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Hothouse
by Brian Aldiss
$7.49 Nook, $6.15 Kindle, 240pp
Published : January 2009

While the first stack of science fiction paperbacks that I read were all by American authors, my introduction to the genre was through a British writer. It was 1981 and I was ten; the BBC broadcast an adaptation of John Wyndham's 'The Day of the Triffids' and I was instantly hooked. I was already a prolific reader but couldn't make headway into that book at the time so, putting it aside for a few years, I asked my mother for science fiction recommendations. She handed me the Heinlein juveniles, Asimov's Lije Baley novels and 'Way Station' by Clifford D. Simak. After those, I started working my way through her bookshelves.

Many of her favourites were British authors: not just John Wyndham but James Blish, Fred Hoyle, Harry Harrison and others. A few feet of shelving were dedicated to a British writer named Brian W. Aldiss and it didn't take long for me to have a go at those and, while I don't remember which I read, the steampunk in me (not that it had a name at that point in time) thrilled to homages such as 'Frankenstein Unbound', later filmed by Roger Corman, and 'Moreau's Other Island'. The ambitious 'Galaxies Like Grains of Sand' was another title I remember reading, but I don't know if I read 'Hothouse' back then. Frankly, I wonder how the younger me would have taken it.

The older me, reading in tribute to Brian Aldiss, who died in August at the age of 92, still isn't quite sure what to think of it! It's hardly the usual science fiction novel, after all. In fact, it feels much more like fantasy, not in the Tolkien sense but in the lack of any technology or civilisation at all, at least in how we tend to regard the latter. James Blish called the five connected stories that comprise this fix-up novel 'utter nonsense', but the result is a sustained burst of imagination which plays, deceptively deeply, with a swathe of ideas and it's not entirely unsurprising to realise that these five stories together won the Hugo for Best Short Fiction in 1962.

'Hothouse' looks forward to a very different planet Earth, not a near-future world extrapolated from our own but a far-future world that's hardly recognisable. A bloated sun, not far from going nova, dominates the sky and beats down without mercy on the half of the planet that's permanently locked towards it. In such a climate, plant life has taken over and almost all the land on the lighted side of the planet is taken up by an single enormous banyan tree. Most animals have become extinct but, under the banyan's canopy, the remnants of humanity survive on the brink of extinction, at constant battle with the giant insects which now grow much bigger than them; these human beings have shrunk over the aeons to a fifth of our size. Oh, and we pretty much start by hitching a ride with some of those folk on traversers, mile-wide spider-like plants which climb cobweb strands to the distant Moon.

It's a lot more H. G. Wells than Edgar Rice Burroughs, but you can see the potential for the latter: a wildly different alien landscape that doesn't seem to have any grounding in science. However, there's quite a lot going on behind the action in the forefront and each act explores something different. That unlikely trip to the moon is a way to irradiate Lily-yo and her aging companions and trigger physical change that feels like a metamorphosis. It's a great way to pose that age-old question of how to define what human means, a question to which Aldiss returns often in this book.

While the plantlife which dominates this future Earth is generally mindless, there are fantastic examples of what evolution means in action. In a children's book, such creations would seem like the product of an imaginative fairy tale; here, they ably highlight how nothing evolves in isolation. If the banyan has taken over the land, then other species have to battle it out to survive on the coastline and often change in wild and wonderful ways to be able to do so. They adapt or they die. Humans have adapted, living and dying in the tree that is all they know, but they're not thriving. To spark a more positive story, Aldiss throws some of them out of their comfort zone, as unwilling passengers on the back of a suckerbird into the nomansland at the edge of the ocean.

Our focal point for much of the book is Gren, a precious male from Lily-yo's matriarchal tribe, who thinks a little differently to the rest even before he's subjugated by a morel, a sentient fungus which survives in a symbiotic relationship with its host. Through the morel, which taps into Gren's race memory, we learn more of the history that has passed between our time and theirs. Gren doesn't have a great time of it, slave to a fungus which can override his will with its own, but he does go on fantastic adventures, seeing so much more than his kind tend to.

As Gren moves ever onward, driven not only through conscious decision but through action, reaction or the mere whim of nature, characters join his story or leave it. Many are from different sentient species, as different from each other as they are from him. The comic relief, if we can call it that, comes from the tummy-belly men, who live to fish in a river for the tree to which they are connected by umbilical cords. The exposition comes from the morel or the catch-carry creature by the name of the Sodal Ye, a prophet descendant of the dolphin who is carried on land by a dedicated bearer. He remains relatively safe, as his companions, naked females with tattoos, are from a speechless and almost mindless tribe that can move a little forward and backward in time; Sodal Ye uses them as a means to look at what is about to happen before it does.

On the face of it, this is an episodic romp through fantasyland, but there's a lot of fascinating exploration of scientific themes here, albeit mostly taken from biology rather than physics, the latter most apparent in the nonsensical placement of celestial bodies: the Earth no longer rotates and is physically connected to the Moon by insanely long cobwebs. It's much easier to suspend disbelief when exploring the biology of this world, however far it may also be from hard science fiction. The most obvious theme is evolution, upon which the majority of the book is built, but there are others, especially in the relationship between creatures, whether parasitic, symbiotic or simply co-operative.

While this fix-up novel can only end through an overt plot convenience, providing bookends to the set of stories, the actual ending is appropriate, well crafted and surprisingly touching, given that the characters are so alien as to be off the scales in categories such as sympathy or likeability. The most endearing aren't really the human beings, which is perhaps particularly telling.

Brian Aldiss wrote many books in his career and this was far from the first; in fact, he has described it as 'the true successor to 'Non-Stop'', his debut science fiction novel. It does feel like an award-winner, with ideas often literally growing on trees and such a wealth of imagination on offer that lesser writers might easily see this as proof that they're out of their league and never write another word. It's well within the bounds of possibility that I read this as a teenager but, if I did, I clearly wasn't ready for it. I'm ready now and 'Hothouse' reminds me that, however much classic science fiction I've read, there are Hugo winners that I need to visit or re-visit and the Nameless Zine seems like an opportune place to do that. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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