The Saliva Tree by Brian W. Aldiss
In 1966, with the 100th anniversary of H.G. Wells’ birthday approaching, Brian W. Aldiss wrote a story in tribute of one of, if not, the genre’s grandfather. The resulting novella, The Saliva Tree, distills elements of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds into a suspenseful horror story that has just the socio-political agenda ‘grandpa’ would have approved of.
Set in the late 19th century, The Saliva Tree opens with two “scientifically enlightened” young men standing in the countryside of rural England, watching a meteor shower, and remarking on life. When one of the meteors enters the atmosphere and appears to land at nearby Benford farm, one of the men, Gregory Rolles, declares that the following day he will visit to see the lump of metal for himself. Influencing the scientifically-minded young man is that farmer Benford’s daughter, Miss Nancy Benford, is an attractive, unspoken for young woman. Coming to the farmstead the following day, none of the Benfords appear the least bit interested in what landed in their pond. Borrowing a boat to inspect the strangely opaque waters, Rolles has an experience he can’t explain, and in the days which follow, sees even stranger things. The mysterious death of the Benford’s dog, sows birthing exceptionally large litters, and a strange, musty-smelling dew coating everything, Rolles’ narrow escape from the pond is not enough to set him off investigating the underlying mystery. The reality of the situation is scarier than he imagined — he and the Benford family’s lives are in the greatest of jeopardy. But is Rolles’ “modern” wit enough to sort out the problem?
The Saliva Tree is a wonderful homage to Wells. Those who have read the old master will immediately recognize his tropes and the symbolism inherent, not to mention elements of his style (e.g. the transliteration of speech and syntax). If that isn’t enough, Aldiss puts Rolles in fictional correspondence with Wells himself, the young man asking for help explaining the mystery of the pond. Also nicely structured, the story wades ever deeper into the waters of tension, culminating in a climax worthy of both the homage and the genre. With Farmer Benford stubborn to the end, Rolles never gives up on the great mystery of the farm despite the danger, and the overall scenes unravel ever faster — much to the novella’s success.
Though not as direct as Wells could often be (The Time Machine is as blatant a condemnation of industrial labor at the turn of the 20th century as is possible), The Saliva Tree nevertheless possesses commentary of its own. Socialist, given Wells’ political tendencies, the meaning of the novella’s title does not become clear until the final pages. The romance story aside (it should be taken as a pastiche, in fact), the conflict amongst Rolles’ ideology, Farmer Benford’s protectiveness, and the mystery of the pond serves as condemnation of its own. Whether this be a surface reading (GMOs) or a critique of the deeper cause (i.e. the system which allows or propagates such practices), Aldiss has targeted an aspect of economy much the same as Wells would have. It seems certain Aldiss was aiming at the latter, given the quote at the novella’s outset:
“There is neither speech nor language: but their voices are heard among them.” Psalm xix
In the end, The Saliva Tree is a slow-burning horror/suspense story with more than one layer. Characters are only partially developed, the mystery of what lands in the pond is what entices, and given Aldiss unveils the story one scene at a time, things escalate to terror-inducing proportions while remaining inherently symbolic. Coming to learn what the saliva tree is only hammers this idea home. A wonderful tribute to one of, if not the most, important person in science fiction’s history, The Saliva Tree is a great, quick read.
I never knew this was a tribute to the great HG Wells – I’ll have to give it a try. I just got 25 Wells novels on Kindle for $1.99 since my daughter has to read a book written before 1950 for English class – I recommended The Island of Dr. Moreau to start with.
Indeed, The Saliva Tree is a tribute, or homage to H.G. Wells, and a good one.
I’m with Brian Aldiss; The Island of Dr. Moreau is Wells’ best novel – or at least of those I’ve read. But I know a lot of people side with The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds. (You?) Hope she enjoys it.