Hothouse: Fertile and bizarre plant life, but human characters are pretty wooden

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsHothouse by Brian W. Aldiss science fiction book reviewsHothouse by Brian W. Aldiss

Yeah, Brian W. AldissHothouse (1962) was definitely written with some chemical assistance. Maybe some LSD-spiked vegetable juice? It may have been written as a set of five short stories in 1961, but it’s a timeless and bizarre story of a million years in the future when the plants have completely taken over the planet, which has stopped rotating, and humans are little green creatures hustling to avoid becoming plant food.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThere are hundreds of fearsome carnivorous plants that would love to eat human morsels, but will gladly settle for eating each other instead. As the planet has come to a stop, a massive banyan tree now covers the sunny-side of the planet, with all other plants surviving in its shade. But there are gargantuan plant-based spiders called traversers who dwell above the plant layer and actually spin webs across space to the moon and other planets. Yeah, the science here is, well, complete and utter bollocks! But who cares when you can come up with the most bizarre plant species ever conceived in an amazing dying-earth setting?

And this book never lets up on the crazy vegetable creatures and pitiful rat-like humans. The main characters are continuously fleeing from one crisis to the next, and never have the upper hand. They encounter the most annoying creatures ever created, including the tummy-belly men, whose speech mannerisms make Jar-Jar Binks sound like Shakespeare. Then there is the fish creature carried by a crippled human called the Catch-Carry-Kind, a prophet who knows the sun is dying and Earth is doomed. He has great wisdom but meets his match with an intelligent, parasitic fungus called a Morel. In fact, the fungi is really a pretty fun-… no, I won’t go there. But Aldiss was definitely tripping on some fecund and fertile thoughts.

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However, his human characters and dialogue are dreadful! This is the most amazing world-building but the most god-awful characters ever created. The storyline is so episodic it drove me crazy, but the malevolent Black Mouth with its irresistible siren cry and a brooding cliff with a 1,000 staring eyes were so cool that I was rooting against the puny humans. If only some other author like Jack Vance were allowed to use this world (like the Dying Earth), this could have been a contender. Oh, the humanity… or is it vegetality?

Aldiss’ Non-Stop (1958), Hothouse (1962), and Greybeard (1964) were chosen by David Pringle for his Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, and they’ve been on my TBR list for years. In fact, the five short stories that make up Hothouse collectively were awarded the 1962 Hugo for Best Short Fiction. Last year I tried to read Non-Stop, one of the original generational starship stories, but I found the characters so clumsily-drawn that I couldn’t get past the first 100 pages. I don’t want to make an unfair assessment, but I feel that Aldiss, who has some great ideas, really isn’t very gifted in the characterization department. He’s been a major figure in British SF, and wrote a well-regarded history of the SF genre called Trillion Year Spree (2001), but I feel like he’s not one of the top authors from the 1960s. Incidentally, has anyone read his Helliconia Trilogy? Was it any better?

Publisher: A Hugo Award–winning classic about a far-future Earth dominated by gargantuan plants and the few humans who remain. Millions of years beyond our time, our Earth has long since stopped spinning—and giant flora have taken over the sunlit half of the motionless world. Here humans are among the very few animal species that still exist, struggling to survive against enormous odds, but they have become small and weak, and their numbers have dwindled to almost nothing. When the aging leader of Gren’s tribe decrees it is time for the old ones to go “Up,” the younger are left to make their own way below. Although the journey will not be an easy one for young Gren, he sets off on an odyssey across a perilous world populated by carnivorous plants and other evolved vegetation. But any knowledge to be gained at the terminator—the forbidding boundary between the day world and the night—might well prove worthless for the boy and the companions he amasses along the way when the expanding sun goes nova and their Earth is no more. A thrilling parable of courage, discovery, and survival, Hothouse is among Grand Master Brian W. Aldiss’s most beloved and enduring works. Ingeniously inventive, richly detailed, and breathtakingly lush and vibrant, the doomed world and people that Aldiss creates will live forever in the minds of all those who enter this remarkable realm.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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  1. I’ve read Supertoys Last All Summer Long, and I thought the characters were poorly done in that interesting story too. He’s clearly an idea guy.

    Is there any chance that some of these plant-creatures were political satire, along the lines of ALICE IN WONDERLAND?

  2. Interestingly enough, I just sent in my review of his most recent novel, Finches of Mars, which I gave a one-star to in part due to the lack of believable or interesting characters and wince-inducing dialog. I read at least the first two books of Helliconia in the 80s (I think that was the timing) and I’m pretty sure I loved book one and liked book two though it began to fade as it went on. Makes one wonder if he’s just bad at character or just uninterested

  3. This novel’s setting sounds very similar to a SF novel that I picked up a few years ago as a Baen freebie. I think it was “The Forgotten Planet” by Murray Leinster, written in 1954. Descendants of the survivors of a space ship crash are battling ginormous insects and plants. Sound familiar to anyone? *crickets*

  4. @Marion: If the various bizarre plant species represented specific politicians in the early 1960s, I would certainly have no clue there. I’m fairly sure he just wanted to let his imagination run riot instead.

    @Bill: So you also had the same experience with his characterization skills. Not his forte, it seems. I owned all three Helliconia paperbacks and liked the multi-generational season idea (and nice cover artwork), but never got around to reading them.

    @Tadiana: Haven’t read that book either, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a little “cross-pollination” of ideas!

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