Buy F&SF • Read F&SF • Contact F&SF • Advertise In F&SF • Blog • Forum • RSS

Interview: Ray Nayler on “Eyes of the Forest”

Tell us a bit about “Eyes of the Forest.”

“Eyes of the Forest” is a story about human explorers trying to survive in the deadly, primeval forest of alien planet. One injured explorer is racing against time to save the life of another.


Ray naylerWhat was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I set myself a challenge when writing “Eyes of the Forest.” I wanted to do a few things that were difficult to do in the same story:

First: I wanted to write a hard science fiction piece that has the pace and drive of the early planetary exploration adventure stories: one that starts in media res with a “ticking clock” plot – a race against death.

Second: I wanted to create a world with a completely alien but completely believable ecosystem.

Third (and maybe the hardest): I wanted to use the story to explore, and introduce to readers, a field of science I have been fascinated with and reading deeply in for years: biosemiotics. In short (and here’s I’m paraphrasing Soren Brier, the author of the book Cybersemiotics), biosemiotics seeks to understand how animals use specific types of signals and signs for survival as well as how human sign-use (semiosis) is both linked to and different from that of animals. The objective is to find the commonalities in sign-use across species, and in fact even down to cellular levels of exchange, to understand the phenomenon of communication in its totality.

“Eyes of the Forest” is an adventure story about communication and meaning. It is a story about how what matters is not the anthropocentric view. What matters is not what humans think, but rather what the eyes of the forest see. If the humans on this alien planet are going to survive, they need to get out of their own heads and see as the forest sees. And this forest – as is clear when you read the story – and I am trying hard to avoid any spoilers here – sees the world in a way that is completely different from ours.

The humans on the planet need to break out of their own way of seeing and see differently. The story is very much inspired by the book How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human by Eduardo Kohn, who explores this concept of perception deeply, and I am indebted to his book for the theoretical underpinnings of the story.


Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for this story?

To create the ecosystem, I refreshed a lot of my knowledge of marine biology. The inhabitants of the forest are modeled, for the most part, on marine organisms. The marine world on Earth is the most fantastically alien environment imaginable: when I was serving in Vietnam as the Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer at the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, I did a good amount of scuba diving. I initiated a “Save the Dugong” campaign to raise awareness of the importance of marine environment preservation, and was involved with a biodiversity conservation program on the Con Dao Archipelago there in association with a great organization called Biodiversity PEEK (Photography Educating and Empowering Kids.) We did a night dive along some reefs there that I will always remember as one of the most intensely alien experiences of my life. You don’t have to go far to find a world beyond human comprehension.

The biosemiotics underpinning of the story largely come from, as I mentioned above, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human by Eduardo Kohn. Another book which has been an enormous influence on me is Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and the Life of Signs, by Jesper Hoffmeyer. There are dozens of other books too, but I don’t want to turn this into a bibliography. Let’s just say I take research seriously. For me, research is a joy: it’s an excuse to really dig into a topic and explore it. It takes a lot of research to be able to communicate an idea clearly, but I love doing it. I’ve always loved it: even as a kid, I lived in the library stacks when I wasn’t out sailing my little boat around our local lake or riding my skateboard or snowboard.


What was the most difficult aspect of writing this story, and what was the most fun?

I think the most difficult part of the story really was the most fun: balancing my three goals and trying to create a story that respected all of them – the speed and fun of the story, the technical detail of the story’s invented ecosystem, and the story’s biosemiotics underpinnings. Of course worldbuilding is always really fun: I had a really good time coming up with all the strange creatures living in this ecosystem’s niches, and the ways they interact with one another and the human explorers. And the Given Names: it was fun to play with those. Again, no spoilers, though.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

In fiction and writing in general: Patricia Highsmith, Fritz Leiber, Ursula K. Le Guin, Dorothy B. Hughes, Theodore Sturgeon, W.G. Sebald, Eric Ambler. These really shift over time: those are who come to mind right now.

In science and philosophy: Kaja Silverman, Mary Wollstonecraft, Joseph Hoffmeyer, Donna Haraway, Gregory Bateson, Wendy Wheeler, Charles Sanders Peirce, Thomas Nagel, and Julia Kristeva immediately come to mind.

Kaja Silverman’s The Subject of Semiotics tore my mind apart and fundamentally changed my life. My professor at UCSC, Earl Jackson, Jr. is the person to whom I am most intellectually indebted, and I would not be writing science fiction without him. That’s a fact.


What are you working on now?

I have a daughter, Lydia, who just turned 1. I’m up at 5 in the morning to write every day so I can get the time in before she wakes up at 6 and we start our day together. I’m working on being the best dad to her I can be, and the best husband I can be, while maintaining something of my own identity and creativity. I think that’s plenty!


“Eyes of the Forest” appears in the May/June 2020 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here:

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here:

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here:

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (all formats):

Amazon US (Kindle edition):

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):

Ray Nayler’s website:


Leave a Reply

If this is your first time leaving a comment, your comment may enter the moderation queue. If it doesn't appear right away, don't panic; it should show up once site administrators verify you're not a spambot. After you successfully post a comment, future comments will no longer be moderated.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Copyright © 2006–2020 The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction • All Rights Reserved Worldwide
Powered by WordPress • Theme based on Whitespace theme by Brian Gardner
If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to

Designed by Rodger Turner and Hosted by:
SF Site spot art