31 pages 1 hour read

Ursula K. Le Guin

The Word for World is Forest

Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1972

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Summary and Study Guide


The Word for World is Forest is a novella by science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin. It was published as a self-contained story in 1976 but had appeared in a science fiction anthology four years earlier. Le Guin included the story in her series, the Hainish Cycle, which details an alternate version of the future in which Earth is a colonizing force on other planets. The story examines themes of imperialism, racism, friendship, and the corrosive effects of violence on a society.

When the story begins, humans are already years into the colonization of a forest planet called Athshe. Wood has become a luxury on Earth, and loggers are on Athshe to cut down the trees and send them home for use. A man named Captain Davidson is flying over Smith Camp in an airship and thinking eagerly about the shipment of women that has recently arrived on Athshe. When he returns to camp after his furlough, it has been destroyed. All the humans have been killed by Athsheans, who are referred to by Davidson—and others—by the derogatory term “creechies.” The Athsheans have been enslaved by the humans and forced to labor for them in the camps.

As Davidson walks through the ruins of the camp, four Athsheans approach him and restrain him. One of them is Selver, an Athshean whose wife was raped by Davidson. She later died. In the ensuing fight following her death, Davidson badly scarred Selver’s face. At Camp Smith, Selver releases Davidson so he can spread the message of the camp’s destruction.

At the base known as Centralville, human officers—as well as two alien emissaries—discuss the massacre and begin an investigation. A man named Raj Lyubov says that the mistreatment of the Athsheans is responsible for the revolt. Lyubov is an academic and a friend of Selver’s who has learned the Athshean language. The others disagree with his assessment and claim that his classification of the Athsheans as peaceful allowed them to let their guard down and made the attack possible.

The two alien emissaries announce that a League of Worlds has been formed. Normally, communication between planets takes twenty-seven years, but they have brought a radio communicator that will allow instantaneous communication. They announce that the League has ordered the release of all Athsheans.

Meanwhile, Davidson attacks another camp as payback for the destruction of Camp Smith. He is transferred, as punishment, to a distant camp called New Java. Selver leads another attack against Centralville, and his people kill many humans, including all of the women. Lyubov is killed in the chaos. The Athsheans imprison the surviving humans and come to terms with their officers: In three years, when the ship that brought them returns, they will leave the planet forever. Until then, they must live on a reservation, in an area with no trees.

Davidson continues to attack Athshean settlements but is captured by Selver when his ship crashes. Selver refuses to kill him. They march Davidson to an abandoned, treeless, lifeless area of the planet and leave him there.

Three years later, the ship returns. Selver delivers Lyubov’s anthropological documents and work to the humans, who then prepare to leave. Before the humans came, the Athsheans had never known murder. Selver worries about the future of his people. Now that they know how to kill, their planet is changed forever, even though the humans are leaving.

The World for World is Forest won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1973, with particular attention given to its parallels between American involvement in the Vietnam War. It remains timely and topical and continues to receive critical acclaim today.