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From the Blue Planet to Google Earth

In her short story “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow,” science fiction novelist Ursula K. Le Guin describes the encounter of a group of humans with an ecosystem that cannot be understood as encompassing anything less than an entire planet. When a team of scientific explorers arrives on the planet called only World 4470, after a journey that has taken just a few hours in their personal time but 250 years in Earth time, they find all its continents inhabited exclusively by plants, from grass-like to tree-like species. Their scientific study of this world is from the beginning impaired by the peculiarities of their life as a group: since only psychologically or socially alienated individuals volunteer for a mission that will take them 500 years into the future (returning to Earth will take another 250), conflicts continuously erupt between the team members. One of the scientists, Osden, proves particularly problematic, as his “wide-range bioempathic receptivity,” a psychological condition that enables him to “share lust with a white rat, pain with a squashed cockroach, phototropy with a moth,” also leads him blindly to reflect back any human emotions he senses in his surroundings. Since most of his colleagues approach him with suspicion or latent hostility, he cannot help but respond with scorn and hatred, which ends up estranging even the most patient and compassionate among them. To minimize the disruptive effects of this condition, he moves away from the team to take on the biological exploration of a nearby forest.

But the tension that Osden’s presence had caused is soon replaced by a vague feeling of unease that most members of the group experience in and around this forest. Lingering apprehension erupts into crisis when Osden misses his radio transmissions, and is found bleeding and unconscious on the forest soil by two scientists who go out to search for him. As they pick him up, they are seized by an overwhelming and irrational fear that they hardly know how to control. When they discuss their experiences as Osden regains consciousness, it becomes clear that the plant life in the forest has some kind of sentience that he was able to identify mostly by its fear: “‘I suppose I could feel the roots. Below me in the ground, down under the ground … I felt the fear. It kept growing. As if they’d finally known I was there, lying on them there, under them, among them, the thing they feared, and yet part of their fear itself. I couldn’t stop sending the fear back, and it kept growing, and I couldn’t move, I couldn’t get away.’” Several of the scientists contradict him by pointing out that the tree-like plants have no nervous system that would enable them to react to their surroundings in such a way. But others observe that all the plants are linked by an intricate root system and a network of epiphytes so as to create what might be a far-reaching web of connections. One of them argues, “‘sentience or intelligence isn’t a thing, you can’t find it in, or analyze it out from, the cells of a brain. It’s a function of the connected cells. It is, in a sense, the connection: the connectedness.’” Osden sums up his experience of this utterly alien form of intelligence by characterizing it as “‘sentience without senses. Blind, deaf, nerveless, moveless. Some irritability, response to touch. Response to sun, to light, to water, and chemicals in the earth around the roots. Nothing comprehensible to an animal mind. Presence without mind. Awareness of being, without object or subject. Nirvana.’”

In such an ecosystem, the only agent that could have attacked Osden is another human, and one of the scientists finally admits that he mistook the psychological effect of the forest for Osden’s influence and wanted to rid the mission of his interference. To break the impact of the alien forest, the crew decides to relocate their camp to another continent. But the same unease as before revisits them on a vast prairie covered with grass-like plants, forcing them to realize, as the team’s biologist points out, that the entire planet’s vegetation constitutes one large “‘network of processes … There are no individual plants, then, properly speaking. Even the pollen is part of the linkage, no doubt, a sort of windborne sentience, connecting overseas. But it is not conceivable. That all the biosphere of a planet should be one network of communications, sensitive, irrational, immortal, isolated.’” Le Guin’s title allusion to Andrew Marvell’s well-known poem “To His Coy Mistress,” with its reference to “vegetable love,” is translated into “vegetable fear” as Osden infers that the planet’s apprehension must have been triggered by its dawning awareness of other beings where there had never been anything but itself. As Osden and the other humans perceive and retransmit this fear to the alien intelligence, they are locked into a self-reinforcing feedback loop with their environment.

Humans’ interaction with a global environment is here articulated through a series of conceptual tensions: the forest’s contemplative immobility versus the humans’ movements; its indifference to them as against their investigation of it; its unconcern over space and time, which contrasts both with the humans’ separation from their own world and history, and their longing to overcome the limitations of their biological form; its silence as against their language; its total unity (signaled here by the pollen, which connects the plants even across oceans) versus their plurality and individuality. At the same time, the lyrical quality of the passage, which culminates in the quotation from Marvell’s poem and echoes the story’s title, also conveys the sense that the forest possesses a kind of being that humans have always aspired to: a collective experience of “world enough and time,” where temporality and space are no longer issues of existential concern. Even as the scientists, like Marvell’s lovers, cannot share this experience, they seem to participate in it temporarily by “walk[ing] under the trees”: rootedness in its original, botanical sense and indifference to space coexist in the same experience.

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