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Hothouse by Brian Aldiss (1962) 263 p.

The Earth’s revolution has slowed. The planet is now tidally locked with the sun: one face shrouded in darkness, cold and ice, the other eternally pointed towards the heat and light. After thousands of years of evolution, half the planet is covered by a single enormous banyan tree, within which hundreds of species of carnivorous plants vie for domination. In the eternal hothouse of Earth, a tribe of humanity’s weak and devolved descendants attempt to survive.

It’s a compelling image, and I haven’t even mentioned the moon spiders. Unfortunately, a compelling image is pretty much all Hothouse has to offer.

The novel begins with a tiny tribe of a dozen adults and children, the adults deciding to split themselves off as they grow too old, passing leadership to one of the nearly-mature kids. The adults climb to the tips of the eternal jungle, seal themselves inside special gourds, and then attach themselves to the webs of the great “traversers,” all as part of a misguided religious ceremony. But they nevertheless end up unwittingly carried along the world-spanning threads to the now-terraformed moon by the gargantuan vegetable spiders, where new knowledge awaits them.

It all sounds a bit batshit, and it is, but Aldiss is a skilled enough writer that he makes it seem believable, in a pulpy ‘60s sort of way. The problem is that he doesn’t have much else to tell us. No sooner have we grown accustomed the the trials of the adults in the jungles of the moon, we’re whisked back to Earth and the fate of the children, and there we stay for the duration of the novel. The majority of the book revolves around the strong-willed child Gren and the adventures he has after an intelligent, symbiotic fungus called a morel attaches itself to his brain. But Hothouse was originally published as a serialised string of short stories, and it shows. It feel disjointed and disconnected, with the random addition and removal of characters (such as they are – as in most classic sci-fi, they have no discerning attributes and their names will fade from my memory in a day or two). Hothouse, in the manner of most fascinating sci-fi stories set in the far future, lures the reader on with suggestions of an explanation, of how the world came to be in this radically altered state. It’s actually quite readable – unless that’s just because I happen to a be on a beach holiday and can lap anything up – but it ultimately leaves you wondering what the point was.

Since this is 2015 and I’m a card-carrying left-winger I also feel compelled to point out the weird case of the “tummy-belly men,” a group of humans in a symbiotic slave relationship with a certain type of tree. Gren and his companions free them only to regret it; the former slaves follow them around as simpering supplicants for the rest of the novel, constantly launching into simpleton speeches in which they both praise and damn their benefactors. Given that Aldiss has openly said the book was inspired by his travels in India in the 1950s, and given that the obligatory piece of old technology uncovered by the protagonists reveals that the book takes place in what was once India, I couldn’t help but hear their gibbering, childlike speech patterns in the voice of a native in a 1940s adventure matinee set in British India. “Oh how clever you are master, please no hurt with the big bad monster, oh glorious sir please no kill us, sahib!” That sort of thing. If it was there for a chapter or two I could ignore it, but they’re present for most of the book, and Aldiss even boasts about defending their cut by his American publisher. It seems odd to cry racist over a fictional group of people, but it’s pretty clear who they represent, and it’s off-putting. (More broadly the novel is also par-for-the-course sexist, despite the matriarchal tribal societies.)

Ultimately, Hothouse is pretty much the definition of classic science fiction: a fabulous idea propped up by weak characters and a non-existent plot, which came to life as a series of short stories in the pages of retro sci-fi mags and probably should have stayed there. I found it engaging enough to read while lazing on a beach, but wouldn’t recommend anybody else bother.

Mort, by Terry Pratchett (1987) 304 p.
Discworld #4 (Death #1)

And so we pass through the funny but slapdash novels The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, and the flawed but taking-its-first-wobbly-toddler-steps novel of Equal Rites, and arrive at the fourth Discworld novel, Mort: the first one I believe is a genuinely good, well-rounded novel, and also the first one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to a new reader. (Although it wouldn’t be my first recommendation – more on that later.)

Mortimer, or “Mort” as his family appropriately calls him, is a gangly misfit in a remote village in the Ramtop Mountains. As he comes of age, his father takes him to the village square on Hogswatchnight as the various craftsmen, artisans and traders pick their apprentices for the new year. Mort stands in the freezing cold watching other boys picked for their exciting new careers, like a modern-day kid watching as everybody else is picked for the baseball team, until at the stroke of midnight he’s the only one left. Reminding his father that it’s not midnight until the final stroke of the clock, he stubbornly remains in the square to find that there is indeed one last professional who has yet to take on a protege… and he rides a pale horse.

Death has been a background character in the Discworld books from the very beginning, transforming from an outright malicious figure in The Colour of Magic to the more benevolent fellow we meet in Equal Rites, always happy to have a pithy chat with a departed soul before ushering them into the next world. It’s the latter characterisation that Mort settles upon, and indeed, this is the Death we will become familiar with for the remainder of the Discworld series. As far as walking, talking skeletons who lack a human brain and soul go, he’s quite a likeable person. He speaks IN ALL CAPS, an easy but surprisingly effective trick, and has countless great lines:

“How do you get all those coins?” asked Mort.
IN PAIRS.

“My granny says that dying is like going to sleep,” Mort added, a shade hopefully.

I WOULDN’T KNOW. I HAVE DONE NEITHER.

A WHAT? said Death in astonishment, sitting behind his ornate desk and turning his scythe-shaped paperknife over and over in his hands.

“An afternoon off,” repeated Mort. The room suddenly seemed to be oppressively big, with himself very exposed in the middle of a carpet about the size of a field.

BUT WHY? said Death. IT CAN’T BE TO ATTEND YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S FUNERAL, he added. I WOULD KNOW.

Death is most importantly a loveable character because he is not malevolent; he does not take lives, but merely ensures that people die as fate has appointed. The first time Mort accompanies Death as his new master reaps a soul, the boy instinctively but fruitlessly attempts to intervene and save the murdered man’s life, and later assumes he’s in trouble:

YOU TRIED TO WARN HIM, he said, removing Binky’s nosebag.

“Yes, sir. Sorry.”

YOU CANNOT INTERFERE WITH FATE. WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE WHO SHOULD LIVE AND WHO SHOULD DIE?

Death watched Mort’s expression carefully.

ONLY THE GODS ARE ALLOWED TO DO THAT, he added. To TINKER WITH THE FATE OF EVEN ONE INDIVIDUAL COULD DESTROY THE WHOLE WORLD. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?

Mort nodded miserably. “Are you going to send me home?” he said.

Death reached down and swung him up behind the saddle. BECAUSE YOU SHOWED COMPASSION? NO. I MIGHT HAVE DONE IF YOU HAD SHOWN PLEASURE. BUT YOU MUST LEARN THE COMPASSION PROPER TO YOUR TRADE.

“What’s that?”

A SHARP EDGE.

Why Death has decided he wants an apprentice is never entirely clear, unless perhaps it’s in some vague hope that Mort will fall in love with Death’s adopted human daughter, Ysabell. But the concept is great: how many fantasy or young adult novels, how many bildungsroman, have covered the notion of being slowly trained up as a wizard or assassin or ruler? Being trained as the grim reaper is a pretty fresh idea, which is perhaps why I think this is the first really good Discworld novel: because it’s the first to combine humour with a genuinely interesting, exciting story. The plot properly kicks off when, entrusted with THE DUTY on his own for the first time, Mort falls for a beautiful princess and kills her assassin instead. This sets off ripples in space-time, the universe attempts to correct itself, and Mort has to figure out what the hell he’s going to do – including whether or not he’s going to fess up to Death.

I enjoyed Mort as much as I did when I first read it many, many years ago, and I was actually surprised by how much I’d forgotten. There are some unforgettable settings and inventions, some of which will remain part of the series for many books to come: the library with billions of books constantly writing the story of everybody’s life, the hourglasses or “lifetimers” that measure out a person’s lifespan, the invisible magical circle tightening around the princess and course-correcting her altered history, the black but homely realm of Death’s Domain, and the true identity of Death’s millenia-old manservant Albert. But there was much that I’d forgotten: Death’s own jet-black skull-and-bones lifetimer which contains no sand at all, the duel in the lifetimer room with accidentally destroyed hourglasses corresponding to real-life deaths, Mort’s amusing habit of constantly discomfiting people as he forgets his developing Death-like powers and walks through walls, trips to Bes Pelargic and Klatch (because we will see far less of the Disc as the series increasingly focuses on Ankh-Morpork and the surrounding countryside), and a cameo appearance by Rincewind, which I’m frankly surprised didn’t happen in Equal Rites.

Mort is a really good book. It’s funny, it’s creative, it’s original and it’s deeply engaging. As a Discworld book? Well, it’s the first really good Discworld book – not even the first great Discworld book. It’s the beginning of the Death story arc (one of the series’ shorter ones) and, as I said, it’s a great book in and of itself. If you’re interested in reading the Discworld series for the first time and, of the Recommended Starting Titles™, your library only has Mort? Go for it. If, on the other hand, you’re perusing Amazon and have all the world’s literature before your credit card, then go ahead and buy #8, Guards! Guards! I’ll explain why when I get there.

Next up is the Discworld #5, Rincewind #3, Sourcery – a book I remember absolutely nothing about except an all-powerful wizard and a half-brick in a sock.

Rereading Discworld index

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