The Word for World is Forest


Ursula K. Le Guin

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The Word for World is Forest Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Ursula K. Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin was born in Berkeley, California, to anthropologist parents. After studying at Radcliffe College (present-day Harvard University) and Columbia University, she worked as a secretary and a French teacher and eventually as a full-time writer of science fiction. Although she was known throughout her life as “America’s greatest living science fiction writer,” she balked at being put in a box as a sci-fi writer and preferred to be known simply as a novelist. Nevertheless, her enduring influence on the genre inspired writers like David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), Neil Gaiman (American GodsThe Sandman), Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners), and Jeff VanderMeer (Annihilation). Le Guin was responsible for revolutionizing the genre by incorporating literary, lyrical prose; Taoist influences; and themes of feminism, anarchism, and environmentalism into her many works. Today, her name is synonymous with using the “safe, sterile laboratory” of the future and fictional world in order to examine the nature of reality; the issues at the heart of the human condition; and the possibilities and dangers that humanity faces as it expands, changes, and seeks to spread its own influence.
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Historical Context of The Word for World is Forest

Although The Word for World is Forest is science fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin was inspired to write the novella because of the then-ongoing Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. Le Guin was upset by the United States’ intervention in Vietnam, and the colonists in The Word for World is Forest were partly inspired by U.S. soldiers. For instance, the colonists’ drug use throughout the novella, which disturbs the Athshean people, is a direct parallel to U.S. soldiers’ drug use during the Vietnam War, and the deforestation in Athshe parallels the deforestation in Vietnam (which was caused in part by Agent Orange, a chemical used by the U.S. military to clear vegetation for military operations). Le Guin was also deeply concerned with ecology, environmental issues, and ecofeminism during her lifetime. The state of Earth in The Word for World is Forest reflects Le Guin’s own concerns about the future of the planet, as Earth’s natural resources have been depleted, and species like deer are extinct.

Other Books Related to The Word for World is Forest

The Word for World is Forest is part of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hainish Cycle,” a series of novels, novellas and short stories set in an alternate future where an interplanetary government exists, which includes Terra (Earth). Guiding this new government is Hain, a peaceful human world; Le Guin’s work posits that human evolution on Earth was the result of Hain’s own colonization of Earth years before. (Le Guin herself denied the existence of a “cycle” of novels, since the stories don’t form a singular history of the world, but readers and critics link them due to their similar settings and themes). Other works within Le Guin’s Hainish cycle include The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Dispossessed (1974), Rocannon’s World (1966), Planet of Exile (1966), and City of Illusions (1967). Le Guin’s literary influences included J.R.R. Tolkien, Victor Hugo, and Philip K. Dick—and, in turn, Le Guin influenced novelists such as Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood.
Key Facts about The Word for World is Forest
  • Full Title: The Word for World is Forest
  • Where Written: Berkeley, California
  • When Published: March 17, 1972
  • Literary Period: Postmodern
  • Genre: Science Fiction Novella
  • Setting: The fictional planet of Athshe (known to humans as World 41 and New Tahiti)
  • Climax: Selver’s final confrontation with Captain Davidson
  • Antagonist: Don Davidson
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Word for World is Forest

Alien Encounters. The Word for World is Forest was originally entitled “Little Green Men,” referencing the stereotypical portrayal of aliens in science fiction.

Show Business. Many have noted the similarities between The Word for World is Forest and the 2009 film Avatar. Le Guin later expressed her disdain for Avatar, as she believed that it “reversed” the novella’s premise by suggesting that violence and militarism was a solution rather than a problem.