Quentin Tarantino once called Alan Dean Foster “the king of movie novelisations”, and it’s a fair description. Most famously, Foster wrote the first ever Star Wars novel, a novelisation of the original film which was released much earlier than the big screen version, in November 1976. Later, Foster would novelise other important science fiction movies, including Alien (1979) and its first two sequels, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Outland (1981), The Thing (1982), and Starman (1984). While novelisations are often thought of as one of the most low-brow forms of writing, Foster elevated the genre with his strong SF background and ability to expand upon scripts with additional detail.
However, Foster has done far more in his long career than merely re-work scripts into books. He has a very extensive catalogue of SF works under his belt, most notably in his “Humanx Commonwealth” universe, which centres on an alliance between humans and the intelligent insectoid species the Thranx. Midworld, published in 1975, is a superb standalone novel in this setting - albeit one which doesn’t feature the Thranx. Instead, it is set on a nameless, verdant, and hostile jungle planet which is home to the descendants of humans left stranded by a starship crash many decades earlier. In the book, Foster tells an enthralling story within a brilliantly realised and convincing setting.
This is an SF novel which will particularly appeal to those who enjoy stories rooted in biology and ecology, and it was a very clear influence on James Cameron’s megahit movie Avatar (2009). Stick around to the end to get more information on this intriguing connection. In the meantime, this review covers what makes Midworld so special, and such a good entry point into Foster’s body of work.
Midworld is essentially an SF adventure novel, albeit one which progresses in some surprising and fascinating ways. The setting is a nameless planet - later referred to simply as “Midworld” - which is covered with a vast jungle which reaches a height of around 750 metres. To say that Midworld teems with life is an understatement. In this complex and brutal ecosystem, every possible ecological niche is exploited to its fullest extent. The planet is populated by an incalculable number of diverse species. In addition to the vast trees there are countless other forms of plant and animal life, all rigorously adapted to the savage conditions and all thoroughly alien.
The opening of the story introduces Born, a young hunter who is part of a tribe of humans who have long since adapted to the planet after their ancestors crash-landed there around 200 years earlier. Born’s people have little in the way of technology, but have learned to live in a precarious balance with the jungle and its countless threats. For example, their village is based within a tree which has a means to recognise them and permit them entry past its own deadly defences. In another example of symbiosis, all of Born’s people have a lifelong link with another at least semi-intelligent species. Furcots are a kind of large, green, three-eyed hexapod which can speak English - or “Terranglo”, as it is known in Foster’s future history. They are fearsome fighters and adept trackers, with their own mysterious ways which they tend to keep hidden from Born’s people.
Clearly, Midworld needs an inciting incident to disturb the tenuous balance of the situation. Early on, Born and his furcot, Ruumahum, discover that another human craft has crashed on their world. The pair rescue two humans from being killed by a vicious flying predator, and escort them to the village within the “home tree”. Kimi Logan and Jan Cohoma are two members of an illegal mission to exploit the natural resources of Midworld. As Born learns later, their distant facility is heavily protected not only against the local wildlife, but also against any possible incursion by the forces of the Humanx Commonwealth, which does not look kindly on interference on “primitive” worlds.
While there are some subplots - such as Born’s rivalry with another hunter named Losting - the story that follows is largely to do with Born’s effort to escort Logan and Cohoma to the facility. The journey takes them far further away from the village than any of Born’s people have ever travelled. The village is based on the third of seven layers of the jungle, and the epic journey to the base requires Born, Losting, Logan and Cohoma to travel through other layers that are deadlier still. A huge strength of Midworld is Foster’s ability to create a huge range of brilliantly gruesome and deadly creatures that continually threaten the group. They confront something “that looks like a pineapple with sixteen legs”, the vast “silverslith” that pursues them all the way down to the surface, and seemingly infinite armies of ant-like predators, the “akadi”. There are even floating predators that camouflage to disguise themselves as the sky in order to ensnare their prey.
In its extremely hostile jungle environment and with its menagerie of deadly creatures, Midworld definitely resembles a much earlier and similarly excellent SF book - Deathworld (1960) by Harry Harrison. The term “deathworld”, popularised by Harrison’s novel, has become a kind of general term for incredibly deadly worlds in SF and Midworld definitely fits that category. In other ways, Midworld resembles Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant short novel The Word for World is Forest (1972). Both feature a verdant planet populated by human-like aliens and being stripped of their resources by a heavily armed human force.
But was Midworld an influence on Avatar, as has been claimed? It seems extremely likely that it was because the similarities are almost too many to list. Born’s people resemble the Na’vi aliens, except that they are more human-like. Their lifestyle, in which they take nothing away from their world that they do not somehow return, seems to have been a clear inspiration as well. Both Born’s people and the Na’vi use the term “home tree” to describe the vast tree in which they have a village. While technically a moon rather than a planet, Avatar’s setting of Pandora, or at least its jungle regions, are very similar to Foster’s description of Midworld. Perhaps most significantly, both Midworld and Pandora have a kind of natural, gestalt “supermind” in which all organisms are connected and into which the dead are apparently subsumed. James Cameron wrote his first ever script for what would become Avatar in around 1976 and 1977, shortly after Midworld was published in 1975.
In any case, Midworld is an excellent novel which proves that Alan Dean Foster was and remains far more than just a writer of movie novelisations. While the setting is the most memorable of the book, Foster also tells an engaging and surprising story that sustains interest until the climax. For these reasons, and for its clever extrapolation of ideas in biology into an alien world, Midworld is essential reading for SF fans.
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I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.