Hunter, Come Home: by Richard McKenna
On that planet the damned trees were immortal...
Richard McKenna was not particularly known as a genre author. His name rests largely on his war novel, The Sand Pebbles; however, he did contribute at least one classic to science fiction with his novella Hunter, Come Home. The influence of this story, I think, can now be found everywhere and in everything, perhaps most recently in James Cameron's Avatar, and it doesn't really get its due recognition.
On the human colony planet Mordin a rite of passage tradition has grown out of the struggle to tame the habitat - young Mordinmen must fight and kill a beast known as the Great Russel before progressing to full manhood. As time passes the number of human males far surpasses the number of surviving Great Russels and a social and cultural bottleneck threatens the colony's viability. To remedy this the Mordin Hunt Council takes possession of a neighbouring planet which it intends to terraform and seed with Great Russels, so that the stock may be replenished for hunt purposes. There is only the matter of that planet's indigenous species, which are judged to be non-sentient plant life and safe to exterminate. The terraforming party's instructions are to poison the entire planet with a toxin known as Thanasis. But the planet, which remains unnamed, refuses to die.
Among the Mordinmen is Craig - a "blankie" - who has not yet killed his Great Russel. He shares, more than most, the Mordinmen's frustration at the planet's resistance. Yet he feels strangely akin to the planet's most visible inhabitant, the Phytos - these are luminous and gentle spores whose migrations seem almost to be only intelligent sign of a response to the Thanasis toxin. As each new toxin infestation is released they develop livid wheals and inner lights, as though the dawning comprehension of hostilities has of itself conferred sentience. The power of the story lies in its slow-burning narrative of a planet becoming aware of danger and rousing itself to anger. Craig realises this, eventually, and changes sides, but by then it is too late for them all.
I was transfixed by this story throughout. Its subtexts are timeless - it is an early Gaia rendering, and an ecological warning; it is also a story of men in the jungle whose war becomes insensible with death. The prose is strikingly beautiful and the characterisation is superb; much of the plotting retains classical elements, particularly in the fate of Craig and his nominal love interest (who walks away with the human prize). It could be a story of human arrogance and alien frailty, except that these must inevitably be reversed, perhaps because human arrogance is frailty. The Phytos understand this; which is why their revenge is commuted to tragedy.
First published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963, Hunter, Come Home was later collected in Casey Agonistes, a welcome volume of the various short fictions McKenna contributed to magazines during his early years. Happily this was issued by Gollancz in hardcover and by Pan in paperback, and copies of both are fairly easy to come by.