Monday, April 21, 2008

Alan Dean Foster's "Midworld" (novel, science fiction): Adventure in a jungle

Quote from novel titled Midworld by Alan Dean FosterRelated: Midworld vs Hollywood movie Avatar.

Take a few hundred modern humans - not the urban educated types, but jungle folk well versed in living off land. Now put them on an earth may be 200 million years back in time - when dinosaurs still roamed the land. Make the place 10 times wilder. That's about the setting of this story - adventures of a hero from a tribe in this extremely hostile world.

A background for adventure & climax is provided by visit to this world of the equivalent of modern humans with their fancy technology, but with a complete lack to survival skills in this world.

Actually the story is not set on earth & doesn't involve time travel. But above setting about sums up the plot.

I found much similarity in style with some stories of Hal Clement & Stanley Weinbaum. Foster is much less rigorous than Clement, but introducing an artificial world by setting up a plot that involves travel through the world is also Clement style. Couple of Weinbaum stories I've read also have this kind of adventures, but their backgrounds tend to be less complex.

This story has its irritants, & I found it a bit draggy part of the way through. But action near end is great & overall I'll call it a decent read. Thing that particularly irritated me was generally extremely juvenile behavior of one of visitors rescued by the hero. And tendency to engage in dialogs when a monster in on your tail sounded very weird.

In the end, there is a revelation about the world that sounded like a set up for sequels! Story could well have ended without this revelation.

Table of Contents.

  1. "World with no name".
  2. How the native humans ended up on this world?
  3. "Furcots".
  4. "Home Tree".
  5. "Born".
  6. The visitors.
  7. "Emfol".
  8. Story summary.
  9. Major monsters: "Air-devil", "Akadi", "Silverslith", & "Photoids".
  10. Fact sheet.

"World with no name".

That's the planet where the story is set - an unnamed world that is not earth. It's extremely fertile & is teeming with life - plant, animal, & tough to classify. But "there was not a single creature that thought... until the people came".

It has oceans - with teeming green on surface. Most land is swampy jungle that shoots up to nearly 700 meters over much of the land. This jungle height is best seen as 7 different vertical slices of 100 meters each - each with its own unique ecology. Moving far from your level is inviting death - anyway ever present even at your own level.

Levels are numbered top down. Top most level is number 1, bottom most number 7. Native humans live at level 3 & 4. Our hero, "Born", comes from a tribe that lives at level 3; hence the title "Midworld". Because of dense foliage & peculiar branching, you can almost walk horizontally - though there is much climbing involved.

Strange flying monsters lurk in the sky - making higher levels "Upper Hell" to humans. Lower levels have their own even more threatening monsters - making them "Lower Hell" to humans.

Through the story, we will see all the major levels - as the hero goes about his adventures.

How the native humans ended up on this world?

A "colony ship" found itself "in orbit, with no fuel to go anywhere else, without proper equipment to settle on this world, without time or way to call for help", but this "was not the planet to which their automatic pilot should have brought them." So they landed.

"Mankind in those early days was used to controlling the universe, by force if necessary. Those who held to such practice did not beget a second generation on the world with no name. A few, less constrained by pride & more resilient, survived & had children. Their offspring grew up with no illusions about the supremacy of humankind or anykind."

This is the story of the offspring of these survivors. 6 or 7 generations have passed. They've forgotten all about their earthly roots, & have undergone some rather fast mutations that makes them better adapted here. They speak "Terranglo" - presumably English. They live a hunter/gatherer existence. Almost all their possessions are made from local materials, though a very few much prized curiosities originally from ship remain.

These people have split into multiple tribes. Tribes have been out of touch for long. It's a tough existence - you might quickly become someone's food if you don't watch out.


These are native powerful carnivorous animals that serve the purpose of a dog & a donkey, & much more. They can speak Terranglo with people. Capable of limited thought, but much smell sensing ability. Furcots love to sleep.

A furcot is attached to each human & vice-versa. Death of one ensures quick death of the other - they are in some kind of symbiosis. We will learn near end that the whole world is a sort of hive intelligence & ensures humans/furcots come in pairs!

Near end, we are shown the magical way furcots are born.

"Ruumahum" is the furcot companion of our hero Born.

"Home tree".

A special species of trees on which our tribe's village is located. Massive trunk that splits into flat vines somewhere near third level offering ample enclosed & relatively flat space for the village, & then becomes a single trunk again.

Entry to village is blocked by poisonous plants that recognize the spit of local villagers! We are told the chemicals of the tree's fruits that villagers consume end up in saliva; so saliva acts as password.


A young man; hero of the story; widely recognized by villagers as clever & good hunter, but a bit "mad" (because of his unorthodox ways).

He badly wants admiration & recognition that he never gets. This propels to make him go on more & more dangerous adventures - in the hope of recognition.

He's also involved in a love triangle. He & rival "Losting" both moon "Brightly Go"; she doesn't seem to prefer one to the other. By the end of the story, we will see the death of Losting (& his furcot Geeliwan) - but love issue is still not settled.

The visitors.

Peaceful life of Born's tribe is about to be shattered. For a while, a gang of ruthless space faring human criminals have been camping on this world. They've made a high tech habitat above level 7 - by anchoring their habitat into the trunks of 3 trees.

These criminals are out to exploit the world for its chemicals. In particular, for something that can be distilled into a sort of elixir - extending human life span 3 or 4 times.

Things these criminals fear sounded peculiar to me - Church & Commonwealth!!

End of the story will pit this entire campus with their fancy weapons against our heroes - Born & Losting who know the jungle. Entire habitat will be destroyed - including everyone in it. Losting & his furcot will die in this battle. Born & his furcot will be the only survivors of the fierce battle.


A state the natives are able to get into when in spiritual commune with jungle hive intelligence. They've forgotten the roots of the word, but one of the visitors suggests it might stand for "Empathetic foliation".

Story summary.

One of the scout ships of criminals with two crew - Kimi Logan & Jan Cohoma - has crashed near Born's place, making a sort of well in the tree canopy to a level far below Born's.

And their stranded ship is attacked by one of the big flying monsters ("Air-devil"). In a daring operation, Born with his furcot will kill the monster & rescue the two.

Throughout the story, these two visitors come across as extremely manipulative sort. Jan, in addition, comes across as an idiot too. By the end of the story, Logan would have killed Losting, & Born would have killed both Logan & Cohoma.

But story is just beginning yet.

Born will take them to his village, saving their life several times from poisonous vegetation. They want to be escorted back to their camp - so far off that no one from the village has ever ventured even a short fraction of this distance. Born volunteers. He will eventually be joined by Losting too.

The duo will encounter many dangers - several kinds of monsters among them. Eventually, they reach the visitors' camp. The two furcots wait outside; Born & Losting go into camp.

One would expect thanks for their troubles - for safely conducting the stranded visitors in spite of dangers to themselves. No way - this is a gang of crooks. The boss of camp, Hansen, wants their help in milking the jungle in a way that threatens their tribe's way of life. They refuse. They are arrested & locked up! So much for helping crooks.

Anyway, the two heroes will be rescued by their furcots in a daring operation during night that will leave one man dead.

Born is convinced of the evil the visitors represent. He must destroy the criminals' camp & kill every one of the visitors - in spite of the technology difference. And with his mind, he's not so helpless.

He makes use of lightning & a kind of tree that acts as jungle's lightning rod to destroy most electrical equipment of the camp by sending "Thirty million volts at 100,000 amperes" through the camp's electrical system - including their power station & big laser guns. He then uses guile to make 3 sky monsters ("Photoids") attack the camp & pretty much destroy it along with inhabitants. It's only in the final cleanup operation he's doing with his primitive weapons that his side will see casualties - Losting & his furcot. But all of the camp will be dead.

We also see some revelations about the world during closing pages. That it's a big hive intelligence, how humans & furcots are part of the hive, & hive's potential of conquering galaxy... I found this part completely unnecessary setup.

Major monsters.

  1. "Air-devil": Big flying monster that attacks visitors' crashed ship. It has "a long streamlined body suspended between broad wings. Four leathery sacks, two to a side, inhaled air and expelled it out rubbery nozzles near the monster's tail. It moved in gaspy jerks... A long-snouted reptilian head weaved atop a snakelike neck... needle-like teeth... Three-meter wings". Born will slay the devil with his furcoat's help & rescew the human crew - Logan & Cohoma.
  2. "Akadi": Mindless dog sized omnivorous creatures that move in herds of thousands & eat everything in their way. Born's Home Tree in the way of such a herd! While the whole village is fighting a losing battle, Born working with his furcot will do the daredevil rescue - by making the herd run into another Akadi herd - each group eating the other!!
  3. "Silverslith": A tens of meters big tree dweller that everyone is afraid of, including Akadi. During the trek to camp of visitors, they will end up spending the night in a hole inside a silverslith's tree - discovering the fact too late. Much adventure before they are able to leave it behind.
  4. "Photoids" aka "floaters": Massive air creatures that normally ignore humans, but panicky camp security will attack 3 that got too near the camp, after the lightening attack - as Born had hoped. In return, the monsters destroy the visitors' camp & most humans in it.

    "The floaters were gigantic gas bags, roughly ovoid and showing rippling, sail-like fins on their backs & at the sides. The steady fluttering of the body-length protuberances propelled them lazily through the air. The gas sacs themselves were a pale, translucent blue through which the sun shone clearly. Beneath each bag lay a mass of rubbery-looking tissue that folded & refolded in on itself like knotted cables. Suspended from this was a series of short, thick tendrils... Colors flashed from turning, spinning organic prisms, giving the whole creature the appearance of a balloon trying to hatch a rainbow. Longer tentacles dangled well below this glittering, polished conglomeration. These had a more natural appearance, in hue a light blue like the gas sacs, & seemed to be coated with a dully reflective mucus-like substance."

    "Their shorter, almost quartz-like tendrils shifted, forming complex patterns, instinctive defensive alignments... The sun was high and hot. But within the newly arranged complex of short tendrils the sunlight was internally concentrated, reconcentrated, magnified & remagnified, shuttled and focused and jimmied around through a farrago of organic lenses, intricate enough to put the human eye to shame.

    From the two nearest floaters beams of immensely concentrated sunlight struck the station... Where the angry sunlight struck, it melted away".

Fact sheet.

First published: 1975.
Rating: A
Listed in "grubthrower"'s "Top 10 Obscure But Superb Science Fiction Novels".
Related: Midworld vs Hollywood movie Avatar.


Paul said...

Ah, Midworld. The first ADF novel I read. subsiquently I have become adicted to the Commonwealth series and the closely related Flinx stories. Flinx visited midworld in the book Mid-Flinx which is also a good read. there is a continuing theme throughout these books which will reach a climax, after 25 years, in a novel to be published in 2009.........can't wait!

newthings said...

The origins of AVATAR?
And then there is the Dragon Riders of Pern.

Tinkoo said...

I haven't seen Avatar, but "Midworld" itself appears to be a (much better) rehash of Brian Aldiss' "Hothouse" (original a short story, later expanded into a novel).