Most Canadians, presented with an untouched forest, would be filled with quite reasonable questions:
- Why has this forest not been clearcut?
- Into how many suburban homes could these trees be converted?
- Is the dark, green expanse plotting even now to lure children away forever, before replacing them with enigmatic changelings?
Truly, it is said that to see old-growth trees is to reach for one’s chainsaw. Science fiction and fantasy authors, being of the curious bent that they are, suggest there may be other uses for forests. Of course, they’re wrong, but it sure is interesting to read about such odd opinions. Here are five different takes on forests.
Forest as Threat: Deathworld by Harry Harrison (1960)
Were the humans living on Pyrrus not too stubborn to ever admit error, they would concede that mistakes were made settling their challenging home world—not least of which was settling on it at all. The diverse ecosystems of the wilderness planet appear to share a common purpose: human extermination. Life for humans on Pyrrus is an endless sequence of near-death experiences ending in actual death experiences.
Jason dinAlt is strong-armed into using his psionic knack to provide funding for a desperate Pyrrus. Intrigued by what he learns about Pyrrus, he travels to that challenging world to answer three questions: Why is Pyrrus so hostile to humans? Is détente between human and forest possible? And if it isn’t, can the humans be persuaded to relocate to some less hostile world?
The good news is that pretty much every other habitable planet is less hostile to human life than Pyrrus. The bad news is that centuries of struggle have not endowed the people of Pyrrus with any degree of behavioral flexibility: basically, if shooting something does not kill it, the locals’ first instinct is to look for a gun with larger caliber.
Forest as Guardian: “Balanced Ecology” by James H. Schmitz (1965)
Diamondwood forests are found only on Wrake. Efforts to introduce them to other worlds have failed. The human owners of Diamondwood forests take a strictly conservationist approach to the groves, harvesting only what they need so that the forests can be maintained in perpetuity.
Mr. Terokaw is a clear-eyed visionary who sees what Wrake’s humans refuse to see. Clearcutting an entire forest would yield a fortune immediately. If the locals refuse to see this obvious truth, then Terokaw has no choice but to use his vast resources to commandeer, licitly or otherwise, control of the forests long enough to cut them down. It’s a brilliant plan whose only flaw is that the Diamondwood forests are perfectly capable of protecting their human partners and themselves.
There are any number of Schmitz stories I could have used, here. His characters often discover alien ecologies have interesting characteristics not observed on Earth. Sometimes, such as in the case of Terokaw and his minions, it will be the characters’ final discovery.
Forest as Refuge: Below the Root by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (1975)
Living high in the treetops, the Kindar are sheltered and protected by Green Sky’s forest. Freed from the violent past, the Kindar enjoy a pacifist utopia high above the forest floor. Prudent Kindar focus on propriety and current behavior, not on disquieting distractions like “unjoyful” thought, the violent Pash-shan who live far below, or the fact that crucial traits are vanishing from the Kindar’s increasingly meagre gene pool.
Raamo’s psychic gifts are meagre by the standards of the past. In the current era, they are enough to elevate him to the Ol-zhaan, the ruling class. Promotion is the first step towards the most unjoyful thoughts of all: revelations about Green Sky’s true history and the need for fundamental change.
It was only through titanic act of will I didn’t repurpose as “with great power comes great responsibility.” In Raamo’s case, his powers aren’t all that impressive in a historical context, despite which an unreasonable responsibility is placed on him because he has a non-psychic ability—namely, the knack of understanding when the status quo needs to be reformed.
Forest as Ruler: Semiosis by Sue Burke (2018)
Pax’s natives may have no name for the world humans designate Pax. No time for such luxuries as science or history for the natives—life on the alien world is an endless sequence of war of all upon all, strategic alliances, and, for the unwise or unlucky, death. Not that this is obvious to humans. To humans, Pax appears to be a forest paradise.
The pacifists who named Pax sought refuge from Earth’s violence. Too blinkered to understand that the glades around them were an active warzone, the would-be settlers enjoyed short, eventful lives. Their only hope for salvation? That the planet’s true masters, beings like the bamboo-seeming Stevland, would learn to see humans as valuable resources worth domesticating.
Humans prefer to see themselves as domesticators and not the domesticated, but it’s interesting to wonder to what degree our crops have harnessed us—to ponder whether in the millennia of partnership between human and dog, humans were as selected to be able to work with dogs as dogs with humans. (Cats, being more pragmatic than dogs, opted for straight-up mind control.) On Pax, however, there is no question where humans fit in the hierarchy: domestic animals if they are lucky, fertilizer if they are not.
Forest as Enigma: Unraveller by Frances Hardinge (2023)
Raddith borders the Wild, a seeming wilderness whose fay inhabitants are as perplexing as they are dangerous. Having determined through painful experience that they have no choice in the matter, Raddith negotiated terms of coexistence with the beings of the Wild, a process greatly complicated by the fact neither side understands the other.
Among Raddith’s legacies: unhappy and angry people are sometimes imbued with the power to curse those who’ve offended them. Kellen has a rare knack of being able to unravel curses. His employment is ensured! As is the likelihood that some ambitious potentate will decide Kellen is far too valuable to be allowed to run around on his own recognizance when he could be serving his betters. Willingly or otherwise.
Kellen’s talent isn’t entirely without drawbacks, not least of which is that unravelling curses requires understanding why the curser is so angry at the cursed. Sometimes the reason is indefensible (a stepmother who resented being saddled with stepchildren); at other times, the reason is perfectly comprehensible and not something to which the cursed would admit.
Forests having long been humanity’s bitterest enemy (or at least places to be treated with utmost suspicion), our fiction (fantastic and otherwise) is filled with them. Perhaps I’ve overlooked some particularly notable examples. No doubt you will be gracious enough to point those out in comments, which are, as ever, below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, four-time Hugo finalist, prolific book reviewer, and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Interzone, Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). His Patreon can be found here.