The Word for World is Forest (Hainish Cycle), by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Library of America just published these definitive hardcover collections of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle novels and stories, which made my decision to finally start working my way through this classic series of speculative fiction again that much easier. I’m going to be tackling these in no particular order, since they’re only tertiarily connected to one another, but take place in a shared universe.

The Word for World is Forest is a terrific novella, originally published in the Harlan Ellison edited Again, Dangerous Visions anthology in 1972. It went on to win the Hugo award for best Novella later that year. I believe it was very influential to James Cameron’s Avatar (which I am now certain was constructed entirely from story elements and themes originating in Old Man’s War & The Word for World is Forest). The novella also definitely influenced George Lucas’s Ewoks from Return of the Jedi, to such a degree that I think plagiarism is the better suited word.

When the inhabitants of a peaceful world are conquered by the bloodthirsty yumens, their existence is irrevocably altered. Forced into servitude, the Athsheans find themselves at the mercy of their brutal masters.

Desperation causes the Athsheans, led by Selver, to retaliate against their captors, abandoning their strictures against violence. But in defending their lives, 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.

The Word for World is Forest, by Ursula K. Le Guin

It’s a social science fiction story, and a moralistic/ethical one with some wonderfully insightful and precient things to say about dangerous ideas entering the public consciousness. In this way it was perfectly suited for that Dangerous Visions anthology. My main takeaway from tWfWiF is that once a dangerous idea is out there for the first time, there is no turning back. It becomes a part of the public consciousness. Here, specifically that dangerous idea is the very concept of murder, introduced to the peaceful Athsheans by their human/yuman occupiers.

Ursula K. Le Guin

I enjoyed the waking dreams that the Athsheans were capable of, and how deeply dreaming was ingrained into their culture and at such a foundational level. Especially when that was contrasted with how little the humans/yumans dreamt; how they had almost lost the ability altogether and required drugs to fully dream. It speaks volumes to how overworked and under-rested western, and specifically American culture has become. Assuredly, this has only become a larger problem since the seventies when this was written. Dreams are necessary, not only as moments of respite from our chaotic lives, but as catalysts for forward imaginative thinking. We need downtime in order to reset. Dreams fuel us and encourage us to create. What are we without dreams? Without the possibility to imagine something different?

There was a great line in this book about how suicide harms those who live on, but murder harms the murderer herself. I really liked that. It may not be entirely true, but poetically, it was beautifully constructed. This story almost represents the antithesis of that sentiment, when the concept of murder enters the societal consciousness of the Athsheans, it continues to harm them after the fact, by perpetuating itself ad infinitum. It’s impossible to go back once innocence is lost. The Athsheans are forever changed by the invading yumans. Be cautious what you allow into your lives and societies.

Okay, so onto the Ewok/Return of the Jedi connection:

You’ve got a forest planet, filled with furry little creatures about a meter tall. They’re described as looking quite a bit like teddy bears. They live in the forest city named Endtor. Some of them were being used as slaves. They eventually rise up and decide to take on their occupiers, and reclaim their planet. All of their names are exactly 2 syllables long. Hmm… sounds a little familiar.

Ewoks

Are you kidding me George Lucas? For real dude? It took about 9 years, but you massively ripped that concept off from Le Guin. You didn’t even scrape the serial numbers off it. If Le Guin were particularly litigious, she could probably get a percentage on all Ewok merchandizing past and future. She doesn’t strike me as the type to sue, and Disney is a bit of giant to go up against these days. Still, credit should be given where credit is due. The Ewoks originated in Le Guin’s mind, and she deserves the recognition.

The Dark Dark, by Samantha Hunt

The Dark Dark, by Samantha Hunt

“…voices that insist on being heard, stories that demand to be told, writers who are compelled to show us something new.” is how FSG Originals describes the books they publish, and I would absolutely describe Samantha Hunt’s writing in this way. Her stories are brutal yet beautiful, magical but grounded, sincere, horrific, and essential. Her characters have such unique perspectives on their lives and the events surrounding them; a lot of the time these were perspectives that I’d never fully considered, but instantly empathized with once exposed to them.

Samantha HuntThese are stories I obviously needed to read. Stories about women and men of all walks of life passing through stages of the fantastic and the mundane, learning about themselves and the world(s) around them. While reading this book I was reminded of that old saying about how reading someone’s book is like having a conversation with them, or getting to know them a little better. With Hunt’s writing, it felt like getting to know several different women at the same time. It’s extraordinarily powerful stuff. Seeing things from these many new perspectives was fascinating for me.

There isn’t a bad story in the bunch, but the standouts for me were: The Story Of, All Hands, Love Machine, Wampum, & The Story Of Of. Her prose is tight and expressive. She manages to say so much in so few words, and her writing often dips into the magically realistic, with postmodern sensibilities.

I think it’s past due time for me to pick up her novels, and I’m kicking myself for not paying attention when friends were telling me that I should. Oh well, better late than never!

P.S. I need to sing a few praises for this cover as well. Book designers have really been outdoing themselves this year, and this one is no exception. This cover fully subverted my pattern recognition engine by using it against itself, that is until I plopped it down on my coffee table absentmindedly and accidentally saw it from a different angle as it lay there sideways, smirking at me. Clever clever.

The Stars are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

“We all create the stories we need to survive.”

Synopsis:

Set within a system of decaying world-ships travelling through deep space, this breakout novel of epic science fiction follows a pair of sisters who must wrest control of their war-torn legion of worlds—and may have to destroy everything they know in order to survive.

On the outer rim of the universe, a galactic war has been waged for centuries upon hundreds of world-ships. But these worlds will continue to die through decay and constant war unless a desperate plan succeeds.

Anat, leader of the Katazyrna world-ship and the most fearsome raiding force on the Outer Rim, wants peace. To do so she offers the hand of her daughter, Jayd, to her rival. Jayd has dreamed about leading her mother’s armies to victory her whole life—but she has a unique ability, and that makes her leverage, not a leader. As Anat convinces her to spend the rest of her life wed to her family’s greatest enemy, it is up to Jayd’s sister Zan—with no stomach for war—to lead the cast off warriors she has banded together to victory and rescue Jayd. But the war does not go at all as planned…

In the tradition of The Fall of Hyperion and Dune, The Stars are Legion is an epic and thrilling tale about familial love, revenge, and war as imagined by one of the genre’s most imaginative new writers.

 

This one was, wow, very interesting. I won’t be forgetting this one any time soon. It’s going to be very divisive. It had some interesting pacing, and a couple plot holes, but nothing I can’t overlook. The ideas and resolution were wild as hell, and that is where the novel really shined. It really did feel like it was written during the New Wave era of the late 60s/early 70s; some weird combination between Joanna Russ and Iain M. Banks. I’m thinking of some elements of Matter by Iain M. Banks specifically, but structured more like Consider Phlebas.

None of the characters are likable in any way, but that’s a good thing. They’re not meant to be your friends, they’re meant to be brutal. There’s a goal that a few factions are trying to reach, and I found myself not particularly caring who achieved it in the end, because everyone seemed to me to be equally shitty. Honestly, it’s more realistic that way. I really liked that.

Kameron Hurley

Kameron Hurley

There is just a metric fuck-ton of gore and blood and nasty, disturbing, bizarre shit in this thing. People eating their deformed babies, guns that fire squid-like creatures for ammo, organic ships with asexually reproducing characters who birth whatever the ship needs at that moment. It’s wild stuff, really interesting.

I really enjoyed the decision to not elaborate too much on the world building for the readers sake, it’s just presented to you, and a lot of it is weird as hell, but you sort of feel it out and figure it out as you go along. A few of the characters took way too long to discover basic things that I thought were glaringly obvious to the reader, and the prose was just okay, but the story is just wild and huge and definitely worth checking out.