Humans have learned interstellar travel from the people of Hain (the origin-planet of all humanoid races, including the Athsheans, despite their appearance). The various planets have been expanding independently, but during the novel it is learned that the 'League of All Worlds' has been formed. News arrives via an ansible, a new discovery. Previously they had been cut off, 27 light-years from Earth, meaning a 54-year delay in question and response.
Athshe's plants and animals are similar to those of Earth, placed there by the Hainish people in their first wave of colonisation that also settled Earth. The Cetian visitor also states categorically that the native humans "came from the same, original, Hainist stock". It is not explained why they are green-furred and only one meter tall. Other distinctive humans such as the Gethenians are said to have been produced by genetic manipulation by the ancient Hainish colonisers.
The events of the novel occur after The Dispossessed, where both the ansible and the League of Worlds are unrealised dreams. Also well before Planet of Exile, where human settlers have learned to coexist. A date in the 24th century has been suggested.
"The Athshean word for 'world' is the same as their word for 'forest'." Raj Lyubov, one of the novel's major characters.
Colonists from Earth take over a planet that the locals call Athshe, which means "forest," rather than "dirt," like their home planet. They follow the 19th century model of colonization: cutting down trees, planting farms, building mines, and enslaving indigenous peoples. The natives are ill equipped to comprehend this, since they're a subsistent people who rely on the forests, and have no cultural precedent for tyranny, slavery, or war. The invaders take the land of these tiny forest people without any resistance.
Earth has suffered some environmental disasters and people in North America have known starvation. The military culture has some familiar aspects, but there have been cultural shifts. Both drug-use and homosexuality are acceptable, even in the military. Some Terrans feel a rivalry with the other humanoid cultures, especially the Cetians. Former national rivalries have faded, with North Americans, Vietnamese and Indians working together harmoneously.
The innocent ingrained obedience of the Athsheans and the fact that they never seem to sleep makes them seem to be ideal slaves, practicing what in humans is called polyphasic sleep. One of the worst slave-masters is Captain Davidson (who is not the leader of the Terrans -- a common misconception), who regularly beats the "creechies", as he calls the Athsheans. But the fact is that they take a few dreamless catnaps spread throughout the day, and go into a state of lucid dreaming at will, and quite often. They also see the "dream-time" as a world just as real as the "world-time," and hate hallucinogens which the humans use, because they have no control over the dreams generated by the "poisons." Most of the "yumens" make no effort to understand this, and drive them harder when they catch them "daydreaming." Deprived of REM sleep, the slaves' mental and physical health deteriorates. The only human who begins to understand this is Corporal Raj Lyubov, who saves several slaves from grisly deaths at Davidson's hands. When a tiny native woman is raped by Davidson, and dies of her wounds, her husband, Selver, begins to dream of war.
No one had dreamed of war before, but Selver is able to share his dream, and sing his plans with the rest of his people. He organises a raid on a logging camp, killing more than 200 humans and humbling Davidson. To his people he has becomes a sha'ab, a word that means both a translator and a god.
Meantime a starship arrives bringing an ansible intended for another nearby world, and also two non-Terrans, a Cetian and a man of Hain. Via ansible, they learn that there is now a 'League of All Worlds' and that Terran colonial policies have changed. The ansible is left at the colony so that the Terrans can be controlled by their own superiors. Instructions are issued to free the Athshean slaves and generally moderate the policies.
Outraged by all this, and suspecting that the 'ansible' is a fraud or controlled by Cetians, Davidson secretly organises a raid and mass slaughter of a nearby Athshean tree-city. The Athsheans respond by organising a massive raid on 'Central', the main Terran base, which they manage to overrun.
One shocking detail is that the Athsheans intentionally kill the Terran women, reasoning that they will otherwise establish a fast-breeding Terran colony. This is indeed the intention, the settlers plan to make a permanent home on 'New Tahiti', not just to take its logs. For their part the Athsheans have no tradition of warfare and therefore no rules, and anyway their own women take part in the fighting.
The revolution upends the Athshean culture, but succeeds in ending Terran domination. For the atrocities he has committed, Davidson is exiled to an island of bare rock, that had been a thriving forest village before his rule, to be given food and medicine but no human contact for the rest of his life. The surviving humans (not including Lyubov, who was accidentally killed in the revolt) return home on the next ship to arrive.
An evidently relevant touch is the presence of Vietnamese people among the oppressor humans, presumably intended to convey the point that today's oppressed might turn into tomorrow's oppressor.
A copy of The Word For World is Forest is visible at the bedside of the character Joker in a scene set in Vietnam in Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket (this is an anachronism as the movie takes place in and around 1968, while The Word For World is Forest was published in 1976).
In chapter 43 of the expanded version of Stephen King's 1978 novel The Stand, dialogue between the characters Nick Andros (who is characterized as an avid science fiction reader) and Tom Cullen alludes to "The Word For World is Forest" as they enter Woods County, Oklahoma: "'The world is the place I mean,' Tom said. 'Are we going into the world, mister?' Tom hesitated and then asked with hesitant gravity: 'Is Woods the word for world?' Slowly, Nick nodded his head."
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