conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

by Brian Aldiss

Essay by Ted Gioia
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In the last few years, I’ve run into a new genre label. "Cli-Fi," for the uninitiated,
refers to science fiction stories built on global warming scenarios.  Many of
these works are formulaic, and as predictable as a Meryl Streep Oscar
nomination, but the best of them—say Ian McEwan's
Solar or Paolo
The Wind-Up Girl—transcend genre labels and rank among the
finer literary offerings of the current day.

But the 21st century has no monopoly on cli-fi.  
Some of the most influential examples date
back to the 1950s and 1960s, when British
science fiction authors developed many
variations on the climate change novel.  J.G.
Ballard wrote several dystopian novels based
on cataclysmic weather, most notably
Drowned World (1962) and The Burning
(1964), and similar themes play a role
in Arthur C. Clarke's
The City and the Stars
(1956), Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1959),
and Brian Aldiss's
Hothouse (1962).  None
of these books puts the blame on rising carbon
dioxide levels, and instead remind us that there
is more than one way to cook a planet.  But each succeeds in making the
atmosphere into a major protagonist in its unfolding drama, with all the
potential for paranoia and claustrophobia implied by such a state of affairs.

Of these works, Aldiss's may be the most audacious, and the least easy to
define. Some have even argued that
Hothouse is not even science fiction,
rather a surreal fantasy novel. Certainly the science here is dodgy at best.  
Could the position of the Moon, still visible in the sky, really form "one angle
of a vast equilateral triangle which held the Earth and Sun at its other angles"?  
Could the revolution of the Earth really wind down to a "standstill, until day and
night slowed, becoming fixed forever"? Could an enormous spider really stretch
a web between the Earth and the Moon?  No, no and no. But such is the science
behind this cli-fi classic.

Even if you get beyond these unconvincing attempts to offer a scientific
underpinning to
Houthouse, you will soon encounter other elements beyond
the usual conventions of pulp fiction. The story unfolds more like a Homeric
epic, or perhaps an Old Testament story, with counterparts here to an exile
from a Garden of Eden and the wandering exploits of a chosen people
seeking a homeland. At other times, Aldiss seems to take a page from the
Darwinian playbook—perhaps the last thing one would expect to find in a
quasi-Biblical narrative—and in the process anticipates Julian Jaynes'
Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
with a bizarre evolutionary account of how reflective thinking might arise in a
pre- or post-historical human society.

The book begins in the midst of a massive jungle, dominated by a single banyan
tree that has spread over an entire continent. (Aldiss was inspired by a visit to
the Calcutta Botanical Gardens, where he saw the so-called
Great Banyan, a
single tree that has set down new roots and expanded to cover some four
acres.)  Here a small human community struggles for existence in a
hothouse environment alongside countless types of hostile vegetables
—plant life that has turned predatory in the struggle to survive.

The sun is in its final days, turning into a red giant. Temperatures have risen,
and all human cities have apparently disappeared. Civilization has returned
to the tribal stage, and scientific knowledge  replaced by ritual, superstition
and taboo. Tiny matriarchal communities survive in the branches of the
banyan tree, avoiding the ground level where vegetative predators are too
dangerous. Here again, Aldiss is implausible—in the opening pages of
Hothouse, various angry plant attacks the tribe of Lily-Yo every few hours,
and almost every step is fraught with danger. How anyone could survive in
such a setting for a month, let alone long enough to grow up and reproduce,
is inconceivable. But what
Hothouse lacks in credibility, it compensates for
in suspense and creativity. I feel safe in proclaiming that no sci-fi novel offer
more ways to die at the hands (branches? roots?) of plant life. In the crazy
world of this novel, vegetables can attack you from the air like a bird, swallow
you up like a whale from the deep, trap you in  a cage like a hunter, tie you up
like a cattle-roper at the rodeo, or kill you in any number of other inventive ways.

Needless to say, Lily-Yo's tribe has a high mortality rate. The group initially
consisted of ten members, but the deaths (which start on page one) come
so fast and furious that you might think that Aldiss had drawn on Agatha
And Then There Was None as a role model.  Eventually the group
decides to break-up before everyone succumbs to the marauding plants, with
Lily-Yo and the adults climbing up to the sky (literally to the moon on a big
spiderweb—I kid you not!) and the youngsters setting out on their own to
establish a separate tribe.  

Gren, the rebel without a cause in the new generation, soon splits from the
rest of the next-gen
Lord of the Flies cadre, and embarks upon a series of
journeys and adventures that make
Gulliver’s look like a boring bus tour by
comparison. He finds a mate along the way, a herder named Yattmur, and
before long the couple are blessed with a baby boy named Laren. But by this
point in the story, an invading fungus (who looks a bit like an over-sized
mushroom) has shown up, as bossy and disagreeable as a sit-com
mother-in-law. This new arrival has attached himself to Gren's head, and
not only refuses to leave, but even takes over the young man’s brain.  

Yes, this sounds ludicrous. But Mr. Aldiss has never been much for restraint
in his stories, and when he tries some new or different effect, he gives us the
full monty. With
Hothouse, he not only has described a world in which high
temperatures have allowed plants to run amok, but he also found a way to
impart the rising mercury levels to his readers, who encounter a story that
resembles a feverish dream, a nightmare in which even the bizarre and
implausible take on a sort of inner logic and inescapable momentum.  

Aldiss tries to raise the ante in the final pages, and reaches towards a
grand, cataclysmic conclusion—in which his main characters must choose
between acceptance of the Earth's impending destruction or embark upon
a (once again implausible) plan of rebirth and regeneration. Few readers
will find this resolution satisfying or convincing.  Aldiss needs to turn to
science to find a solution to his characters' pressing problems, and in this
novel nothing is weaker than the explanations and hypotheses.  For this
reason, those who look to Aldiss's cli-fi classic in search of thought-provoking
"global warming" scenarios are likely to be disappointed.  Our author has,
instead, delivered a hot and humid fairy tale, one even grimmer than the
Grimms' grimmest.

Yet you shouldn't let this deter you from reading
Hothouse.  Aldiss is an
engaging author even when he is an unconvincing scientist.  In other words,
treat this book as a travelogue, a kind of apocalyptic
National Geographic
from a future hell. Forget about understanding the science; instead enjoy
the predatory scenery.  

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book,
a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: September 15, 2014
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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