I first heard about Jean Hegland’s novel Into the Forest in an Interzone review by David Pringle in 1998, two years after the book was published. Hegland is a West Coast author and Pringle positioned her novel in a subgenre of science fiction he calls ‘California SF’ – work by Californians like Ursula Le Guin, George R. Stewart, Ray Bradbury, and Kim Stanley Robinson which yearns for some kind of a pastoral utopia either in California or in California transposed to Mars. (I would tentatively add to this list Frank Herbert and Philip Dick.)
On the strength of Pringle’s review, I always meant to read Into the Forest, but never got hold of a copy till nearly twenty years later. That’s a shame, because it’s both superbly written and a provocative response to the uber-problem of sustainability. The scenario is a dystopian collapse of American society (for reasons not explained but readily imagined), amidst which a pair of sisters make a go of surviving in their isolated forest homestead through gathering and growing their own food. The novel speaks, I think, to those back-to-nature idealists who would welcome the collapse of society as we know it, as an opportunity to apply their skills in horticulture and foraging in order to construct a new, more sustainable way of life. The sisters have the advantage of living some distance from any population centre, in a situation blessed with natural resources, yet their efforts to keep going become more and more desperate as their supplies of manufactured products, which it’s no longer possible to buy, are exhausted. And their isolation can only last so long before other, more desperate people (men) begin to arrive on the scene.
In genre terms, Into the Forest is a dystopian novel in which the tropes of dystopia and utopia are subtly interwoven. It’s also a work of nature writing, being written as a first-person memoir whose form, style, and content somewhat resemble those of the non-fiction nature memoirs currently in vogue. And it also has the feel of ‘women’s fiction’, as per Ursula Le Guin’s ‘Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, since much of the narrative is taken up with the practicalities of everyday life and the nuances of emotional dynamics between the two sisters. What it does not do is comply with the expectation that a work of dystopian fiction should be a thriller. I guess it’s the inevitable outcome of the financial calculus of film-making that – to judge by its trailer – the 2015 film adaptation of Into the Forest appears to have made the story into a thriller. It looks like a good film, though; I’ll report back when I’ve had chance to see it.