conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Hothouse

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
Bacigalupi's
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
The
Drowned World (1962) and The Burning
World
(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'
The
Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
(1976)
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
Christie's
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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Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
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Aldiss, Brian
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Hothouse

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Report on Probability A

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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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Little, Big

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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

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Like Water for Chocolate

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Time Enough for Love

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Dune

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Rosemary's Baby

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Magic for Beginners

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Hell House

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Cloud Atlas

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Behold the Man

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Cloudstreet

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Orlando

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The Bear Comes Home

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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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