The Word for World is Forest

Book Review: The Word for World is Forest by Ursula Le Guin 3/5 StarsTitle: The Word for World is Forest

Author: Ursula Le Guin

Summary: When the inhabitants of a peaceful world are conquered by the bloodthirsty yumens, they find themselves forced into servitude, at the mercy of their brutal masters. Eventually, desperation causes them to abandon their strictures against violence and rebel against their captors. But in doing so, they have endangered the very foundations of their society. For every blow against the invaders is a blow to the humanity of the Athsheans. And once the killing starts, there is no turning back.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: I love Le Guin’s writing, but honestly haven’t read enough of it. I’ve had this book on my to read list since i first read The Dispossessed five years ago. This book had already been next on my to read pile, though it proved timely, coinciding with Le Guin recent and saddening death. The Dispossessed and The Word for World is Forest are the first two books in the Hainish Cycle, and let’s not pretend the third book in the series, Rocannon’s World, isn’t now top of my to buy list. The books aren’t connected by plot or characters, and can be read out of sequence or independently of each other–but chronologically is how i roll.

But this book. This book was interesting and frustrating all at the same time. Set on a world of islands, all completely covered in trees, the human race (as we know it) has arrived, settled, and started a small logging colony. The world and races created and explored here are wonderfully done. The native Athsheans, small and covered in green hair, are Le Guin’s literal ‘little green men’. From the human’s point of view they are a quiet, simple, unintelligent race, barely worth training up for menial tasks such as cooking and cleaning. The Athsheans are actually a lovely, peaceful, extremely clever introspective race who put much stock in dreaming. I found them quite charming.

Our three main characters are two humans–the selfish, egotistical, and cruel Davidson, and the reserved, observant, and kindhearted Lyubov–and one Athshean–the headstrong, confident, visionary Selver. Davidson, as Le Guin acknowledges in her introduction, is 100% the bad guy. He has no redeeming features, and is there solely to cause trouble and be hated. And oh, was he so easy to hate. I hated him unreservedly, and though that was really the point, and i loved to hate him, it also felt hollow and disappointing, to know he was written in that way and for him to have nothing but hate to give or receive. Selver was a smart man, and i don’t blame him for any of the choices he made–he did the best and smartest things he could given the situation, and he handled it marvellously. For someone who acted so emotionally to trauma and loss, he also seemed, on the whole, quite emotionless. Though i wonder if that may be a byproduct of introspection, of dreaming, of knowing oneself–being able to acknowledge your emotions and make conscious decisions rather than gut reactions. Lyubov, though. Lyubov was my favourite. He was the middle man, the one trying to bridge the gap between the humans and the Athsheans, with very few people on either side going along with that. I found him to have the purest heart, the most interesting perspective, and to be the only one not quite sure of himself.

The book is not without problems. Women treated as objects and commodities by the humans and all the main characters being male are two of the biggest. While the Athsheans have a more equal society, it still rubs me the wrong way that women have their assigned gender roles and men have theirs–it’s not fair to anyone. And while the women as sex objects and baby producers in the human society is certainly a negative commentary, it is never discussed or explored enough to be openly critiqued in the story, and i find that a huge blow.

Stand out in the story is the concept of violence and change. How people and societies develop in ways they need to to their surroundings and threats, but how that change is permanent. Although the threat might have passed, the actions taken are irreversible and will shape the development of things forever. It is, like every Le Guin book i have read so far, exceptional world building and exploration of ideas and themes and characters. I can’t wait to read more.

Advertisements

The Wild Girls, Plus…

TWG+Title: The Wild Girls, Plus…

Author: Ursula Le Guin

Summary: Nebula Award winner The Wild Girls, newly revised and presented here in book form for the first time, tells of two captive “dirt children” in a society of sword and silk, whose determination to enter “that space in which there is room for justice” leads to a violent and loving end.

Plus… Le Guin’s scorching essay Staying Awake While We Read, which demolishes the pretensions of corporate publishing and capitalism as well; a handful of poems that glitter like stars; and a modest proposal.

And Featuring: Our Outspoken Interview which promises to reveal the hidden dimensions of America’s best-known SF author. And delivers.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 4/5

Review: I’ve yet to go wrong with Le Guin. She’s consistently interesting, well-written and thought-provoking. So much so i recently backed a kickstarter raising money to make a documentary on the life of the author.

The short story here, The Wild Girls, is the only piece of fiction in this collection. I love how simply and seemingly effortlessly Le Guin can lay out the details and intricacies of a society and culture. The class and currency systems, most especially, were odd but recognisable. In terms of plot, it’s simple enough, but this is quite a character-driven story. I rooted for those girls from start to finish, and though some justice was had, it was not nearly enough.

Where i really found myself loving this book were Le Guin’s essays. I absolutely adored Staying Awake While We Read, which addresses they ever-consistent, though somewhat low, number of book sales, and how and why this is seen as bad in a society that is unhealthily obsessed with economic growth. Le Guin make her arguments in witty and rememberable ways; she’s smart and pulls no punches. I really didn’t want that essay to end. Several times i wanted to pull out a pen and underline sentences or mark passages, only remembering at the last minute that the book was borrowed. I’ve had to settle to taking photographs and typing out quotes for tumblr!

I enjoyed the poems, though particularly the shorter ones–i think Le Guin can do a lot with few words. The essay on modesty was interesting, though didn’t grab me quite as thoroughly. And the interview, well… at points i felt for the interviewer, who quite obviously was not getting the answers they wanted, but at the same time, i adored Le Guin’s straightforward, humourous and no-nonsense responses.

There are several unread Le Guin books on my bookshelves, but i can promise they won’t be unread for long. And i plan to hunt down and read the hell out of any other non-fiction essays she’s written–i’m completely and utterly smitten.

TTT: Authors

TTTI found this one pretty easy. There aren’t too many authors I read just because—without knowing more about the book itself. My original list had about 13 names, and it wasn’t too hard to cut that down to 10. These authors are ten names that have me reading any book by without question.

Christopher Brookmyre – Comedy, crime, satire, well-rounded characters. The day a Brookmyre book doesn’t make me laugh out loud will be a very sad day indeed (and a day that will never happen).

John Wyndham – Insightful science fiction. This man has not written a word I haven’t loved.

Patrick deWitt – I can’t even categorise deWitt’s genre… sharp, witty contemporary. Is that a thing? With only two books written, i’m already 100% hooked.

Stephen King – Horror. As King has said himself: he is the literary equivalent of a bigmac and fries. It’s not the most nutritious meal, and you don’t want to eat it every day, but it’s bloody tasty when you have it.

Shirley Jackson – Horror. Jackson is more classic horror. More chills and meaning. More genuinely scary.

William Golding – Another author who is hard to pigeon hole, because his subject matter and message vary so much from book to book. He is consistently well-written and interesting, though.

George Orwell – Intelligent, insightful and ahead of his time. I’ve only read a couple of Orwell’s books so far, but I look forward to more.

Aldous Huxley – I file Huxley close to Orwell, but not because of Brave New World and 1984, as you might expect. Mostly because they strike me as two people who would have interesting conversations—they both have worthwhile and intelligent things to say.

J D Salinger – Some authors are just in a genre of their own, and I think Salinger is one. He has such a way with words, so simple, but so unique for his characters. He gets across concepts and personality so swiftly that it looks easy.

Ursula Le Guin – Science fiction that holds such imagination and exploration. I adore Le Guin a lot. I can’t get enough of her work, and hold very high—and possibly unfair—expectations of her.

A Fisherman of the Inland Sea

fishermanTitle: A Fisherman of the Inland Sea

Author: Ursula Le Guin

Summary: This new collection of short fiction by one of America’s most honoured authors celebrates her understanding that narrative is the shining thread with which we create our common humanity.

In A Fisherman of the Inland Sea Le Guin has assembled a far-reaching catalogue of wonders, and she uses them to illuminate the earth on which ordinary women and men live. Astonishing in their diversity, her stories exhibit both a major writer at the height of her powers, and the humanity of a mature artist confronting the world with her gift of wonder still intact.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Review: My first encounter with Le Guin was when i picked up The Dispossessed. I loved the setting, the genre and the topics explored in that book, and was interested in reading more of Le Guin’s work. So, when i found this book while browsing the sci-fi and fantasy section in the library, i picked it up. When i saw it was a book of short stories, i was sold.

The book has a really strong start with, with an introduction titled On Not Reading Science Fiction where Le Guin talks about why people may claim they don’t like science fiction, and what aspects of science fiction genre they are missing out on by focusing on the “science” rather that the “fiction” part of the name. As Le Guin herself puts it:

Even in its ungainly and inaccurate name, the “science” modifies, is in service of, the “fiction.”

The stories themselves started off sketchy. I enjoyed The First Contact with Gorgonids and its feminist commentary. Newton’s Sleep was okay; i liked the ideas it was exploring, but the story itself did not hold my interest. The Ascent of the North Face was a joke i did not get. The Kerastion i found quite dull while it seemed to want to be so meaningful.

The Rock The Changed Things was the first story i really loved in this collection. It stayed with me for days after i read it. As well as loving words, i am a very visual person. The idea of coloured rocks forming patterns used for expression and communication that was completely missed by more “intellectual” people, and what that expression brought about was wonderful.

It was the last three stories, The Shobies’ Story, Dancing to Ganam, and A Fisherman of the Inland Sea that truly stood out as the best of the lot. I have to talk about these three stories together because, although they are three independent stories with their own distinct narratives, they are all linked and in each story, the world they are set in grows a little. At the heart of all of them is the idea and development of instantaneous travel, across a laboratory, across a campus, across a planet, across space. This is simply the backdrop to the stories, but with each story the world evolved more in my mind.

I found The Shobies’ Story quite slow going, and was in fact more interested in the travel aspect than the characters and their small community and connections; i felt the story went on a little too long. The last two stories were the longest, but i think for that, were the most well-developed. Dancing to Ganam was a little slow to get going, but once it did, i was lost to it. I could see the end coming, but that didn’t take away from the story as it played out.

The star of the book, though, undoubtedly, was the title story, A Fisherman of the Inland Sea. There is a lot of explaining about the world the book in set on, and about how relationships and families work, but it was interesting to read about four-way bisexual polygamous marriages being the socially acceptable norm, and people who choose to have a monogamous relationship being shunned and looked down on. It was when the narrator, after describing his world, started his story, that the book became impossible to put down, and although i had planned on stopping, i had to stay up and finish it.

As mediocre as the ratings i have given both this book and The Dispossessed are, Le Guin is definitely an author i will read again. I love her stories, the concepts and the settings. I just also think there is more potential in them; they could be a little more exciting, a little more interesting, a little more gripping. Just, a little more.

The Dispossessed

dispossessedTitle: The Dispossessed.

Author: Ursula Le Guin.

Summary: Shevek is a brilliant physicist from the austerely isolationist and anarchic planet Anarres working on the Principle of Simultaneity which could revolutionize interstellar civilization by making instantaneous communication possible. But Shevek’s life work is threatened by jealous colleagues and so, in the face of intense hostility, he makes the unprecedented journey to the rich mother planet, Urras, hoping to find more tolerance there. But the aggressive capitalism of Urras suits him no better than the anarachism of Anarres and Shevek soon finds himself a helpless political pawn.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5

Review: First of all, i would like to clearly state that i very much enjoyed this book. It was interesting, and showed ideas, points of view and characters that are absent from most popular fiction. It was a delight to read about these things.

That said, this book did not excite me. There was nothing driving the book, or the reader, along. The plot was minimal, and not used in any effective way. There was simply no catalyst to get the story going. It meandered along with nothing but the fact that i found the subject matter interesting to keep my attention.

It’s about two worlds, two societies. The first, on Anarres. The second, on Urras. The former being the moon to the latter. Almost 200 years previous a group of people left Urras and created their own ‘anarchist’ (inverted commas will be explained gradually as you read the book) society on Anarres. One man, Shevek, not fully satisfied on Anarres, leaves for Urras hoping for the best.

The story’s chapters alternate between Shevek’s arrival and subsequent adjustment to life on Urras and his life growing up on Anarres and the events leading up to his departure. This switching time and location was interesting in that you get to discover and learn about both worlds gradually. I can’t decide if this fact helped or hindered the book’s lack of excitement, perhaps a little of both. What was interesting about the alternating narrative was that the book concludes both just as Shevek decides to leave Anarres and just as he is arriving back. The juxtaposition of his thoughts, feelings and opinions at these two points in time was the most enjoyable part of the whole book for me, i think.

None of the characters were particularly likeable, which is normal for me, but in this book it was a disadvantage to an already lacking story. I had nothing to hold my attention and no one to root for. In fact throughout most of the book, the only thing i really took an interest in was the concepts; people’s thoughts and ideas, feelings and motivations. On both planets, but mostly on Anarres. To see a society that from the face of it seems an anarchic paradise (save for the physical condition of the planet) be described in details slowly enough to gradually allow the reader, along with the main character, to realise that it’s just not as simple and idyllic as it seems.

Overall, a very interesting, if not interest-grabbing book with some perspectives severely lacking in most popular fiction. I would recommended it.