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.