The word for world is forest by Ursula K. LeGuin is a short novel published in 1972, two years after US troops began their withdrawal from Vietnam. The war would end in 1975 with the Fall of Saigon, on that fateful last day of April, when U.S. corps organized the largest helicopter evacuation in history, with over 7000 people fleeing the Saigon area in less than 2 days.
LeGuin lends her powerful voice to the swathes of protests around wars and occupation. The novel paints a complex picture of the oppressors and of the oppressed, through the eyes of three characters during the occupation of a peaceful nation on the remote forest world of Athshe.
Captain Davidson is a ruthless survivor. He is sent to do a job, and hell won't stop him from seeing it done. The local population of dwarven monkey-haired half-humans barely register to him as sentient. He enjoys every moment of it: the raping, the killing. All of it.
Lyubov, a scientist, is the polar opposite. He struggles with accepting the enslaving and the killing of the Athsheans. When he saves Selver from Captain Davidson's killing blow, he finds what he wanted: a gateway into the language and the ways of the forest people.
The two spend a lot of time together, as Selver heals and Lyubov loses any favor he had with his colleagues. But what's lost is gained in another way: Selver learns the human tongue, and teaches Lyubov, and then they part ways.
This interwoven duality evolves throughout the book and stands as testament to the price of resistance. Fighting back, the forest people are forever changed, from a peaceful nation to a nation that now knows what blood tastes like. There is little hope that this change is not permanent. And yet, there is no glory in it, even though it is a necessary act.
Selver sees his people being oppressed, and suffers the consequences of inaction himself. He sees that the future holds little else besides darkness and servitude. He is chosen by fate and embarks on a journey to find a solution. He is an ordinary man emboldened by conviction, he is the idea of resistance itself, that catches root and flourishes. Once it is alive, it spreads unseen. It is transformative, ruthless and unstoppable. Selver becomes a God among his people, only to renounce this role at once after he is no longer needed. He is the reluctant hero as an idea.
If Selver is the personification of an idea, then Lyubov is the relatable character. We see him alone, solitary in every pursuit. He stands at odds with his own side, a dissident. And yet, he is one of them, he is human. An intruder. As he is rejected by the forest people, so is the reader, and we learn that not all things are acceptable, not everything can be forgiven.
The word for world is forest is a SF masterpiece. It's been a while since I read a novel so powerful and yet so concise. I am reminded of a short story, The Martian Obelisk (TOR.com), in which conviction is the ultimate force, clear as day, relentless in tearing down barriers and making sacrifices.