The Saliva Tree by Brian AldissThe 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.

Published in 1966. Invisible aliens invade the bucolic English countryside in Brian W. Aldiss’s Nebula Award–winning science fiction novella. A meteor shower in the skies above the rolling English countryside late in the nineteenth century fires the imagination of a young man with a penchant for science—especially when one of the falling rocks breaks off from the rest and lands at the bottom of a pond near the Benford farm. While the young man’s curiosity has been seriously aroused, Farmer Benford and his clan couldn’t be less interested—not even when there’s a sudden, curious rash of animal births, they notice odd, lingering, pervasive smells, and the family dog dies inexplicably. Still, the young man is not willing to abandon his investigation into these strange occurrences, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that to keep looking could prove injurious—and perhaps even fatal—not only to himself but to every Benford in the vicinity. Grand Master Brian W. Aldiss wrote his wonderfully strange and gripping novella “The Saliva Tree,” as a tribute to H. G. Wells, the immortal author of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, and it was honored with a Nebula Award. Included alongside this classic tale of creeping alien terror are nine other sparkling gems of short fiction—from the grisly baby steps of a novice serial killer, to the travels of a history professor through alternate worlds, to the journey of a young widow who has both a murderer and a monster vying for her attention.


  • Jesse Hudson

    JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

    View all posts