Science Fiction Studies

#7 = Volume 2, Part 3 = November 1975

Ian Watson

The Forest as Metaphor for Mind: "The Word for World is Forest" and "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow"

In the Afterword to "The Word for World is Forest" (WWF) Le Guin remarks that writing this story was "like taking dictation from a boss with ulcers. What I wanted to write about was the forest and the dream; that is, I wanted to describe a certain ecology from within, and to play with some of Hadfield's and Dement's ideas about the function of dreaming-sleep and the uses of dream. But the boss wanted to talk about the destruction of ecological balance and the rejection of emotional balance." The story accordingly describes the conflict between the forest-dwelling natives of the planet Athshe—who possess a sane and balanced, if (to a prejudiced eye) "primitive," social order—and the Terran colonists who exploit and brutalize them and their world.

The Terrans, having already reduced Earth to a poisoned wasteland, regard the forests of Athshe purely as a source of lumber, and the native Athsheans as a pool of slave labour. The Bureau of Colonial Administration on Earth may issue benevolent guidelines, and a hilfer (high intelligence life form specialist) such as Raj Lyubov be genuinely concerned with native welfare, woodlands and wildlife; but, till the coming of the ansible instantaneous transmitter, there is no means of investigating complaints or introducing reforms within less than half a century. Thus the tone is set by the Terran military on Athshe, represented at its most paranoid and oppressive by Colonel Davidson. "They bring defoliation and they call it peace," to amend Tacitus.1

The analogy between Terran conduct on Athshe and the American intervention in Vietnam is explicit, ironically underlined by the provenance of Earth's Colonel Dongh—and a considerable relief from other reflections of America's war experiences in SF, which, albeit the moral is one of futility and savagery, nevertheless frequently intoxicate the reader with the gung-ho mood of combat and the lavishly presented technology per se (as in Joe Haldeman's widely admired set of stories, collected as The Forever War).2 At the same time, the obvious Vietnam analogy should not blind one to other relevant contemporary analogies—the genocide of the Guyaki Indians of Paraguay, or the genocide and deforestation along the Trans-Amazon Highway in Brazil, or even the general destruction of rain-forest habitats from Indonesia to Costa Rica. Le Guin's story is multi-applicable—and multi-faceted.

The political facet aside, WWF is a vivid presentation of the dynamics of a sane society which lives in harmony with its natural environment becaue its members are themselves in psychological equilibrium. The Athsheans practice conscious dream control,3 and having thereby free access to their own subconscious processes, do not suffer from the divorce that Terrans exemplify between subconscious urges and conscious rationalizations. To the Athsheans, the Terrans—deprived of this dream knowledge—seem to be an insane people, their closest approach to self-knowledge being the undisciplined confusion brought on by the hallucinogens they entertain themselves with obsessively (the "drug problem" faced by American forces in Vietnam is here savagely presented as the military norm).4

The Athsheans' proficiency in the dream life is directly imaged by their physical residence in the dark tangled forests of the planet: these latter function metaphorically as a kind of external collective unconscious. The Terrans, whose unconscious is an impenetrable jungle in which they are far from being at home, react to the Athshean forest with confusion, fear and dislike. Deforestation is their technological response to the mysteries of the wood. Indeed, one might fairly argue that the metaphorical significance of the Terran deforestation is primary and the economic or factual significance quite secondary:

men were here now to end the darkness, and turn the tree-jumble into clean sawn planks, more prized on Earth than gold. Literally, because gold could be got from seawater and from under the Antarctic ice, but wood could not; wood came only from trees. And it was a really necessary luxury on Earth. (§1)

The paradox of "necessary luxury" neatly encapsulates the confused thinking of the Terrans, and goes some way towards explaining the essential implausibility of hauling loads of wood over a distance of 27 light years; but on balance, just as the metaphorical sense precedes the economic in this passage, so it does in the story as a whole, intensely verisimilar though the story is in presentation.

The metaphorical structure operates on a primary opposition of light and darkness: the arid light outside the forests, where the aggressive and exploitative Terrans feel falsely safe, and the shiftingly many-coloured darkness within, where the integral Athsheans wake and dream. The forest paths are "devious as nerves" (§2)—a neural simile which supports the impression that the forest itself is conscious; that it represents the subconscious mind, the dark side of awareness. Being tangled and dark, no superficial reconnaissance of it is possible—no fast overflight surveys beloved of Herman Kahn's "flying think tanks" (Kahn's thermonuclear catechism is rehearsed by the rabid Colonel Davidson, reflecting "by God sometimes you have to be able to think about the unthinkable" [§7]). "Nothing was pure, dry, arid, plain. Revelation was lacking. There was no seeing everything at once, no certainty" (§2). Lyubov, initially oppressed by the world-forest with its impenetrability and "total vegetable indifference to the presence of mind" (§5), eventually comes to terms with the forest (and its implications), and reflects that, whereas the name "terra" designates the soil of his own world, "to the Athsheans soil, ground, earth was not that to which the dead return and by which the living live: the substance of their world was not earth, but forest. Terran man was clay, red dust. Athshean man was branch and root" (§5). The Athshean word for "dream," indeed, is the same as the word for "root."

Out of the original impetus to write about forest and dream, then, has come a world-forest that—while nonsentient itself—nevertheless functions metaphorically as mind: as the collective unconscious mind of the Athsheans. However, the story (at "the boss's" behests) is oriented politically and ecologically; hence it must be primarily verisimilar rather than metaphorical. Consequently there is a surplus of energy and idea, attached to the central image of a forest consciousness, which cannot find a full outlet here. At the same time, WWF is exploring an alternative state of consciousness, in the conscious dream; yet this is not a paranormal state of mind—something which Le Guin has treated extensively in her previous Hainish-cycle works. The "Forest mind" theme, controlled and tempered to politics and ecology in WWF, finds its independent outlet only within a paranormal context, in another long story of this period, "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" (VTE). The two stories are closely linked thematically—the latter involving a general inversion of the situation of the former. If, as I suggest in SFS #5, Le Guin's 1971 novel The Lathe of Heaven represents a discharge of paranormal elements built into the framework of the Hainish cycle, then, outside of that cycle, VTE represents a parallel working-out of a conflict between verisimilitude and metaphor in WWF. VTE uses the paranormal element from the Hainish cycle as a way of validating a forest-mind which is a verisimilar actuality rather than a metaphor.

Whilst Earthmen in general are regarded as insane by the Athsheans, the Extreme Survey team of the second story are of unsound mind by the standards of Earth—and Hain, and any other world. Only people who are radically alienated from society would volunteer for a trip lasting five hundred years, objective time.5 The most alienated of them, Osden, is paradoxically an empath. He possesses the paranormal skill "to pick up emotion or sentience from anything that felt." Unfortunately, the feelings of his fellows only serve to disgust him. Le Guin adds that properly speaking this faculty could be categorised as a "wide-range bioempathic receptivity"—which seems to be a way of suggesting that this is not in fact a paranormal skill, comparable to telepathy, since all human beings possess a certain degree of what can only be termed, "bioempathic receptivity" in relation to kinesic body-signals and pheromone scent-signals (even though most of the time they are unaware of this consciously). However, the fact that a teachable technique for telepathy exists (on Rocannon's World, otherwise Fomalhaut II—locale of Le Guin's first Hainish novel) is deliberately introduced into the story at this point, to rout the skeptic voice that would separate empathy off from telepathy. As the events of the novel Rocannon's World are supposed to take place some 300 years after the events of this story, the paranormal comparison is conceivably more important than strict adherence to chronology. But in any case, sharing "lust with a white rat, pain with a squashed cockroach and phototropy with a moth" is hardly classifiable as a natural talent. Clearly this represents a qualitative leap into the beyond of the paranormal—a movement away from a mere extension of everyday (if rarely noted) experience, to a radically different level of perception.

The psychological disconnectedness of the VTE survey team contrasts sharply with the total connectedness of the vegetation on World 4470. There is nothing but vegetation on this world—tree, creeper, grass; but no bird or beast, nothing that moves. The interconnected roots amid creepers function as slow neural pathways binding the whole complex of forest and prairie into a slow vegetable consciousness, whose awareness is a function of this connectedness.

It is aware; yet not intelligent. Slowly realizing the presence of rootless, mobile intruders in its midst, the vegetable mind reacts with an anxiety that grows to terror in the minds of the survey team as they sense it, and which is only absorbed and transcended by the empath Osden. His only psychological defence against the flood of feelings from others, that threaten to swamp his own personality, is to reject these others, and then masochistically thrive on his own rejection by others which this provokes. Thus rejection becomes his salvation.

One might clearly relate Le Guin's use of the forest as metaphor for a mental state to Henry James' use of a similar image in his story "The Beast in the Jungle."6 Not only does a lurking "psychic beast" lie in wait for James' protagonist John Marcher, to be sensed also by Le Guin's Porlock as "something moving with purpose, trying to attack him from behind." Not only does John Marcher's response, of hurling himself violently face-down in his hallucination, as though he has been physically leapt upon, pre-echo what happens to Le Guin's Osden. But even the very nature of Marcher's beast—which represents a lifelong atrophy of affect, of emotional cathexis with other people and the outside world—parallels Osden's autism.

At the same time, one can find in previous SF several "forest-minds" and vegetable intelligences. Perhaps the most lucid and insightful are Olaf Stapledon's Plant Men in Star Maker (1937; §7:3). Stapledon's "vegetable humanities" are specifically associated with the mystical, and even the redemptory. ("Till sunset he slept, not in a dreamless sleep, but in a sort of trance, the meditative and mystical quality of which was to prove in future ages a well of peace for many worlds.") Stapledon is here closest to Le Guin in mood of the various arboriculturists of SF—and it is Stapledon, that mystical atheist, who remains the writer best able to articulate the sense of cosmic mystery as well as to indicate the nature of possible higher-order intelligences, or superminds, without failing into either naive bravura, or will to power. Van Vogt, who, with his assorted slans, silkies, nexialists, etc. can be relied on for an operatic, mystificatory demonstration of the will to power, has described in his short story "Process"7 a forest-mind that is slow-thinking, yet fast-growing, a ravening leviathan of hostility, yet slothful and stupid, a forest replete with contradictions which visiting spacemen (who remain invisible) insert their impervious ship into, from time immemorial, to steal some riches (in the form of uranium) and fly away. This story, by contrast with Le Guin, is unconscious metaphor. The tangled, fearsome, stupid forest "reads" quite blatantly as the hidden, unconscious area of the mind, into which the masterful creative consciousness plunges—well-armoured—to extract necessary wealth; and the story remains an absorbing one, for all its contradictions, precisely because it is about the process of creation, and at the same time about Van Vogt's own willful refusal to be analytically aware of this. The story is about the betrayal of full consciousness.

Van Vogt's short story "The Harmonizer" a describes a supertree which angrily manufactures a stupefying perfume whenever its "sensitive colloids" catch "the blasts of palpable lust" radiated by any killer—whether carnivorous animal, or hate-drunk soldier. Such trees, deposited on Earth by a space-wreck, are responsible for the disappearance of the dinosaurs. Latterly, their one survivor, re-emerging after 80 million years, halts World War III, introducing a malign, brainwashing pseudo-pacifism. This time, the tree is overtly associated with the militant spread of a form of consciousness. A similar manipulatory—though paranormal—situation occurs in Kris Neville's short story "The Forest of Zil,"9 where a world-forest responds to Terran intrusion by retrospectively cancelling the time-line of Homo Sapiens, sending a creeping ontological amnesia back along the time axis. Manipulatory, too, is the symbiotic diamond wood forest in James H. Schmitz's short story "Balanced Ecology."10 It too encapsulates both violence and somnolence—twin associations which link these four stories, suggesting that the subconscious, the time of sleep, is indeed underlying these various tree-minds in one form or another, and that the time of sleep, furthermore—when dreams take place—is feared as a time of ignorance and violence. This can certainly not be said of Stapledon's treatment of the theme—nor of Le Guin's.

Theme and image, event and illusion, bind Le Guin's two forest-mind stories together. The title of "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow" is but one of a series of references to the work of Andrew Marvell, especially his poem "To His Coy Mistress": "My vegetable love should grow/Vaster than empires, and more slow." Another allusion to this same poem occurs at the end of the story ("Had we but world enough and time...") while another familiar line from the poem presides over Lyubov's headache in WWF: "...ow, ow, ow, above the right ear I always hear Time's winged chariot hurrying near, for the Athsheans had burned Smith Camp..." (§3). Again, in VTE, Osen's reflecting that the vegetation of World 4470 is "one big green thought" echoes the famous "a green thought in a green shade" from Marvell's poem "The Garden."

The second story also picks up the military argot of WWF where Colonel Davidson is obsessed with the idea of people going "spla"—crazy. Osden uses the word more than once of the effect the forest is producing; while the comment that "the chitinous rigidity of military discipline was quite inapplicable to these teams of Mad Scientists" recalls the behavior of the Terran military on Athshe, at the same time as it turns it upside-down.

The hallucinatory quality of Athshe—a world "that made you day-dream" (§1)—recurs in the "Hypnotic quality" of the woods of VTE World 4470, where imagery binding root and dream is reinforced. The woods are dark, connected; nightmare passes through the roots as the visitors are sensed; the visitors themselves relapse increasingly into sleep, to dream dreams that are "pathless" and "dark-branching." When awake, the visitors are still scared "blind." The path leading Osden to his self-sacrifice commences with a fall in the forest that injures his face, and lets his blood mingle with the root-nerves. Thereafter his countenance is "flayed" by scars that parallel the injured face of Selver the Athshean, beaten up by Colonel Davidson. But Selver, the flayed one, becomes thereby a "God" in Athshean terms—dreamer of a powerful new collective dream. Osden, too, through psychic identification with the "immortal mindless" forest—an idiot God absorbed in its own Nirvana beyond Maya, the changes of the world—transcends the human level, and at the same time becomes a "colonist" of World 4470. This word, the very last of the story, would seem an odd choice indeed for Osden's fate as castaway did it not reflect back to the Terran ambition to colonize Athshe—which the Terrans signally fail to achieve, precisely because of their disconnectedness. Osden succeeds where they failed; but only in a mystic apotheosis achieved by a paranormal "wild talent"—a fictive dimension ruled out of court by the politically conscious, this-worldly "boss" of WWF, and henceforth to be purged from the Hainish universe of Le Guin.

However, it is apparent from this story that there is an authentic "mystical" strain in Le Guin—an authentic strain, as opposed to the various gimmick-ridden mystifications that frequently pass for mysticism in our times, from the conjuring tricks of Uri Geller or the "grokking" of Charles Manson, via the musico-hagiology of the pop Orient, to the opening of the third eye of confused Western disciples by cult gurus. Whether this authentic mystical strain is necessarily radically at odds with the socio-political strain, as metaphor may be at odds with verisimilitude, is another matter. It might be truer to say that this mystic element has hitherto been falsely expressed through the traditional paranormal gimmickry of SF and that it is here in the process of breaking free (though it is not yet free). Just as The Lathe of Heaven is discharging the tension generated by use of the paranormal in the Hainish cycle, so VTE, structurally attached as it is to the politically "correct" partner story presided over by the "boss," may be seen now as an attempt to discover a permissible locale for the mystical—stripped, as it were, of a phoney mysticism of supermen and superminds. Hence the caginess as to whether Osden's empathy is paranormal or not; hence the need to remark on this and draw the problem to our attention.

The story opens (in the original version at least)11 with a meditation on the nature of eternity as experienced during NAFAL time-distortion starflight, which is directly compared to the time, outside time, of dreams: "The mystic is a rare bird, and the nearest most people get to God in paradoxical time is...prayer for release," comments Le Guin, coining a phrase clearly suggested by the "paradoxical sleep" of the dream researchers.12 The story ends with a return to this same keynote mood. Osden is absorbed into the eternity, the no-time sought by those rare birds, the mystics:

He had taken the fear into himself, and accepting had transcended it. He had given up his self to the alien, an unreserved surrender, that left no place for evil. He had learned the love of the Other, and thereby had been given his whole self. But this is not the vocabulary of reason.

The final sentence is revealing. Le Guin has inverted the main values of WWF to give suppressed material a verisimilar outlet. She has swung as far away as possible from the military domain into the realm of the "speshes" (specialists). Dream has become nightmare, and sleep a form of catatonic withdrawal from reality. She has made her visitors to the stars overtly mad. She has created an alien life-form—as opposed to the various humanoids of Hainish descent, that have been her theme hitherto.13 She has pushed beyond the limits of Hainish expansion to describe a world that has nothing to do with Hain. Forest as metaphor of mind has here been translated into narrative reality. The grudging military surrender of the Terrans on Athshe has become the "unreserved" spiritual surrender of Osden, who thus becomes the only true colonist: not so much of World 4470—for how can one man colonize a world? —as of the Beyond, of the dream time (pace Raj Lyubov's shade stalking Selver's dreams). Yet, in the end, this transcendent territory is unchartable by rational discourse. Stripped to the bare minimum of the paranormal trappings that do duty for it elsewhere (however successfully—one thinks of Genly Ai's encounter with Foretelling in The Left Hand of Darkness, §5), it is inarticulable. Or rather, to draw a distinction that Wittgenstein draws, it may be shown forth, but not stated. The ending of VTE recalls the terminal aphorism of the Tractatus: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."14 The essentially silent world-forest of VTE shows forth, yet cannot state, the para-rational elements implied by WWF though sternly suppressed in that story.

It might seem, then, that whilst the mystic area of experience may be an authentic area, there is nothing profound one can say about it. Least of all should one attempt to do so by invoking the paraphernalia of the paranormal from the lumber-room of SF, for this only alienates one from the physical—and from the social—universe.15 Yet the sense of insight into the infinite is not thereby necessarily lost. It returns, in The Dispossessed, with Shevek's creation of a General Theory of Time—within a context of positive social, political and emotional practice. It returns, having been chastened by the "boss" of WWF, and then by contrast—in the partner story VTE—allowed free rein to test out the mystic Pascalian silences where the vocabulary of reason becomes void. To the world-forests of these two stories, both metaphors for mind—one overt, one covert—corresponds Shevek's Theory: which is, within the verisimilar setting of the book, also metaphorical to a large extent. Yet, whereas the forest-mind is presented as something concrete that lies in wait out there for us, Shevek's Theory arises only out of the complex dialectic of his own life as scientist and utopian. As he discovers his own unity, so his theory becomes possible; and only so. This is the vocabulary of reason—which turns out to have far greater scope and depth than that other vocabulary, of unreason, or parareason. But it is a vocabulary of a subversive reason, which has therefore had first to pass through the false, non-reasonable and by themselves non-cognitive expressions of parareason. The two forest minds of WWF and VTE are—beyond their intrinsic interest as bases for two shrewd and powerful stories—necessary stages in a development from ur-SF to the mystico-political theory of time and society in The Dispossessed.


1. The pithy apothegm of Tacitus (Agricola §30)—"They make desolation and they call it peace" ("ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant")—is worked into the texture of the story "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow," in ironic reference to the alienation of the characters: "They were misfits among men, and what they saw there was not desolation, but peace."

2. Joe W. Haldeman, The Forever War (1975). Appearing originally as separate stories in Analog, the episodes drew such acclaim as "a fine and realistic look at the Future...reveals the keen eye of a complete science fiction author who looks at the future as a different place with different configurations" (from the editorial epigraph to "We are Very Happy," anthologized in Best SF 73, ed. H. Harrison & Brian W. Aldiss [1974]).

3. For a discussion of conscious dreaming, see the present writer in SFS 2(1975):75. In addition to the Senoi dreamers of Malaya discussed there, comparison might also be made with the Iroquois who attached an overriding importance to dreams, dream interpretation and dream fulfillment, and indeed practiced a form of psychoanalysis—though the practical consequences were not always as benign and pacific as those of Senoi dream analysis. See A.F.C. Wallace, "Dreams and the Wishes of the Soul: A Type of Psychoanalytic Theory among the Seventeenth Century Iroquois," American Anthropologist 60(1958):234-48.

4. The "drug crisis" in the US forces in Vietnam was qualitatively different from the alcoholic intoxication characteristic of conquering armies, insofar as (1) the use of drugs was associated with the ethos of a newsworthy sector of the antiwar protest movement, in a radically different sense from drunkenness being the perennial common soldier's protest at authority; (2) the feedback of drugs (heroin not hallucinogens) and drug addicts to the mother country was one factor, albeit a minor one, in eroding the national will to continue fighting; and (3) drug addiction within the American army eroded military discipline and efficiency in a way that alcoholic indulgence could not possibly have done.

5. The story, in the New Dimensions version, is dated "during the earliest decade of the League," but also "Before the invention of the instantaneous transmitter," which is inconsistent (cf. the table in SF 2[1975]:74); however, this is reconciled in the version in The Wind's Twelve Quarters (1975).

6. In Henry James, The Better Sort (1903).

7. Collected in The Far-Out Worlds of A.E. Van Vogt (1968).

8. Collected in A.E. Van Vogt, Away and Beyond (1963).

9. In H. Harrison & Brian Aldiss, The Year's Best Science Fiction No. 1 (1968).

10. In Anthony Cheetham, Bug-Eye Monsters (1974).

11. The version included in The Wind's Twelve Quarters omits the first 4 paragraphs, i.e. all mention of mystics and paradoxical time.

12. Cf SFS 2(1975):70, 75 n. 9.

13. At the same time, in The Lathe of Heaven (1971) Le Guin was experimenting with "dream-time" aliens from Aldebaran as a verisimilar mediator for mystical/pararational experience. A curious coincidence of names links Lathe to WWF, also: the central character of Lathe, George Orr—the dreamer of alternatives, as his name bespeaks—and Mr. Or, the Cetian emissary in WWF share names, if not roles or personalities. It is interesting, too, to note that the military of WWF are deliberately contrasted with the "Mad Scientists" of VTE—while the archetypal Mad Scientist erupts in Lathe in the figure of Dr. Haber, associated with irrational solutions to the world's woes.

14. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, new transl. by D.F. Pears & B.F. McGuinness (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), prop. 7.

15. SFS 2 (1975):73 n. 3, for further discussion.


Out of an original impulse to write about forest and dream, Le Guin imagines in "The Word for World is Forest" (WWF) a world-forest that—while non-sentient itself—nevertheless functions metaphorically as mind, as the collective unconscious mind of the Athsheans. The story, however, is also oriented politically and ecologically: there is a surplus of energy and idea attached to the central image of a forest-consciousness that does not find a full outlet. The "forest-mind" theme, controlled and tempered by politics and ecology in WWF, finds its independent outlet only within a paranormal context in another long story of this period, "Vaster than Empires and More Slow" (VTE). The two stories are closely linked thematically—the latter involving a general inversion of the plot of the former. If Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven represents a discharge of paranormal elements built into the framework of the Hainish cycle, then, outside that cycle, VTE represents a parallel working out of a conflict between verisimilitude and metaphor in WWF. The world-forests of these two stories, both metaphors for mind, correspond to Shevek’s General Theory of Time in The Dispossessed. Yet whereas the forest-mind is presented as something concrete that lies in wait out there for us, Shevek’s theory arises out the complex dialectic of his own life as scientist and utopian. As he discovers his own unity, his theory becomes possible. This is the vocabulary of reason, which Le Guin’s fiction shows to have a far greater scope than that other vocabulary of unreason or parareason. In the case of The Dispossessed, Le Guin uses a vocabulary of subversive reason, which has had to pass through the false, non-reasonable, non-cognitive expressions of parareason. The two forest-minds of WWF and VTE are, then, beyond their intrinsic interest, necessary stages in a development from SF to the mystico-political theory of time and society in The Dispossessed.

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