July 29, 2008
Brian Aldiss: Hothouse
One of the things I like about the Penguin Modern Classics range is how they try to expand the notion of what constitutes a (mainstream) classic. In recent years they’ve dabbled in the more soft-edged side of science fiction, with John Wyndham, as well as established names like Philip K Dick and Kurt Vonnegut. Now they’re introducing writers less widely read in literary circles: next year Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (best known as the inspiration for the film Soylent Green) will join the Modern Classics list, along with John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (already championed by Steerforth in The Age of Uncertainty). Those two titles have a vaguely ecological angle for today’s reader, with their apocalyptic visions of overpopulation. This month, we get Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962), which seems to offer similar Schadenfreude jollies for our contemporary concern for global warming.
That appearance in fact is deceptive, as the temperature rise in Aldiss’s future earth is entirely due to natural processes, as the sun prepares to go supernova. We are, therefore, thousands of years in the future when the earth is “riotous and strange.”
Over the long slow eons as the sun’s radiation increased, vegetation had evolved to undisputed supremacy. … Over everything, indifferent begetter of all this carnage, shone the sun.
Most of the animal kingdom has died out, other than insects and a few pockets of human beings, who have evolved to become smaller and with less intelligence, as in the world controlled by plants, instinct for survival matters more than reasoning.
Hothouse is a book which requires the reader – at least the reader who, like me, doesn’t get much SF in their diet – to submit to its thinking wholly, or risk being thrown off at regular intervals by head-scratching strangeness. Or make that silliness, when the names of the dominant plants arise: trappersnappers, treebees, thinpins, pluggyrugs. However this turns out to be a clever use by Aldiss of baby language for two reasons: first, language has devolved, being of little use in the new world (“one did or one did not: it needed no talk. Whatever happened was the way, and talk could not touch it”); and second, the humans who name the plants are little more than children themselves. By the time of adulthood, they have either “fallen to the green” or have “Gone Up”, which is their process of moving to the next world – which is not (quite) the same thing as death. The humans of the future have their rituals, superstitions and habits just as we do: some things cannot be evolved away.
There are few passages in Hothouse which cry out for quotation, other than for the wrong reasons (“Vegetables have no voices,” one paragraph concludes with an air of misplaced drama): Aldiss, it seems, is not that kind of writer. Indeed, it’s not always a smooth performance, with Aldiss as author too keen to hack his way onto the page and explain not just the different mutant plants, which could plausibly be explained as the viewpoint of the characters, but things which they could not know, such as the nature of the traversers (mile-long spider-like entities which have yoked the earth and moon together with webs). This appetite for over-explanation reaches a maddening peak at the end of Part One, where a scene which gives hints of references to Genesis (“You’ll be like gods!” two humans are told as they are offered a quantum leap in understanding), only to hammer home the point by calling the female “another Eve” and the land “their dangerous Eden”.
Taken individually, many of the chapters seem like mindless – literally mindless – conflicts between humans and plants, a series of (what shall we call them?) vegetaction set pieces. However the book gains considerable cumulative force, as it becomes clear that Aldiss’s interest lies not in the details of how the plants came to rule the planet, nor in the human struggle for survival – few of the characters are distinguishable from one another – but in the notion of the propagation of life itself in any form. We see how insects have adapted for this fearful new world; how a sentient form of fungus rides parasitically on host humans to further its own spread; and how the human instincts, which have enabled the limited survival of the species, are hampered by the development of intelligence. The way in which the fungus involves itself in humanity has echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its source story, Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The Sentinel’. There also seemed to be similarities with Aldiss’s contemporary, J.G. Ballard.
Hothouse then is refreshingly different from my usual reading matter, and it’s not until I read this book which celebrates the propagation of life itself, in any form – animal, vegetable or other – that I realise just how limited the outlook is in so many of the books we read and acclaim. It may seem self-evident that we need to turn to science fiction for a portrayal of the world which does not centre on humankind, as we tend to share Arthur Dent’s view of the Universe as being “still divided into two parts – the Earth, and everything else.” I suppose I know why this is, just as I know why it is that when science fiction is written by a ‘respectable’ author – Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go, Atwood in Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale – it’s never described as such. Meanwhile, authors like Aldiss provide works which are not just mind-expanding but literature-expanding.
This edition also benefits from an instructive and enthusiastic introduction from Neil Gaiman, who gives a valuable rundown on golden age science fiction as well as Aldiss’s own career, and also has a new afterword from Aldiss himself (“who is,” Gaiman cautiously notes, “as I write this, a living author”). This made me think about Aldiss, of whom I have long been aware as “the godfather of British science fiction” (Sunday Times). Why is it that, until I read Gaiman’s introduction and the About the Author page, I couldn’t have named a single work by Aldiss (other than the story ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’, source for Kubrick project and Spielberg vehicle A.I.)? Is it a deficiency in my reading, in the literary tastemakers, or of Aldiss’s making? (His “two most recent” non-SF novels are named in this book as HARM and Walcot. Walwhat?) Perhaps a superintelligent fungus will come along to enhance my understanding. Until then, guidance welcomed below.