book is "true voyage is return."

Anarres is in theory a society without government or coercive authoritarian institutions. Yet in pursuing research that deviates from his society's current consensus understanding, Shevek begins to come up against very real obstacles. Shevek gradually develops an understanding that the revolution which brought his world into being is stagnating, and power structures are beginning to exist where there were none before. He therefore embarks on the risky journey to the original planet, Urras, seeking to open dialog between the worlds and to spread his theories freely outside of Anarres. The novel details his struggles on both Urras and his homeworld of Anarres.

The book also explores the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language shapes culture. The language spoken on the anarchist planet Anarres, Pravic, is a constructed language that reflects many aspects of the philosophical foundations of utopian anarchism. For instance, the use of the possessive case is strongly discouraged. In one scene, Shevek's daughter, meeting him for the first time, offers him "You can share the handkerchief I use,"[3] rather than "you may borrow my handkerchief", thus conveying the idea that the handkerchief is not owned by the girl, merely carried by her.

Cover of first paperback edition

The Dispossessed is considered by some libertarian socialists to be a good description of the mechanisms that would be developed by an anarchist society, but also of the dangers of centralization and bureaucracy that would easily take over such society without the continuation of revolutionary ideology. Part of its power is that it gives us a spectrum of fairly well-developed characters, who illustrate many types of personalities, all educated in an environment that measures a person not by what he owns, but by what he can do, and how he relates to other human beings. Probably the best example of this is the character of Takver, the hero's partner, who exemplifies many virtues: loyalty, love of life and living things, perseverance, and desire for a true partnership with another person.

The work is sometimes said to represent one of the few modern revivals of the utopian genre, and there are certainly many characteristics of a utopian novel found in this book. Most obviously, Shevek is an outsider in Urras, following the "traveler" convention common in utopian literature. All of the characters portrayed in the novel have a certain spirituality or intelligence, there are no nondescript characters. It is also true to say that there are aspects of Anarres that are utopian: it is presented as a pure society that adheres to its own theories and ideals, which are starkly juxtaposed with Urras society.

However, the work is subtitled "An Ambiguous Utopia", and one of the major themes of the work is the ambiguity of different notions of utopia. Anarres is not presented as a perfect society, even within the constraints of what might define an anarchist utopia. Bureaucracy, stagnation, and power structures have problematized the revolution, as Shevek understands through the course of the novel. Moreover, Le Guin has painted a very stark picture of the natural and environmental constraints on society. Anarres citizens are forced to contend with a relatively sparse and unfruitful world. Hardship caused by lack of resources is a prominent theme, reflected in the title of the novel. Anarres citizens are dispossessed not just by political choice, but by the very lack of resources to possess. Here, again, Le Guin draws a contrast with the natural wealth of Urras, and the competitive behaviors this fosters. Le Guin's foreword to the novel notes that her anarchism is closely akin to that of Pyotr Kropotkin's, whose Mutual Aid closely assessed the influence of the natural world on competition and cooperation. Le Guin's use of realism in this aspect of the work further problematizes — ambiguates — a simple utopian interpretation of the work. Anarres is not a perfect society, and Le Guin shows that no such thing is possible.

Influences for the novel

Le Guin's title is in reference to Dostoyevsky's novel The Possessed.

One flashback in the novel was likely inspired by the Stanford prison experiment. Childhood Shevek and some friends – curious about Urras and what prisons must be like – decide to play prison and enact a game very similar in design and results to the actual experiment, including its being cut short.


French: "Les Dépossédés".
German: "Planet der Habenichtse", later "Die Enteigneten", 2006.
Korean: "빼앗긴 자들", 2002
Russian: "Обездоленные", 1994, "Обделённые", 1997, 2002.
Serbian: "Čovek praznih šaka".
Turkish: "Mülksüzler".
Hungarian: "A kisemmizettek", 1994
Finnish: "Osattomien planeetta", 1979
Spanish: "Los desposeídos", 1998
Chinese: "一无所有", 2008


...if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands. You must come to it alone, and naked, as the child comes into the world, into his future, without any past, without any property, wholly dependent on other people for his life. You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.
– Shevek, page 241

For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.
– Odo, page 288

A child free from the guilt of ownership and the burden of economic competition will grow up with the will to do what needs doing and the capacity for joy in doing it. It is useless work that darkens the heart. The delight of the nursing mother, of the scholar, of the successful hunter, of the good cook, of the skilful maker, of anyone doing needed work and doing it well, — this durable joy is perhaps the deepest source of human affection and of sociality as a whole.
– Odo, page 207

With the myth of the State out of the way, the real mutuality and reciprocity of society and individual became clear. Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise: for, though only the society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person, had the power of moral choice — the power of change, the essential function of life. The Odonian society was conceived as a permanent revolution, and revolution begins in the thinking mind.
– Page 276

You see, what we're after is to remind ourselves that we didn't come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom. If we must all agree, all work together, we're no better than a machine. If an individual can't work in solidarity with his fellows, it's his duty to work alone. His duty and his right. We have been denying people that right. We've been saying, more and more often, you must work with the others, you must accept the rule of the majority. But any rule is tyranny. The duty of the individual is to accept no rule, to be the initiator of his own acts, to be responsible. Only if he does so will the society live, and change, and adapt, and survive. We are not subjects of a State founded upon law, but members of a society formed upon revolution. Revolution is our obligation: our hope of evolution. The Revolution is in the individual spirit, or it is nowhere. It is for all, or it is nothing. If it is seen as having any end, it will never truly begin. We can't stop here. We must go on. We must take the risks.
– Shevek, page 296

In the afternoon, when he cautiously looked outside, he saw an armored car stationed across the street and two others slewed across the street at the crossing. That explained the shouts he had been hearing: it would be soldiers giving orders to each other.

Atro had once explained to him how this was managed, how the sergeants could give the privates orders, how the lieutenants could give the privates and the sergeants orders, how the captains... and so on and so on up to the generals, who could give everyone else orders and need take them from none, except the commander in chief. Shevek had listened with incredulous disgust. “You call that organization?” he had inquired. “You even call it discipline? But it is neither. It is a coercive mechanism of extraordinary inefficiency — a kind of seventh-millennium steam engine! With such a rigid and fragile structure what could be done that was worth doing?” This had given Atro a chance to argue the worth of warfare as the breeder of courage and manliness and weeder-out of the unfit, but the very line of his argument had forced him to concede the effectiveness of guerrillas, organized from below, self-disciplined. “But that only works when the people think they're fighting for something of their own — you know, their homes, or some notion or other,” the old man had said. Shevek had dropped the argument. He now continued it, in the darkening basement among the stacked crates of unlabeled chemicals. He explained to Atro that he now understood why the Army was organized as it was. It was indeed quite necessary. No rational form of organization would serve the purpose. He simply had not understood that the purpose was to enable men with machine guns to kill unarmed men and women easily and in great quantities when told to do so. Only he still could not see where courage, or manliness, or fitness entered in.

See also

Anarchism in the arts
Libertarian socialism


Anarchism and The Dispossessed
John P. Brennan, "Anarchism and Utopian Tradition in The Dispossessed", pp. 116-152, in Olander & Greenberg, editors, Ursula K. Le Guin, New York: Taplinger (1979).

Samuel R. Delany, "To Read The Dispossessed," in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. N.Y.: Dragon Press, 1977, pp. 239-308 (anarchism in The Dispossessed).

Neil Easterbrook, "State, Heterotopia: The Political Imagination in Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany", pp.43-75, in Hassler & Wilcox, editors, Political Science Fiction, Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina Press (1997).

Leonard M. Fleck, "Science Fiction as a Tool of Speculative Philosophy: A Philosophic Analysis of Selected Anarchistic and Utopian Themes in Le Guin's The Dispossessed", pp. 133-45, in Remington, editor, Selected Proceedings of the 1978 Science Fiction Research Association National Conference, Cedar Falls: Univ. of Northern Iowa (1979).

John Moore, "An Archaeology of the Future: Ursula Le Guin and Anarcho-Primitivism", Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, v.63, pp. 32-39 (Spring 1995).

Larry L. Tifft, "Possessed Sociology and Le Guin's Dispossessed: From Exile to Anarchism", pp. 180-197, in De Bolt & Malzberg, editors, Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat (1979).

Kingsley Widmer, "The Dialectics of Utopianism: Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Liberal and Fine Arts Review, v.3, nos.1-2, pp. 1-11 (Jan.-July 1983).

Gender and The Dispossessed

Lillian M. Heldreth, "Speculations on Heterosexual Equality: Morris, McCaffrey, Le Guin", pp.209-220 in Palumbo, ed., Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature, Westport, CT: Greenwood (1986).

Neil Easterbrook, "State, Heterotopia: The Political Imagination in Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany", pp.43-75, in Hassler & Wilcox, editors, Political Science Fiction, Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina Press (1997).

Mario Klarer, "Gender and the 'Simultaneity Principle': Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, v.25, n.2, pp.107-21 (Spring 1992).

Jim Villani, "The Woman Science Fiction Writer and the Non-Heroic Male Protagonist", pp. 21-30 in Hassler, ed., Patterns of the Fantastic, Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House (1983).

Language and The Dispossessed

Deirdre Burton, "Linguistic Innovation in Feminist Science Fiction", Ilha do Desterro: Journal of Language and Literature, v.14, n.2, pp. 82-106 (1985).

Property and possessions

Werner Christie Mathiesen, "The Underestimation of Politics in Green Utopias: The Description of Politics in Huxley's Island, Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and Callenbach's Ecotopia", Utopian Studies: Journal of the Society for Utopian Studies, v.12, n.1, pp. 56-78 (2001).

Taoism and The Dispossessed

Elizabeth Cummins Cogell, "Taoist Configurations: The Dispossessed", pp. 153-179 in De Bolt & Malzberg, editors, Ursula K. Le Guin: Voyager to Inner Lands and to Outer Space, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat (1979).

Utopian literature and The Dispossessed

John P. Brennan, "Anarchism and Utopian Tradition in The Dispossessed", pp. 116-152, in Olander & Greenberg, editors, Ursula K. Le Guin, New York: Taplinger (1979).
Bülent Somay, "Towards an Open-Ended Utopia", Science-Fiction Studies, v.11, n.1 (#32), pp. 25-38 (March 1984).

Peter Fitting, "Positioning and Closure: On the 'Reading Effect' of Contemporary Utopian Fiction", Utopian Studies, v.1, pp.23-36 (1987).

Kingsley Widmer, "The Dialectics of Utopianism: Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Liberal and Fine Arts Review, v.3, nos.1-2, pp. 1-11 (Jan.-July 1983).

Additional references

Judah Bierman, "Ambiguity in Utopia: The Dispossessed", Science-Fiction Studies, v.2, pp. 249-255 (1975).

James F. Collins, "The High Points So Far: An Annotated Bibliography of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed", Bulletin of Bibliography, v.58, no.2, pp.89-100 (June 2001).

James P. Farrelly, "The Promised Land: Moses, Nearing, Skinner, and Le Guin", JGE: The Journal of General Education, v.33, n.1, pp. 15-23 (Spring 1981).

Kingsley Widmer, "The Dialectics of Utopianism: Le Guin's The Dispossessed", Liberal and Fine Arts Review, v.3, nos.1-2, pp. 1-11 (Jan.-July 1983).



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