1960s, 1962, Brian Aldiss, British, dying earth, ecological, far flung future, fixup novel, Hugo Award winner, Open Road Media, post apocalyptic, racial memories, science fantasy, science fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
Brian W. Aldiss is one of the most important figures from British science fiction’s early years, though his first novel (Non-Stop) wasn’t published until 1958. He remained a productive author throughout the 1960s and 1970s, helping influence the direction of science fiction’s New Wave and producing some unconventional works for the magazine New Worlds under editor Michael Moorcock. Aldiss did great work not just penning classics in the genre, but also as an editor and critic, working on a number of excellent anthologies and critical works on the genre (the Hugo-winning Trillion Year Spree). He’s now one of the oldest SF writers still active, having published novels as recently as 2013. Hothouse—variant title The Long Afternoon of Earth—dates back the early years of Aldiss’ career, when it was printed as five linked novelettes in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1961, and earned Aldiss a Hugo Award in the Best Short Story category.
(Note that I recieved an eARC in exchange for an open and honest review.)
Tens of thousands of years into the future, the Earth’s rotation has locked, with one face locked on a dying sun, the other side locked in orbit with a moon now encrusted with plant life. Due to high doses of solar radiation, life on Earth has devolved and mutated. Humans now occupy the lowest rank on the totem pole, shriveled and out-classed by the remaining insect life and the numerous forms of flora. For the plant world has evolved and gained sentience—it is the age of the vegetable, and humanity is in its twilight years. The webs of great spider-like plants called Traversers link the Earth to the moon. A massive banyan tree covers the sun-light face of the Earth, and in its branches a million dramas of life, death, and decay unfold… such as the plight of a small tribe of humans. Leader Lily-yo opts to disband her tribe and travel “Up,” the adults tying themselves to a traverser’s web. Abandoned by the adults, the children of the tribe must make their own fate in the Green. The story follows one of the tribe’s few man-children, Gren, and the epic voyage he undertakes. Along the way, he will encounter many strange perils, gain (and lose) companions, become the host to a parasitic morel mushroom that has evolved sentience, and uncover some of this world’s many secrets.
What’s most impressive about Hothouse is the astounding creativity of its setting—the various kinds of floral fauna that inhabit this world, the descriptions of the world-tree, and we get to see plenty of it on the characters’ journey. Aldiss’ first novel, Non-Stop, featured a number of uniquely creative if off-the-wall ideas, and Hothouse is even more off-the-wall craziness cut from the same cloth. Carnivorous plants, tiny humans, giant insects, a tree that occupies most of the rotational-locked Earth, spider-like plants whose webbing has ensnared the moon… It’s all a bit much, a jumble of crazed and hallucinogenic ideas that defy realistic science; really, it falls more under the dreaded science-fantasy label. (It reminds me of Vance’s Dying Earth, particularly the Cugel stories, and Hodgson’s The Night Land. With plants.) For sheer amazing ideas and sensawunda, the book more than delivers. Its world enthralled me, the deadly struggles of a small band of humans, insignificant in the wide expanse of killer plants. Aldiss does a magnificent job showing how wild and unpredictable the world is, making his human characters all but overwhelmed by their environment. It’s a breathtaking and visionary novel, and the main reason to read it is for that outrageous setting.
The novel’s downsides, though, are manifest. Its origin as five novelettes is very obvious, because the pacing can be pretty jerky and is full of repetition—I doubt the stories were edited much when they were combined into one fixup novel, and you can see the seams whenever key pieces of information are repeated five pages later. The plot… doesn’t really exist; the novel is a kind of picaresque journey through a hellish environment, the plot is neither engrossing or well-defined. It’s less like a novel and more like a furious struggle for survival, everyday hazards in an alien future. At times it felt like a B-movie or video game, with every paragraph featuring a new threat to overcome and with characters dying or being abandoned every other chapter—it’s great at showing how wild and unpredictable the world is, how insignificant and vulnerable the humans are, but gets to be a bit much after a while.
The characters have some issues as well. Most of them disappear in short succession—Lily-yo and the adults ascend to the moon and are left on a cliffhanger, Toy and most of the group wander off into the green, so don’t get attached to them. Instead, we’re left with Gren, the man-child, who is not very likable: he becomes something of a jerk after he gains his magic morel, gets worse when he realizes that it’s manipulating him, and by the end of the novel Gren’s stopped making inspiring speeches and is relying on physical violence and threats to get others to act. Great guy. And as if the magic morel isn’t out there enough, it digs into Gren’s mind and discovers some racial memories, which is another knock against the book’s science.
Hothouse’s core themes are some that Aldiss explored in many of his novels and short stories—the balance of fecundity to entropy, the interrelation between order and chaos, and the stark contrast between an explosive growth of life and the inevitable silence of death and decay. The forest is a microcosm of these themes; each creature—plant, human, or insect—exists to eat and procreate, gathering energy and spreading its offspring, attempting to spread their genetic material wide. (Take the traversers, which are drawn by the pull of solar radiation, taking them to the moon and the silence of space.). At the end, all creatures fall back down to the green, to become compost for more forms of life—the plants exist in a cyclical life of death and rebirth, with each death contributing to another’s growth. The humans, meanwhile, are stuck on the death end; unlike the tangled jungles of the hothouse world, they don’t benefit much from the death of one of their adversaries. At best it is food, or a moment’s respite before the onslaught of another predator. Life is a tangled mess of interlocking cycles, a mass of chaos from first glance that hides the structure and order of the kill-or-be-killed jungle.
Hothouse all but requires its readers to suspend disbelief, and if you’re more into Hard SF or less into science-fantasy, it’s probably best to give it a skip. But for sheer creativity and uniqueness, it is unparalleled. Hothouse is a tour-de-force of world-building, a detailed and perilous journey through a bizarre and unsettling future. I very much enjoyed it, though I can understand why others might not.
Title: Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth)
Author: Brian Aldiss
Release Date: 2015
What I Read: ebook
Price I Paid: $0 (e-ARC via Netgalley)
ISBN/ASIN: 0586049908 (oop) / B00V7I1AU8
First published: 1961-62 (short stories), 1962 (novel)