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.


  1. I was thinking about the inaccessibility of sf to the general reader this morning funnily enough, before I saw this.

    The need for exposition is why so much sf in my view struggles to achieve literary greatness. The more we move from the world we actually know and inhabit, the more the writer must explain to the reader in order for them to understand the book, and so the more we get direct exposition from writer to reader breaking into the narrative and disrupting its flow. This can lead to the over-explanation you refer to here, or worse yet to an infamous passage in Gibson’s Neuromancer where a character is portrayed watching a historical documentary on tv which then explains the setting in a massive infodump but at the cost of utterly disrupting the narrative flow.

    Literary sf, to make up a term, tends to be set pretty much in our world still but with some easily understood changes. As such, it’s easy for the uninitiated reader to access it. SF which is pushing the edges of that genre though is far less accessible, often dealing in ideas which require either an understanding of physics and hard science which most readers will not possess or assuming a knowledge of genre which they are unlikely to have acquired.

    I’m not sure any other genre has those issues. Crime is set in our world, or a historical part of it, and the issues it deals with are ones we can all easily imagine. Romance is very much in our world. Horror is our world plus some nastiness, which typically the characters discover alongside the reader. It’s really only sf where we leave our world entirely, and that presents difficulties both for the writer in explaining the new world and for the reader in understanding it.

    Also, sf often prefers to focus on exploration of ideas and societies, and tends to care little about issues of character or in the use of language for its own sake. Literary fiction readers are often very character and language focused, sometimes caring little for plot provided there is linguistic and psychological depth – neither of which sf is typically interested in.

    Ironically, most literary sf is actually pretty hackneyed in sf terms. Atwood’s stuff is rehashes of sf that was written in the 50s and 60s in my view. PD James was accused of plagiarism over The Children of Men, which had an almost identical plot to a much earlier Aldiss novel of which it was eventually accepted she had been unaware., literary authors who delve into sf are often painfully unaware of how trite their ideas look to anyone who has read much sf. By contrast, when literary authors turn to crime, they tend to be fairly successful at it (I’d argue as the concerns of literary fiction and crime fiction have much more overlap, literary fiction and sf have almost no concerns in common at all).

    Good sf I think is peculiarly hard to access if you are not already steeped in the sf genre with a good grasp of science, bad sf isn’t worth reading. As such, it’s a difficult genre to get to grips with, and if you read for the beauty of language or for studies of character it’s generally not worth the trouble to get to grips with.

    I’d also say, though this is more controversial, that literary readers hold their authors to a higher standard of use of language than sf readers do their authors, so allowing many sf authors to get by with prose that would not be acceptable to a literary audience. I’d make the same remark of horror, though that’s basically a dead genre now.

    Aldiss is an interesting case, much of his work including Hothouse is about evoking a certain mood or atmosphere, as such I think he’s better suited to a modern classics treatment than many other sf authors would be. I think the nature of the genre though is such that it will never be that accessible to those who are fond of literary fiction, with the rare exception of sf mood writers such as Aldiss, Dick, some of M John Harrison’s work and so on.

  2. Max –

    I think you make a mistake of generalizing a little too much. You see sf as a monolithic genre, and it’s not. There are a lot of similarities to ‘literary’ fiction in the best sf, and a lot of similarities to sf in the best ‘literary’ fiction. There are also just as many different types – sub-genres, tonal variations, areas of focus, in sf as there are in ‘literary’ fiction.

    “Also, sf often prefers to focus on exploration of ideas and societies, and tends to care little about issues of character or in the use of language for its own sake.”
    What you are talking about here is bad sf – good sf would never do this. I can think of a number of what you call ‘literary’ (and what I’m interpreting you mean as non-genre) novels that make this same mistake. Society informs what you call non-genre fiction just as much as it does sf. An example right off the top of my head is Dickens. He seems very concerned with world-building. He uses it to paint a picture of a society that is tearing itself apart out of greed and revolution (intellectual, political, industrial). Of course this affects the characters – it informs their actions and moods and the entire shape of their imagined lives. Just the same as the created societies in (good) sf novels affect the characters and influence their stories.
    I think even just in non-genre novels, there are writers like Penelope Lively and Peter Cameron who focus mostly on characters, and writers who find inspiration in ideas and societies (and are impossible to divide from this context), like Dickens or Yukio Mishma.
    World-building can sometimes, in the right hands, lead to more precision and brevity in terms of the use of language. Many of my favourite sf novels are quite short. “The Telling” by Ursula K LeGuin and “Beasts” by John Crowley are two examples I can pull off the top of my head. These writers have books both in and out of genre, and many of their novels are highly respected in non-genre circles. World-building here is important, because this is an invented world (as, to some extent, all worlds in all fiction, genre or otherwise are), but the characters are what is important. We see the invented world through their eyes, and not an omniscient authour’s.

    Also, on the note that sf is not monolithic, there is a new movement calling itselves “mundane sf.”
    This is pretty interesting stuff, because it takes as its jumping off point the idea that things like intergalactic space-travel and aliens are pretty unlikely, and proposes to make the technologies – and therefore the societies – depicted more realistic. This means there is a lot less of the kind of thing you describe in Neuromancer, and a lot more character-building. Interesting books that fit somewhere in this, if you’re interested, are Geoff Ryman’s “Air,” and “Lust,” Nick Mamatas’ “Under My Roof,” Maureen McHugh’s “Coney Island of the Mind,” and stories by Nancy Kress and Ted Chiang, and some stories (but not necessarily novels) by Karen Joy Fowler.

    I think sf is very accessible to the general reader. Or rather it should be. there really is no “need for exposition”. Or rather, there shouldn’t be.
    There is a combination of reluctance to really dig into the good sf among a lot of people (I reccommend some favourite sf novels to friends and they say “Oh, hmm. . .” ) and a proliferation of stuff that is meant to only appeal to people with an existing knowledge of science and what is affectionately called “geekdom.” The best sf is easily as good as the best non-sf stuff in my opinion, and this stuff doesn’t use exposition more than anythin else, but is ghettoized by chain booksellers and mainstream book reviews.

  3. I think genre fiction can be off-putting to those of us who mostly graze the literary fiction shelves. However occasional forays across the fence have rewarded me richly. I just finished Geoff Ryman’s ‘Was’ (a kind of Michael Cunningham take on The Wizard of Oz’ ) and thoroughly enjoyed it despite it being billed as fantasy.

    I’m dabbling more lately with dystopian novels. Loved ‘Oryx & Crake’ and have a couple of others waiting of my shelf. Might try this one too. Thanks also for the heads up about the forthcoming ‘The Death of Grass’ – my dad was always talking about this when I was younger, one of the few books he read and remembered I think. Will look forward to its reissue.

    Looking forward to your Booker reading too. I need you to persuade me before I commit to a few of those titles!

  4. Hey Nick,

    I may have generalised too much, it’s true. It’s always a risk in a limited space. Personally I treat sf much as I do literary fiction or crime or any other genre, I certainly don’t mean to imply it’s not worthy of attention.

    I do think much good sf is indifferent to character though, Stephen Baxter, Charles Stross, Ken McLeod, I don’t see any of those really as novelists interested in character though they do in my view excellent sf (actually, I found Ken McLeod’s last couple rather disappointing, but that may go beyond the scope of this blog entry we’re commenting on). Their concerns are more explorations of ideas, societies, implications, no?

    I do agree that there are non sf novels that get bogged down in world building also (I think Paul Doherty’s historical crime novels do, for another example), I just think it’s a greater risk for sf because so often the world depicted is unfamiliar to the reader. This can be sidestepped, but it requires real skill and the odds on a random literary fiction enthusiast picking up an sf novel of real skill without good guidance is unfortunately low and good guidance is hard to come by. Also, some sf authors sidestep the need for exposition by assuming a given level of knowledge, Altered Carbon for example (which I review on my blog) pretty much assumes we already know what uplifting is (though actually, I’d argue that’s a fairly accessible novel, possibly undermining my own points in the process).

    I’m familiar with mundane sf as a movement, but it is still quite a small movement and in part is a reaction to some of that I describe (and perhaps more a kind of manifesto like dogme 95 in cinema, though you clearly know mundane sf better than I do). Maureen McHugh is certainly a good author to post in defence of the depiction of character in sf, she is very skilled in that area, but I didn’t wish to imply nobody cares about character – rather that it isn’t the primary concern of much of the genre. Stephen Baxter’s novel Emperor contains an analysis of sf very similar to mine, and I think although admittedy overgeneral it does contain some truth.

    On your last para, absolutely the best sf is as good as other fiction. I have no doubt about that, but although you say it should be accessible I think it all too often isn’t, and even the good stuff often isn’t and sometimes can’t be. How accessible can one make Accellerando? Many sf fans struggle with it, it’s so alien in parts to our world.

    That said, an issue I didn’t touch on but perhaps should have is simple snobbery. SF is seen as geeky, and we still have an arts/science divide and for many it falls on the wrong side. I’m concerned I may give the impression I disagree with you, and actually there isn’t anything in your post I do disagree with, save that I think inaccessibility is a bit more inevitable than you do and I think for many people the concerns of an author like say Greg Egan are simply intrinsically not the kind of thing they’re interested in.

    I am a tad nervous of spamming John’s comments section with sf minutiae I suspect many will struggle to follow, so I’ll finish up by saying that I think mainstream newspaper culture sections tend to be very bad at reviewing sf, making it hard for non-sf enthusiasts to get a feel for what may be worth investigating and what not. That doesn’t help either.

    jem, dystopian fiction is an odd beast, for some reason dystopian fiction has always found it easier to cross into the mainstream. If you have an interest in that, I’d suggest checking out Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We, which is in Penguin Classics. It’s basically the ur novel of that genre, without it novels such as 1984 and Brave New World likely wouldn’t exist and it remains an interesting and entertaining read.

    Re the booker, I’m a bit demoralised by that coming out, I haven’t read everything off the last longlist that I wanted to yet. Ay caramba.

  5. Hey! How did you get this? It’s not even out yet, is it? And where did you find out about the Harrison and Christopher books to come? I’m jealous if your mysterious insider information!

  6. SF, for some reason (mostly snobbish, I suspect) is largely ignored by the mainstream press. When when “literary” authors turn to the genre, they generally don’t admit that what they’ve written is sf. Margaret Atwood, for example, claims that her work is not sf because that’s all “robots and monsters”. She says her work is “speculative fiction” because “it could really happen”. Atwood won the Arthur C. Clarke award for _The Handmaid’s Tale_ but, as far as I know, didn’t show up to collect the award.

    Kazuo Ishiguro, on the other hand, was nominated for the same award a few years ago for _Never Let Me Go_. He, at least, had the decency to show up – and he didn’t even win.

    PD James wrote a sf novel called _Children of Men_ and yet claims it’s not sf because it could happen. Well sorry, Ms. James, but Brian Aldiss wrote a novel called _Greybeard_ which deals – far better in my opinion – with a world where there are no more children.

    Atwood’s attitude that it’s all “robots and monsters” is probably a view held by a lot of people. But there is a vast wealth of sf books out there that have nothing to do with robots and monsters and faster-than-light travel (not that there’s anything wrong with these topics, you understand). To quote the great JG Ballard: “Earth is the only alien planet”

    I got a really good grounding in sf by reading David Pringle’s _Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels_ a fascinating list of the author’s favourite science fiction novels published since 1948. He includes _The Death of Grass_, _Make Room! Make Room!_, _Hothouse_ and many other works that are sometimes overlooked. The list is here if you want to have a look:

    90% of everything is crap – including sf – but there’s some great stuff out there and only a fool would dismiss it all. Thanks, John, for your review of _Hothouse_ and I wish you happy reading in the realms of sf.

  7. Also interested to hear The Death of Grass is being reissued as a modern classic. I read it in 2007 after it was described in a BBC documentary series on sf (“The Martians and Me” I think it was called; again, supposed sf promoters demonstrating how to turn off the casual audience from something they might find very interesting). I found the general concept described fascinating, wrote a short story based on it while I waited for an Amazon seller to lose my copy and send me another, and then read it almost over night.

    I thought it was a solid bit of writing, probably more “dated” than “classic”, but with some interesting points to it. The key one being that, unlike the old adage of the difference between a dog and a wolf being no more than one missed meal, here man is separated from murderer only by choice – there is still food on the table when “good” people decide that survival must be achieved at any cost, even the cost of other, potentially good people.

    And, in a way, that was the problem I found with TDoG overall – that the most significant lesson to be learned was the very first one. After that, what followed seemed to me mainly road movie plotting, the here-to-there of it all, with a moral knuckle-rapping to finish up on (and a similar feudal reward to that rounding off The Children of Men, incidentally). Plus, as noted above, a bit of rather colonial international relations that doesn’t sit too well in these enlightened days – although, if you believe all the Olympics press coverage, the bits about China might not be too far off the mark…

    It got me thinking about what was once my favourite book, Christopher’s Empty World, a young adult level “cosy catastrophe” (a phrase coined by Aldiss, apparently). While at the time it seemed harsh and real in its depiction of survival, after reading TDoG I’m forced to think that Christopher was letting the juvenile me off lightly; the EW hero wouldn’t have lasted five minutes after the final page, whereas TDoG suggests more a necessary execution of the niceties of society. Anyway, I found it interesting but hardly a classic, in all honesty.

    PS: on the subject of genre labeling, I clung to “sci-fi” for a long time, but I’m just now coming around to an affection for “sf” instead – if only because you can happily include “speculative fiction” within those letters as well, whether the dam’ned authors like it or not..!

  8. Nice post Noumenon, interesting on TDoG which I’ve not read.

    I understand that some science fiction fans hate either the term sf or the term sci-fi, but I can never remember which. I type sf because it’s shorter I’m afraid, though yours is a good reason also.

    Shame we don’t have the term Wells and co used to use still, scientific romances.

  9. I never heard of Aldiss until you mentioned him, even though I read some SF myself. (Ask me about the Star Trek and Star War movie plots and we can have a great discussion.)

    There are just too many books in the world to read, so don’t feel badly about not knowing all his works.

    Re:Atwood. I like here SF better than her other novels. My blog friends cringe when I tell them so.

    Children of Men – I enjoyed but didn’t know that Aldiss wrote a book with a similar theme. When the media focuses on educated white women not having kids, everyone starts thinking that the darker people will take over the world or that there will be no white children.

    Have you read Cloud Atlas? The middle portion is about a de-evolved society.

  10. Well thank you very much to everyone for such valuable comments – I really don’t feel qualified to add much but I feel your explanations and opinions have expanded my mind and reading as much as Hothouse did. Max – no need to apologise for ‘spamming’ with minutiae – I love a bit of minutiae!

    Sorry about the randomly appearing smilies by the way – something to do with closing a bracket after a punctuation mark I think. I’ll edit them out if I can.

    PS jem: yes Ryman’s Was is terrific, isn’t it? I read it years ago and would love to revisit. The Booker longlist reading has begun: watch this space!

  11. OK, better late than never: finally got and read my copy of this. Hmm. I like it, but it was much too long–could have lost about 75 pages easily. In fact, the more I think about, the more I like it after the fact than I did while reading it.

    I’ve read a fair amount of Aldiss, but this was the first I’d read for a few years, and I’m wondering how dated the other books would seem on re-reading. On the other hand, I can thoroughly recommend his ‘The Brightfount Diaries’ to you–a fictional diary of a man working in a bookshop, written and set in the 1950s. A charming glimpse of a very different world of book-selling.

    I’m really kust rambling here, aren’t I? Best be off.

  12. In fact, the more I think about, the more I like it after the fact than I did while reading it.

    Isn’t that so often the case though, JRSM? My opinions invariably harden as time passes after reading a book. For instance I have such a negative memory of Catherine O’Flynn’s novel What Was Lost from last year – more or less that it was completely worthless – that when I went back and read my comments on it the other day, I was surprised at how many positives I’d found in it at the time.

    The question then must be: which is the truer reflection of our opinion? What we felt at the time, or what we are left with after reading?

  13. Thank you so much for reading the Booker longlist. Now instead of my having to waste my time reading 13 books, I can read Linda Grant, Sebastian Barry, and Amitav Ghosh, perhaps. This is a real time saver for me.

  14. Found my way all the way back here after following the bread crumbs from your Hoyle review.

    I’ve mentioned this on Palimpsest, JS, but I’ll say it again simply because I think it’s a work well worth hunting out: if you fancy seeing what Aldiss can do, then you should hunt out the Horatio Stubbs Saga. The first part of the trilogy, The Hand Reared Boy, was in the longlist for that Lost Booker thing earlier in the year. It’s a mammoth roller-coaster roister-doistering ride of sex and war, about a young lad who goes to a posh school, masturbates a lot, then gets sent off to Burma, where he runs around with all manner of sex starved tommies; later episodes (A Soldier Erect and Rude Awakening) injected some serious war-time stuff, but the first installment is essentially a litany of self abuse. And it’s very, very funny. I’ve read it half a dozen times and it still makes me chortle.

  15. Thanks amner. I will look out for it, I promise. It sounds as though it’s very different from Hothouse. Is Aldiss (I almost wrote ‘was Aldiss’ – oops, he’s still alive, ain’t he?) one of those chameleon type writers then?

  16. He certainly wants to be. I don’t read sf as a rule, and his desire to try and change appealed to me: I read a lot of him when I was in my twenties and having him down as an sf writer is correct, but then he’ll do something left-field (like this), or playful (like Frankenstein Unbound), or experimental (Barefoot in the Head), or Banksian (Brothers of the Head) or, to me almost unreadable, overblown and fantasy-ish (The Helliconia Trilogy).

    He’s also Science Fiction’s unofficial historian (see Billion Year Spree).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s