As with many of Ursula Le Guin’s short stories, “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” is set in a distant future. Much of space has been colonized. The largest space owners are known as the Hainish and the Terrans. Even though most of space belongs to one group or the other, some still seek to find undiscovered territory and boldly go where no man has gone before.
The people who embark on these missions are called Extreme Survey Crews. These missions are long and desolate, which makes them known refuges for people of “unsound mind”. The reason for this is that cosmic mass interference delays communications to home by decades. Therefore, those on these missions often leave with the expectation of never returning to their homes or hearing from loved ones again.
The crew upon the ship called “Gum” is comprised of ten individuals. Among them are scientists, engineers, and one man known as the “sensor”. The sensor, named Osden, is the most hated member of the crew. In his youth, Osden was “cured” of autism, but this cure left him with extraordinary empathic abilities.
These abilities manifest themselves as a kind of mirror. He reflects all of the hostility that others send towards him. This creates a tense situation between Osden and the rest of the crew. On one of their expeditions, they set down on an uninhabited planet. Although uninhabited, the planet is full of plant life. This planet provides the perfect opportunity for the create to temporarily rid themselves of Osden. They send him into the forest to study plant life and find while he is gone their mood improves. Osden takes to his mission well and reports back regularly. After a few days, the crew starts to feel a sense of dread about the forest.
When Osden does not report back one day, the crew searches for him and find him lying facedown in a pool of his own blood. When he comes around, Osden blames the attack on the forest itself, although Porlock takes responsibility for the attack. Osden asks to be taken into the forest because he believes that the forest is emanating fear, making the crew feel and behave irrationally.
As they attempt to return Osden to the forest, Harfex, the crew’s biologist dies of fright. Seeing this, Osden runs into the forest alone, determined to commune with the forest and stop the fear. The rest of the crew searches for Osden but when they cannot find him, they leave the planet, now down two crewmen.
Through “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow”, Le Guin explores two main ideas. The first is the concept of sentience. When the crew arrives on the planet known as World 4470, they assume that it is devoid of sentient life. There are no people, insects, or animals.
As they put it, “All life-forms were photosynthesizing or saprophagous, living off of light or death, not life. Plants: infinite plants, not one species known to the visitors from the house of Man” (190). They view the planet as lonely even though it is teeming with life. It is not until the fear begins that they start to wonder about the flora covering the planet’s surface.
Osden is the only one among them who understands that the vegetation does not simply live, but possesses an awareness and ability to communicate. The roots of the trees that stretch for miles act as nerves and synapses, generating and transporting information throughout the whole. When Osden realizes this, he opts to remain on the planet to become "one" with this extraordinary being.
The second focus of “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” is the idea of emotional connections between individuals. Just as the plants communicate their fear with the crew, the crew itself begins to feed off of each other’s emotions. Their individual neuroses eventually start to blend and everyone becomes unhinged.
This effect is amplified by Osden’s antagonism and the fear coming from the forest. These two forces start a closed feedback loop of negative emotion. This connection is only broken when the sensor opts to leave the group and the crew abandons the planet.