4.5/5 (Very Good)
Brian W. Aldiss’ Hugo-winning Hothouse (1962) imagines an oppressive, violent, and alien Earth transformed by “the long age of the vegetable” (187). The surviving humans live–“more by instinct than intelligence” (54)– in a continent-encompassing banyan tree in constant fear of killer flora and fauna. Aldiss succeeds in constructing a profoundly unsettling worldscape encyclopedic in its details with unusual rituals of survival. There’s the existential sense throughout that the humans, detached from any memory of their past, who attempt to survive are but frantic movements of an apocalyptic paroxysm. Inventive, relentless, hallucinogenic.
Preliminary note about publication history and the Hugo win: Hothouse is a fix-up novel from five short stories originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The 1962 UK edition contained slight differences from the original magazine form. The 1962 US variant The Long Afternoon of Earth abridged the UK edition further. Only US editions published after 1976 are complete. I read the complete 1984 US edition shown above.
Adding to the confusion, the abridged US fix-up version of the five short stories–The Long Afternoon of Earth–won the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction rather than Best Novel (which went to Stranger in a Strange Land that year). The Hugo Award became increasingly precise in its categories over the years.
Of Wooden Souls and Lunar Voyage
Lily-yo and her matriarchal small tribe—with its prized and “tabu” men in tow (28)—attempt to survive the perilous canopy of the vast banyan tree. Death is a constant companion. Children plunge from the branches. An incredible array of plant life mutated over the millennia taking over the niches left by non-human animals, trap, maim, and kill humans. After the death of another child, Lily-yo comes to realize that she “had gone on too many hunts, borne too many children, fought too many fights […] By instinct she knew her youth was over” (25). After taking the wooden soul of the child–“for in the forest when one fell to the green there was scarcely ever a bone surviving to be buried” (27)–into the Tips for a journey into the unknown attached to a mysterious traverser, she decides its time for the older members of the tribe to follow the wooden souls of the dead into the atmosphere.
In a deliberate visual metaphor of Earth’s utter transformation, Aldiss depicts the planet as locked in rotation with the Sun and connected to the Moon by vines. The traversers and their massive oxygen and gas bladders connect to the vines taking their accidental cargoes to the Lunar surface. Here the banyan doesn’t rule. Instead, “monstrous celeries and parsleys grew” in the accumulated soil of sloughed off detritus (50). Lily-yo and her surviving companions emerge transformed. They discover that they are now flymen with a “mass of leather flesh” that “stretched out almost like wings” (50). And the flymen believe that the mutations are a natural cycle of a man, their earthly bodies are but pupae. In the radiated state post-journey, those on the True World cannot reproduce and instead travel to Earth to steal children. Lily-yo believes the new pattern of humanity’s evolution in the heavens. And joins in on the flymen plan to invade Earth.
Back in Earth’s vegetal hell, the child Toy attempts to assert herself as the leader of the tribe’s youth. The male child Gren refuses to fall in line. Soon he is banished with his partner Poyly. His independence is short-lived as he falls afoul of a sentient and parasitic morel fungus which implants itself within Gren and Poyly’s body: “I am brain. I collect thoughts” (113). The morel desires to spread its kind and take over an entire human tribe. Gren will be its instrument. Driven by the morel, they encounter a new group of humans that herd rabbit-like plants and live in fear of the Black Mouth’s song. Gren, initially fascinated by the morel’s often violent drive and sense of purpose, increasingly attempts to resist. Soon he finds find himself heading into the cold-side of the world, and a new array of challenges… At some point he will need to make a choice and escape the morel’s corrosive effects.
Encyclopedism in the Long Age of the Vegetable
Hothouse derives its relentless compulsion from the almost encyclopedic integration of endless categories and short descriptions of fauna and flora. Aldiss positions the Earth as a world transformed. Not only have humans shrunk to a fifth of their previous size but the relentless sun has transformed the Earth’s biomass into something profoundly alien. For example, Lily-yo and her followers cement their “great homemaker nuts” with a sap “distilled from the acetoyle plant” (22) and flit through the branches on a “dumbler” plant that responds to a whistle (23). The oddly humanoid flymen steal children (42). The fuzzypuzzle fungus must be differentiated from the dangerous nettlemoss (41). The vegetal suckerbird dangles an immensely long tongue to extract nourishment from the “obscure depths of the forest” (72). Oak trees trap the unaware in cages of wood so that “in decomposing they would still feed the tree” (99). And parasitic and telepathic morels entangle their structures within the human body (113). This dense world substrate, with the continuous inundation of pseudo-knowledge, is profoundly unnerving and immersive. Every hollow, every leaf, and every step holds a new danger.
Aldiss litters his world with the fragments of the distant past that no one can understand. Lily-yo ritualizes the pseudo-Christian phrases at her child’s departing soul–“May you Go Up and reach heaven” (35)–without comprehending its meaning. While the parasitic morel might ascertain some racial collective memory of humanity, the survivors live their lives with vague compulsions or outright obliviousness towards time: “for them there was not past and no future; they were like figures woven into a tapestry, without depth” (119). The morel reaches into humanity’s past–“the first creature in a billion years to be able to look down the long avenues of time” (120)–but the knowledge has not purpose and provides no guidance to Gren. Humans are detached from history in the “long age of the vegetable” that has “rooted and proliferated without thought” (187). Gren’s final attempts to provide order are but empty movements in the dark.
I recommend Paul Kincaid’s wonderful recent monograph Brian W. Aldiss (2022) in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series which reinspired me to track down more of Aldiss’ work. Kincaid lays out his analysis of the novel and the context of Aldiss’ composition on pages 29-35. Kincaid argues that Hothouse “of all his science fiction” most “directly recapitulated” Aldiss’ WWII wartime experiences in Burma, including “the jungle, the dangers hidden all around, the constant presence of death, and the sense of the necessary insignificance of mankind” (31).
Highly recommended for fans of strange pre-New Wave 60s SF visions. Hothouse ranks with Non-Stop (1958) as my favorite Aldiss novels I’ve read so far.
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