Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle has been a source of pleasurable reading for some time now; but alas, I’m quickly running out of new (new to me) Hainish books to read. After finishing The Word for World Is Forest, the only remaining Hainish material I have yet to read (as far as I know) is the story collection Four Ways to Forgiveness. As usual for Le Guin, Word for World (to shorten just a bit), is a thoughtful story about different permutations of human society as it evolves on various worlds, and about the tragedies that can result when different branches of the human family (re-)encounter each other. It also has something to say about war and violence, and says it with a heavy dose of satire, which makes this book a little different from the other Hainish novels. Le Guin originally wrote this as a novella which appeared in Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions, and then later expanded it into a novel (although still a very short one). As far as I can tell, this is the later version I’ve read.
The basic theme of the story is that of exploiters and the exploited — the powerful, greedy, violent invaders versus the primitive, innocent, peaceful natives. Terrans have come to the planet Athshe, coveting its natural resources and seeing it as ripe for colonization. A small population of a few thousand, including a heavy military component, have set up a few initial settlements, largely devoted to harvesting Athshe’s lush forests for their timber, which is shipped back to Earth as a “necessary luxury.” To help in this endeavor, the Terrans have enslaved the native Athsheans as a captive work force — “voluntary labor” in the Terrans’ terminology. These Terrans really have a way with words, don’t they?
The Athsheans, another branch of humanity descended from Hainish colonizers, are an easy target for such abuse. Small in stature and non-aggressive by nature, they don’t resist being put to work and kept in pens…. at least at first. After all, they are human, cousins to their Terran overlords, and so the potential for violence exists somewhere within them. And that is a central point of the book: that violence may be minimized, controlled, overcome, even forgotten…. but it is never forgotten completely, and can be re-learned with astonishing speed. When one individual Athshean is pushed over the edge into violent behavior, the peculiar nature of Atshean psychology causes his people to see him as a kind of prophet or god, and consequently the violence spreads throughout the entire society, unleashing a terrible force of destruction on the Terran outsiders.
As I said, the satire is laid on pretty thick. Some parts of this remind me strongly of the various Robert Sheckley stories that deal with the same theme of a smug, arrogant humanity stepping on alien natives. I also can’t help but think of Dr. Strangeglove and its darkly hilarious portrayal of the military mind. Le Guin’s Davidson character could have come right out of that movie, with lines like this:
“When I say Earth, Kees, I mean people. Men. You worry about deer and trees and fibreweed, fine, that’s your thing. But I like to see things in perspective, from the top down, and the top, so far, is humans. We’re here, now; and so this world’s going to go our way. Like it or not, it’s a fact you have to face; it happens to be the way things are.”
[...] you’ve got to play on the winning side or else you lose. And it’s Man that wins, every time. The old Conquistador.
Also quite noticeable in the novel are references to the Vietnam War, during which the story was written. The jungle imagery, the Terran’s use of what is effectively napalm, My Lai-style massacres, an enemy that is physically smaller and uses underground living spaces, all of this brings Vietnam to the reader’s mind. At one point Davidson makes a comment about how it doesn’t matter if they’re vastly outnumbered, all it takes is superior firepower and the will to win. He, like the Americans in southeast Asia, eventually has to face the fact that he’s wrong about that.
This book was interesting for a few other reasons. One was that it takes place during the time when the League of All Worlds was first being formed. As the Terrans communicate with Earth via the recently discovered ansible, we can see the maturing effects on Earth as it steps forth to join a larger community. Incidentally, the arrival of the ansible also reveals the paranoia that can result from an over-acute sense of military suspicion; some of the Terrans almost bring themselves to believe the ansible is a Hainish trick, a sophisticated computer generating answers on the spot, rather than being an interstellar communications device. Also interesting was the Athsheans’ dreaming ability, and their division of life into “dream-time” and “world-time” (I’m thinking of Australian aborigines for some reason).
This was a good book. But then, I already said it was written by Le Guin, so I suppose I’m being redundant, aren’t I?