13 dystopias that will be studied in history books: The Word for World Is Forest

The second proposal in the series 13 Dystopias that will be studied in history books is clearly an ecological and anti-colonial background work. There are many topics covered in its pages, and many lines of thought that influence them, although the argument could be summarized as the eternal struggle between a fictional colonized civilization (peaceful and respectful of nature), and another, the human, eager for power and wealth (oppressive, ready to destroy cultures and resources): The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Word for World is Forest was published in 1976, and is based on the homonymous story written by Le Guin in 1972. It is part of the so-called Hainish Cycle (also known as Ekumen, name with which the author refers in her books to the galactic federation of planets inhabited by humans). In this series (not recognized as such by the author, although all the integrated works have elements in common), Le Guin creates a wide and complex conceptual universe. This has its corresponding translation in the material universe that the author describes. The diversity of worlds, communities, origins and genetic variations with which Le Guin plays in her works allow her to explore, from anthropology, sociology or ethics, different alternatives regarding potential forms of human organization. At the same time, the author takes the opportunity to issue serious and profound warnings about possible drifts linked to violence, environmental devastation and the subjugation of societies.

Graduated in Literature, Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018) was influenced from a young age by feminism, Taoism and libertarian thought. The author, the daughter of anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber and psychologist Theodora Kroeber, grew up in a progressive and highly educated environment, and had an exceptional education (she was Philip K. Dick’s classmate, although they did not get to know each other). The discovery of cultural anthropology (a field in which her father is a reference) had an immense impact on both Le Guin’s life and work: it is not by chance that many of the protagonists of her texts are anthropologists. In her stories, they embody values such as dignity, respect for others, the defense of culture and the fight for the preservation of diversity.

In Le Guin’s works, events always revolve around the author’s topics of interest, as an evident influence of her own ideas. However, among them, the inclination towards non-violence stands out, present in some of the societies that the author describes. Through her characters, Le Guin especially links non-violence with anti-colonial movements. Thus, in The Word for World is Forest, Le Guin underscores her meticulous analysis of human society, putting it under her magnifying glass, critical and committed, and showing the havoc caused by a way of being in the belligerent, greedy and mean world, that has no justification except the fear of the unknown.

Written during the last years of the Vietnam War, the original story on which the novel is based presents the author’s personal vision of the conflict (Le Guin herself referred to the play saying “This is my Vietnam”). It is, therefore, a critical reading that coincides with the massive anti-war protests that took place in the United States between 1963 and 1975, in a context also marked by the fight for civil rights, the Yippie movement, the mobilizations of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or the counterculture, which would have such influence in subsequent years.

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