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Review: Midworld by Alan Dean Foster

June 23, 2023

By Alan Dean Foster
Original edition: Nelson Doubleday, Nov. 1975, 179 pp.
Reissued by Open Road Media, Sept. 2012, 214 pp. Available as an ebook for $11.99.

During an interview on the Midnight’s Edge podcast in December 2020, science fiction author Alan Dean Foster said that of all the works he’s written over the course of his prolific, 50-plus-year career thus far, the one he’d most like to see filmed is his 1975 novel Midworld. However, he added that “there’s a problem with that,” and that he’d leave it to fans to figure out what that is.

What was he alluding to? Consider Midworld‘s premise and story. There’s a lush alien world filled with great wonders and dangers, and inhabited by a sentient, tribal, humanoid species that reveres and lives in harmony with nature. There’s another, non-humanoid species that forms lifelong, symbiotic, deeply spiritual bonds with the humanoids. There’s a planet-wide consciousness into which one’s individual consciousness is absorbed when one dies. There’s a settlement of human colonizers from Earth busily exploiting the planet’s resources. There’s a significant height disparity between the aliens and the humans. The aliens resist the Earthling invaders using their collective strength and knowledge of their planet’s ecosystem.

If you’re sensing some eerie similarities to James Cameron’s Avatar movies, you’re not alone. A number of people have noted them, leading to speculation that Midworld may have been the inspiration for Avatar. I don’t know if it was; in fiction, it often happens that works by different creators end up exploring similar ground purely by chance. But whatever the case, I think Foster is rightly concerned that given the current craze for Avatar and the fact that Midworld came out so long ago, a Midworld movie would be wrongly perceived by many as redundant or derivative of Avatar.

That’s unfortunate, for Midworld would make a fine film. Like Avatar, it’s a prime example of the planetary romance subgenre. Planetary romances typically involve an adventurous protagonist or group of characters exploring and interacting with an alien environment on another world. They’re often escapist entertainments meant to evoke wonder, excitement, fascination and a sense of discovery. With its awe-inspiring landscapes and creatures, thrilling brushes with danger, and rich speculative forays into exobiology and alternative scenarios of human evolution, Midworld abounds in these qualities.

The story takes place in Foster’s main fictional universe, known as the Humanx Commonwealth. In this universe, humans have visited many worlds beyond Earth and have formed an interstellar community with various other sentient species. With the sentient beings on this planet, however, there’s a twist: They’re not indigenous to their world, but rather descended from humans who visited it by accident centuries ago and then became stranded on it. Not many members of that original party survived the rigors of the planet’s hostile ecology, and those who did found themselves evolving almost beyond recognition. Successive generations lost their predecessors’ knowledge of science, technology and the societal structures of advanced industrial civilization.

This planet, which is never named, is described as bursting with life. Its land is packed with dense jungles dwarfing any skyscraper on Earth, and its oceans are green with colossal blooms of drifting plant life, making it gleam like an emerald in space. The human descendants who call it home regard it as a green “hell” that extends seven levels deep. They’ve assumed an arboreal existence on the third of these levels—the “Midworld” of the planet’s biosphere—where the sky and even the air appear green, and the forest floor is an interminable, dreaded abyss where those who go don’t come back. In the uppermost level, the green lichen that clog the air farther down finally give way, their top surface lapping the blue sky just as waves of water lap the shores of Earth’s oceans.

The people of this world have developed heightened senses, physical agility and dexterity, great physical strength and a special ability known as “emfoling,” which allows them to perceive the emotions and intentions of other life forms. They have become much shorter than Earth humans, in order to better navigate the dense foliage and confined spaces of the trees. (This last is inverted in Avatar, whose Na’vi are much taller than humans.) They’ve also developed a rich cultural heritage and oral tradition with which to pass down knowledge. And they’ve formed a deep symbiosis with a race of green-furred, six-legged creatures called furcots, who help them hunt and navigate tough terrain in exchange for sustenance, protection and companionship.

Our story begins with a young, inquisitive hunter named Born. While on a hunt with his furcot, Born glimpses a mysterious object: a shiny disc-shaped thing that appears to be made from the same sort of material as his hunting knife (which in turn is made from remnants of the ancient spaceship in which his ancestors became marooned on Midworld, though Born doesn’t know this).

He returns to his village and convinces a couple of others to accompany him back to the object. They reach it just as it’s being attacked by one of the many flying horrors that roam the skies of this world. Born slays the beast and ventures onto the object, soon making his most startling discovery yet: two strange humanoid creatures cowering inside.

These strange beings are members of a new human mission from Earth. Their names are Kimi Logan and Jan Cohoma, and they’re scouts from the aforementioned settlement, which has thus far gone unnoticed by Born and his people. The vessel in which they’ve been found is a small craft called a skimmer, which crash-landed during a survey of the landscape. Born manages to communicate with them—for it turns out that he and his fellow Midworlders still speak the dominant language of Earth, a trade speech known as Terranglo—and offers to take them to his village.

As Kimi and Jan tour the village and retire there for the night, we gain a fascinating look into the lives of Born and his people. We marvel at the intricate tapestries of plant fibers that make up the walls of their dwellings. We see their methods of composting, making fires and going about other activities of their daily lives in this village perched on massive tree limbs thousands of feet above the ground.

Around an evening campfire, the village chief informs Kimi and Jan that he can’t order anyone to help them find their way back to their station, but villagers are free to volunteer for such a mission. Only Born and one other villager—a fellow hunter and bitter rival of Born’s who’s intent on showing him up—volunteer.

Their odyssey unfolds over many days and brims with wondrous world-building, fascinating scientific speculation, conflicts between the Midworlders’ sustainable society and the humans’ exploitative nature, satisfying character arcs, and encounters with creatures as gigantic and ferocious as anything out of a kaiju movie.

In one especially effective sequence, the group must descend to the forest floor, a realm Midworlders call the Seventh Hell. It’s swampy and as dark as the deep sea. It’s so rife with microbial life, spawned from the countless tons of vegetation steadily raining down from the trees, that a newly built wooden raft becomes badly decomposed in mere hours. The predators that lurk down here are a special kind of terrifying, both for their grotesquery and the fact that they’re so hard to see.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, except to say that the parts where the Midworlders realize the grave harm being done by the Earthlings and go into battle against them are executed more satisfyingly and intelligently than the equivalent parts of Avatar or its sequel.

Indeed, Midworld is way smarter overall than the Avatar series. Its themes and characterizations are executed with sophistication and grace—qualities utterly foreign to the Avatar films, whose corniness beggars belief. Moreover, in contrast to Avatar’s bland earnestness, Midworld even has some biting satire aimed at industrial capitalism’s rapacious drive for growth and profit to the exclusion of all else.

At his best, Foster is an astonishing spinner of captivating, immersive, delightfully otherworldly tales—one who can be credited with having given this reviewer some of his fondest memories of reading, both as a child and as an adult. Midworld isn’t quite Foster at his best. Despite its many virtues, it’s let down by its dialogue and narrative voice, which can become stiff, unnatural and stilted. Consider these doozies: “[T]hey believe the further they go from their home village, the more the chances of successfully returning to it are reduced”; “Naturally they’d want to make out the invulnerability of anything that forced them to run.” One of Foster’s quirks is that his writing quality can really vary from book to book; but I guess that’s to be expected when you’ve written more than 100 of them.

Still, I’d take a badly scripted Midworld movie over another Avatar movie any day.

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

Tags: science fiction, storytelling