Add new comment

If Lyobov's Notes Made It Back to Terra: Ursula K. LeGuin vs. Hollywood

Peter Gelderloos

In 2009, James Cameron made a remake of Dances With Wolves set on the fictitious planet of Pandora and replacing the Lakota with an alien species called the Na'vi. It ended up being far more successful than Edward Zwick's 2003 Dances With Wolves remake starring Tom Cruise, and even more than the Kevin Costner original.

Curiously, all the major elements of this remake that were different from the first Dances With Wolves were lifted from an Ursula K. LeGuin novel, The Word for World is Forest.

For the last couple decades, Hollywood has been especially aggressive at plundering many great works of literature to turn them into films. They have turned the production of visually stunning works into a technocratic routine, yet they still struggle producing an interesting story: there is a lesson here.

Fortunately, James Cameron had the grace not to credit Ursula for his use of her story. Responding to comments on the obvious plagiarism, Ursula K. LeGuin denied her book served as the source for the movie, pointing out how horrible the Hollywood production was, with a spirit running perfectly contrary to her own work.

By exploring what is revolutionary in Ursula's novel, we can reveal what is counterrevolutionary about Hollywood. After all, Dances With Wolves III was hailed by many as a radical film, supposedly providing a critique of colonialism and the destruction of nature, and delivering a rousing finale in which scores of Marines are cut down by the forest itself. Of course, Kevin Costner also thought he was making an anticolonial picture. It certainly wasn't a Cowboys and Indians flick of the John Wayne variety. But the basic story of all three versions of Dances With Wolves can be described as progressive colonialism: a white man goes among the natives he is sent to suppress, falls in love with a native woman, breaks off his allegiance with his government, learns the natives' ways better than they do, usually in a matter of weeks or months, and rises to lead them in battle. In the versions with some historical basis, the natives win some victory but are eventually defeated and must fade into oblivion, with—and this is crucial—the progressive white man as their witness and the heir to their memory. Whether he or his government gets to inherit the natives' economic wealth is left up for grabs. In James Cameron's Dances With Wolves, taking place as it does in a fictitious timeline, the natives are allowed to win, the first war at least, but in any case they are now being led by a white Earth man.

The Word for World is Forest is definitely a contender for Ursula K. LeGuin's best book, and it makes my list of the Top 10 anarchist books of the 20th century. I encourage everyone to read it, and if you haven't, you can skip to the next paragraph to avoid the most blatant spoilers. The story shifts gracefully and evocatively between narrators, each with a distinct voice, perfectly rendered, but the protagonist is Selver, an Athshean living on the planet the colonizing Terrans have dubbed “New Tahiti.” After his wife is raped and killed and he is nearly beaten to death by Captain Davidson, a mid-ranking military officer who is part of the colonizing mission, Selver leads a rebellion against the Terrans. Lyubov, the head anthropologist of the colonial administration and one of a large team of scientists sent to help in the colonization process, had assured the military brass that the Athsheans were incapable of violence, and Selver's rebellion is certainly the first time they engage in systematic killing. After a bloody war, the Athsheans win, though they spare most of the colonists on the condition that they all evacuate the planet on the very next spaceship.

Like the Na'vi, the Athsheans are intimately and spiritually connected with the forest. In both stories the humans come in for resource extraction and the natives, peaceful by tradition, fight back; both stories feature an anthropologist figure who studies and befriends the natives; both stories feature an important military figure who falls into the hands of the natives, a higher ranking officer with whom the central military figure has strong disagreements, and private contractors whose focus is the resource extraction.

The differences are telling. Most obviously, in Ursula's book, the protagonist is an Athshean, not a human. A central element of colonial narratives is that the protagonist must always be from the colonizing culture. Colonized peoples are Others who exist only to give things to the colonizers, whether Lebensraum, wisdom, or a sense of authenticity and approval. This underlying grammatical similarity is much more important than the differences in the Right and Left versions of the colonial narrative: John Wayne's, in which the natives are bad, and Kevin Costner's, in which the natives are good. In neither narrative are they allowed to fully become people. Thus, even when natives are validated as good or exoticized as wise, they are not as dynamic, not as complex, not as capable of adaptation, learning, and mastery as the white people presented. And in the mythology of scientific rationalism that has constituted the principle religion of power since the 19th century, with its pervasive social Darwinism, adaptability far more than natural wisdom equals superiority.

In any honest history, as well as in Ursula K. LeGuin's story, scientists are the adjuncts of colonialism in all its stages, continuing to the present. In fact, as argued in Alex Gorrion's “Science,” ( a fifth of the way down the page), European colonialism in many ways triggered the shift from a Christian to a scientific epistemology, though the latter drew heavily on the former for most of its structures. In The Word for World is Forest, only one single scientist, the anthropologist Lyubov, is fully sympathetic to the Athsheans, learning their language and advocating for them, though also avoiding positions that would have him run afoul of the colonial administration. He is an imperfect figure, and all the passages discussing him, especially those he narrates, are pregnant with a critique of the anthropological gaze and humanitarian complicity with colonialism.

This nuance is entirely lacking in James Cameron's work. Sigourney Weaver's Dr. Grace is presented uncritically as both a respectable scientist and a compassionate humanitarian bringing learning to the Na'vi. In fact, we are given a disgustingly rose-tinted vision of the schools colonizers set up for native children, whose actual legacy is one of Jesuits, physical and sexual abuse, and genocide. In James Cameron's self-serving version, school is a nice, happy place where cultures connect and the inferior (children/natives) improve from their contact with the superior (adults/settlers). Whereas Lyubov is excluded from Athshean society, Dr. Grace is given the Na'vi's highest honor upon her death. All of the scientists in the movie are good; in the book a couple express some qualms but only one takes any action, however minor, in favor of the colonized.

A smaller detail concerns the resource that is being exploited on the alien planet. In Ursula's book, it is wood. In Cameron's movie, unobtanium, another of those new energy sources. Ursula probably chose such a pedestrian, 20th century resource in order to highlight the possible future of an Earth without trees, and to deliver the raw, pathological image of a planet methodically stripped of all its trees right in the face of a people for whom the forest is the world. Cameron, on the other hand, anticipated a trend in space sci-fi (Ad Astra, High Life, Cloverfield Paradox) in which the purpose of space travel is no longer exploration but capturing new energy supplies. I feel that even when this hypothetical exploitation is presented critically (and this is only the case in Cameron's movie), it is still normalizing the idea of extraterrestrial resource colonialism, and more immediately it presents as credible the myth that capitalism's energy problems will have a technological solution. Those who fight capitalism would be well advised to pay close attention to the sort of things that capitalism dreams.

The Word for World is Forest, written during the Vietnam War, is very clearly a protest novel in which soldiers like Davidson ride over the forest in helicopters, massacring the locals with napalm and sprays of machine gun fire, exactly like the US troops were doing at that very moment in Vietnam. Dances With Wolves III was produced throughout the most intense years of the US invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, yet I cannot find a single visual allusion to those bloody wars. What's more, in the book, soldiers only ever avoid violence towards the Athsheans when they fear for their own safety. In Cameron's movie, practically all the soldiers who get any attention except for the completely evil commanding officer are such decent people that they defect to the Na'vi and risk their own lives fighting against the colonizers, just as Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise did in their respective movies. It seems that settlers tend to be much braver and much more just in their imaginations than in practice, perhaps because the operative imaginaries convince them that all dramatic opportunities for bravery in the name of justice ended with the 19th century or are waiting somewhere up ahead in an indeterminate future.

It is interesting to note that Ursula's novel has been mischaracterized as pacifist, no doubt as a way to neutralize and recuperate what is in fact a revolutionary story. This is an intentional misreading. Ursula never condemns armed resistance by the Athsheans; in fact, she clearly portrays it as necessary to their survival. What she actually does is to complicate this resistance by raising the very ethical, very anarchist question of the effect of organizing systematic violence on those who resist. This is also one of the central questions in Fredy Perlman's Against His-story, Against Leviathan. Fredy makes it clear that the physical elimination of Leviathan can never be the primary task of those who rebel; rather, their task must be reinhabiting the world as a community of living things, expressed as a subversive dance that removes the the Leviathanic, psychological armor and knocks down the obstacles to free life. In other words, a process that is simultaneously destructive and healing. In The Word for World is Forest, the Athsheans refuse the Western paradigm of eliminating evil—their goal is not to kill all the Terrans—and they pay great attention to their recent invention of systematic killing.

James Cameron's film avoids this complexity entirely and simply presents mass killing as a moment that is instrumental, heroic, and non-problematic.

The second-to-last difference I will mention concerns the physique of the natives. The Athsheans are small, green, furry humanoids. The Na'vi are tall, muscular, and svelte. The female the Marine protagonist predictably falls in love with is described on IMDB as “attractive,” and in an age in which the typical cosmetics kit includes smartphone filters to give yourself cat ears and whiskers when you take a selfie, well, there's something to be said for that. The CGI specialists certainly didn't hesitate to give her big eyes, pouting lips, a long neck, a slender waist, and relatively wide hips.

Ursula K. LeGuin used her writing to fight against sexual violence. In this book, she describes how the military rape Athsheans, without ever sexualizing the violence. The Cameron movie, on the contrary, is one more in a long line of cultural productions that sexualize colonized women. It's no wonder that UN peacekeepers and Euro-American charity workers in the Global South are responsible for an epidemic of sexual violence.

Finally, the different portrayals of nature and spirituality are crucial. The Na'vi can commune with the forest because basically their dreadlocks are USB drives that they can plug into certain plants and to the animals they domesticate. Through this same, biologically based method, the Na'vi can upload their consciousness to the grove when they die, essentially becoming immortal. And through the genetic production of avatars, humans can also access the possibilities of communing and immortality. It is noteworthy that the movie sweetened this depiction and also won diversity points by featuring a disabled protagonist who is able to walk and run in his new Na'vi body thanks to the avatar technology. This is the transhumanist vision of nature and spirituality that is rapidly growing as a new paradigm. Connecting with nature is predicated on improving technology—obviating the fact that the technology relies on stealing native bodies and cutting down the forests—and it claims a liberatory mantle by further propagating the eurocentric lie that away from the cutting edge of Western Civilization, differently abled people are completely and utterly neglected. The immature fear of death, in this case the need to be uploaded to a cloud so as not to miss anything, is a common element of both the Enlightenment and the transhumanist paradigms, relying entirely on the Christian division of body and soul and hatred for the body. Needless to say, this is a fear that has caused a great deal of harm.

In The Word for World is Forest, the Athsheans' social harmony—which embraces the forest, contrary to Western nature/society dichotomies*—is not based on a biological technology but on a spiritual practice that the colonizers could learn if they bothered. The Athsheans practice lucid dreaming, recognizing the joint existence of a world-time and a dream-time. They use dreaming to resolve conflicts, to recognize the personhood of everything around them, including the trees, and also to maintain a relationship with those who are dead, thus taking the fear and permanence out of death. This is important, because this isn't just some contrived spirituality Ursula dreamed up to exotify the natives. It was her attempt, however imperfect due to her outsider status, of describing the real spiritual practices of many peoples suffering Western colonialism. And rather than Othering the practice, she succeeds in describing it from the viewpoint of its practitioners and revealing the dead, falsely objective vision of the colonizers as myopic and superficial. In doing so, she effectively challenges fundamental elements of capitalist, colonialist spirituality that are also shared by transhumanism: what we consider to be a living thing and what we consider dead matter; who has personhood (only the right kind of humans, all humanoids, all living things?); our relationship with time (progressive or cyclical); our relationship with our ancestors (hero-god status for a couple while the rest go to the garbage dump vs. an ongoing relationship in which we carry their strengths and try to heal the harm they caused); and our definition of freedom (whether as the absence of limits or a healthy set of relations).

It is a point of dogma that Hollywood is counterrevolutionary, yet it so rarely disappoints, even and especially in this era of movies that try so hard to seem radical. And in my mind it is a self-evident fact that Ursula K. LeGuin is a goddess of the revolution. By analyzing how these two incompatible forces tell the same story, we can glimpse some of the elements that are fundamental to Western Civilization, and also perceive ways of living, speaking, dreaming, and fighting that may offer us something healthier, something beautiful.

*Note: Because a dichotomy is not a simple opposition—one thing or the other—I don't mean to obviate that the concepts of nature and society are joined in some kind of relation or other in most of Western philosophy. But because of the fundamental alienations that constitute the birth of the West—alienation of the world, alienation of ourselves, suppression of communal relations—no real synthesis is ever produced and the binomial remains a crucial and productive dichotomy. To simplify grossly, nature is called on to naturalize society (especially its ecocidal and alienating practices), and society strives to discipline nature (roughly, all of that which resists discipline) in order to interpret its “laws” and program it to function productively.