Monday, April 25, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Hothouse

Hothouse by Brian Aldiss is a science fantasy "fixup" -- a novel constructed out of several previously published short stories -- that first appeared in 1962. I call it a "science fantasy" because it contains too many absurd and bizarre speculations (of which I'll speak shortly) to be called "science fiction," but, since Aldiss never once suggests anything supernatural or magical about the setting of Hothouse, I'm not sure I can call it an outright "fantasy." Admittedly, such fine distinctions weren't always made in the era in which Aldiss wrote the five short stories that make up this novel, but it's worth noting nonetheless.

For Hothouse could certainly be considered part of the "Dying Earth" sub-genre made famous by authors like Clark Ashton Smith and, of course, Jack Vance. The tale it tells takes place in the impossibly far future, when the sun has grown large and is on the verge of going supernova. Likewise, the Earth and Moon have become locked in their orbits, so that each continuously offers one face to the Sun. As if that weren't odd -- and implausible -- enough, consider this passage where Aldiss first presents the idea:
Throughout the eons, the pull of this moon had gradually slowed the axial revolution of its parent planet to a standstill, until day and night slowed, becoming fixed forever: one on one side of the planet, one on the other. At the same time, a reciprocal braking effect had checked the moon's apparent flight. Drifting farther from Earth, it had shed its role as satellite and rode along in a Trojan position, an independent planet in its own right hugging one angle of a vast equilateral triangle which held the Earth and the sun at its other angles. Now Earth and Moon, for what was left of the afternoon of eternity, faced each other in the same relative position. They were locked face to face, and so would be, until the sands of time ceased to run, or the sun ceased to shine.

And the multitudinous strands of cable floated across the gap between them, uniting the worlds. Back and forth the traversers could shuttle at will, vegetable astronauts huge and insensible, with Earth and Luna both enmeshed in their indifferent net.

With surprising suitability, the old age of the Earth was snared about with cobwebs.
It's a truly evocative image, I can't deny it -- the Earth and the Moon joined to one another by cobwebs spun by spider-like plants, but, without magic or something similarly reality-shattering, I found it impossible to accept it, especially when human beings actually use these webs travel to Moon! Ultimately, I think how one reacts to such ideas will determine a lot about how one views Hothouse as a whole.

The novel tells the story of a tribe of human beings who in a vast banyan tree located within the jungle that occupies Earth's sunward face. These humans are among the few surviving animal species left on the planet, the world's ecosystem having long ago come to be dominated by plants of all sorts, many of which possess mobility, such as the aforementioned spider-like "traversers." These humans are extremely primitive, having almost no technology and similarly little knowledge of the world beyond their jungle home. Naturally, the story is about what happens when young members of the tribe are thrown on their own resources and must explore their world to survive.

Hothouse had no influence on Dungeons & Dragons so far as I can tell and understandably not. However, when the book was published in the United States, it originally carried the title The Long Afternoon of Earth, which is cited by James Ward in his introduction to the first edition of Gamma World as being a significant influence on the game. This is quite interesting on a number of levels, chiefly that Ward might have imagined the post-apocalyptic world of his RPG as being a "Dying Earth." Furthermore, I think it also shores up the notion that Ward didn't see Gamma World as hard science fiction, a notion that needs little corroboration, since the game's TSR editions always self-identified as "science fantasy." And, finally, the plot of Hothouse is about a bunch of primitive, ignorant youths (one of whom is named Gren, a name used in Gamma World itself for a species of forest-dwelling humanoid mutants) whose journeys of discovery uncover some remarkable secrets about the world they thought they inhabited. Sound familiar?

All that said, Hothouse is a very strange book, filled with some truly improbable but nevertheless imaginatively alien vistas. I'm not sure I can recommend the book on the basis of its story, let alone its science, but its imagery is often topnotch and equally useful to players and referees of "straight" fantasy as to those of science fantasy. It's not a "must read" by any measure, though it is worth looking at as an idea mine if nothing else.


  1. Since you've been on a Gamma World/post-apoc kick lately (I'm a huge GW fan, btw), might I suggest Hiero's Journey and The Unforsaken Hiero? I enjoyed both and they have the "Gamma World feel" to me. Unfortunatley, they are part of a series that never completed, so be warned.

  2. Well the Trojan Points are real enough. For every planet orbit there are points 60 degrees ahead and behind where the gravitational forces balance out to produce a stable point that objects will naturally orbit. Jupiter has a collection of asteroids known as the Trojans in both of it's points.

    What truly mind boggling is that the connections between the Earth and the Moon are around 97 MILLION miles. Take the circumference of Earth's orbit and divide by 6.

  3. I found Hothouse something of a curate's egg. I loved the world-building and the bizarre ecologies (on a par with Stephen Baxter, Frank Herbert, etc.), but I spent half the book hoping the unsympathetic protagonist would get nobbled by a killer plant. (rooting for the bad guy? - oh the pun!)

    As for the silly fairytale-sounding sing-song names for creature/plants that Aldiss came up with. Ick! What was going on there, I'm assuming it was wilful authorial tin ear. But to what end?

    Tummy belly men delanda est!

  4. Self-repairing space elevators? What's not to like?

  5. might I suggest Hiero's Journey and The Unforsaken Hiero?

    I've read and enjoyed both and even wrote about Hiero's Journey three years ago in a very early version of this feature, back when it was called "Pulp Fantasy Gallery." I will likely be returning to it and its sequels in the coming weeks, given my recent interest in GW.

  6. Ever since Penguin re-issued it, I've been trying to work my way through Hothouse again. While Aldiss is a difficult author to read, this book is worth reading for the ideas he comes up with.

    On the subject of books, has anyone tried Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series. I know SJG released a GURPS book for it, but does anyone have any ideas how it would fit into a Gamma World game?

    I'd mention van Vogt's Empire of the Atom and Wizard of Linn as well, given there are two classic D&D items that have obviously been borrowed from those stories.

  7. Ah, Aldiss and Van Vogt, you guys are speaking my language. I just read Hothouse last year and am a big Aldiss fan and believe that Hothouse is actually literature. Sure, Tummy Bellies is a silly name but it was assigned buy the primitive inhabitants of the novel. It's great, great GW inspiration none-the-less.

  8. Funny you should post this, as I just got "Hothouse" from Amazon on Tuesday. I like it so far, but it is "out there."

    I recommend Gene Wolfe too.

  9. I read this for the first time two years ago. Enjoyable for its imagery alone, but the notion that the hero's quest was actually the result of a sentient brain fungus was a nice twist. Have yet to finish Aldiss' Helliconia books.

  10. Aldiss's novel Non-Stop is a more unified work, which was a direct influence on Metamorphosis Alpha.

    Hothouse has some memorable moments, as when the descendant of the domestic cat momentarily pauses in "recognition" of Gren the latter-day human; or the dolphin talks down to the humans. Indeed, the whole structure of the story -- a quest across different environments and cultures to escape the dying earth -- has, by whatever circuitous routes, influential on the Gamma World campaigns I've seen (there was a series of modules with that goal released by TSR). And the brain fungus is a worthy literary cousin of Jack Vance's Firx: and both are models for devices to guide errant players back to the main plot of a game.