Saturday, July 12, 2008

"Hothouse" by Brian Aldiss

The sun is going nova and the increase in temperature has rearranged the world's genetic balance. Humans have "devolved" into small, relatively brainless creatures who eke out survival in a small ecological niche. A few species of insects -- the "termights" and wasps -- have grown larger but remain relatively humble beside the immensity of...

...the plants, which dominate the food chain and comprise most of the earth's diversity. Struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile environment, the plants have become vicious predators and are constantly fighting each other. They also like to fight the humans, which is when most of the fun occurs.

This is the basic idea behind Brian Aldiss' "Hothouse," which I read based on two factors:
  1. Brian Aldiss was a major booster for Anna Kavan, who I have a medium-grade obsession with. I figured it was time to read one of HIS books.
  2. Killer vegetables scare the heck out of me.
I'm not an avid sci-fi reader these days but I USED to be, and my dissatisfaction with the genre is fully represented in this book: it is so in love with its IDEAS that nothing else needs development. Characters and style are chucked aside so that Aldiss can describe The Next New Vegetable Horror, which is always followed by a detailed historical explanation for how the Vegetable Horror came to IMPOSSIBLE explanation, since none of the humans have any way of knowing such details. The book is a slave to its concept, which reminds me of so many sci-fi stories I read as a teenager.

Fortunately Aldiss' concepts are fun, if physically impossible. His vegetable monsters are ingenious, bizarre, and never repetitive, and -- yes -- some of them scare the heck out of me, especially the parasitic Morel.

Most beautiful of his concepts is that of the "traversers," mile-wide vegetable bags who spin webs from earth to the moon. Their webs add a magic touch to the squshy unpleasantness of the dying earth. I say "magic" because the idea is both imagination-stirring and totally wonked. But anyway.

Sometimes Aldiss dispels the books mystery with excessive descriptions of "how and why," but at other times he leaves us totally baffled, and that's when the book excels. At one point, some adventurous humans discover a long-dormant tool from the past, a flying bird-like machine that constantly shouts bizarre slogans ("Boycott chimp goods! Don't allow Monkey Labour in your factory. Support Imbroglio's anti-Tripartite scheme!") This machine achieves absolutely nothing for anybody but the humans enjoy having it around; they call it "Beauty."

Aldiss also writes excessive language for the annoying "tummy-belly men":
"Never before have we seen the stalker-walkers to take a walk with them when they go stalking-walking? Where were they when we never saw them? Terrible herder man and sandwich lady, now you two people without tails find this care to go with them. We don't find the care. We don't mind ever not to see the stalker-walkers stalky-walking."
This quote alone sort of sums up the book: it's a weird, annoying, funny hodge-podge of thoughts all jammed together. "Hothouse" is a mess full of abrupt endings and loose threads, maybe because it was compiled from a series of five novellas that Aldiss had written previously.

Mess or not, "Hothouse" is still fun to read. It is dense and impossible and silly, and I would go so far as to say it's poorly written, but the ideas and the crazy moments keep it going. You don't HAVE to believe that a bunch of mindless vegetable bags have colonized the moon by spitting bubbles of oxygen at it, you just have to be intrigued by the concept, and I am.

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