Hothouse / The Long Afternoon of Earth

Brian W. Aldiss
Hothouse / The Long Afternoon of Earth Cover

In the great tradition of time-honored odysseys


In the late 1960s Brian W. Aldiss became known as part of the New Wave in British science fiction, along with JG Ballard, whose The Drowned World share some common themes with Hothouse. He remains a major voice in SF, and his history of the genre, Billion Year Spree, is still referred to by literary critics and fans alike. A fascinating observation is that almost all of his novels are narratives of exploration in one way or another, with the possibility of personal enlightenment open to the protagonists. Hothouse is no different.

What is today known as a full-length novel was first published in 1962 as various short stories. It was only in 1976 that the novel was published in its entirety. It is often referred to in blurbs on the various editions as "The Hugo Award winning novel," but a close scrutiny of the Hugo Award winning novels reveals no such entry. That's because the five stories that make up the novel, as a collection, won the 1962 Hugo Award for best short fiction, published in the following sequence in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, from February to December 1961:

As a whole the novel evoked a real sense of wonder in me and still resonates pure astonishment. Earth has become fixed in its orbit in such a way that one side is permanently facing the sun while the other is shrouded in constant darkness. The Moon is also close enough to Earth for "traversers" to comfortably cross this divide, and even though this is certainly not a rope let down from the Moon to the Earth, I did question how the first traverser escaped Earth's gravity. It is never explained; in fact, how the world has come to be in its current state remains a mystery. Where this may dissatisfy some readers, it added a layer of mystery to me that solidified the time-honoured tradition of odysseys: all such stories have more or less an atmosphere of dream, and those framed by such inexplicable bewilderments as found in Hothouse seem particularly dreamlike.

The result of this fantastic state of affairs have been the radical evolution of flora and fauna into what appeared to be an almost ludicrously hostile environment, which turns out to become even more hostile than anything the previous pages could conjure up as the story continues. Earth is largely dominated by a vast efflorescent gigantic, multi-levelled tree, and human life has retreated to one of the lowest degree of the ecological order. Stranded amid the proliferate jungle, surrounded by the oystermaws, wiltmilts, berrywhisks, termights (sic) and trappersnappers of Aldiss's wondrous imagination, the (now) green-skinned humans have to struggle daily for survival. Fears of being devoured by some devilish plant are a constant worry for them, living on tree limbs above the horrifying darkness below. I found this fact to be one of the most effective terrifying aspects of the opening chapters and can still graphically imagine uncountable claws and mouths spurting forth from the darkness below. Jung’s concepts of the Devouring Mother springs to mind, of dragons and other monsters representing fearful temptation for the ego to return to Mother Nature. But I’ll admit, that may be reading too much into the story, and Siegfried’s quest to vanquish the dragon in order to proceed to the sleeping Brunhilde is far removed from the Hothouse struggle for survival and its humans’ metamorphosis into a new phase of life. The story, instead, focuses on a boy, Gren, who ends up leaving his tribe and comes into contact with an intelligent and pugnacious fungus, the morel, intent on using Gren and all of humanity for its own purpose. Linked to the morel in a symbiotic relationship, Gren and others are led on a journey that eventually takes them to the dark side of the planet.

The morel is an interesting allegory used by Aldiss to represent some of mankind's most unattractive traits and adds a complex dimension to the adventure. It has a lot to do with why I like the novel so much. The morel's actions, or rather influences over Gren, are easily understood as all too typically human, and is more than just subtle criticism on imperialism, unchecked greed and with today's foresight, humankind’s influences on climate change. The irony of ignorance, of one’s own environment, of other cultures is a theme that strikes close to home:

Its ultimate objective was vague, vain-glorious, and splendid. It saw itself reproducing again and again, until fungus covered the whole Earth, filling hill and valley with its convolutions.

It extends. At some point and for no sensible reason, the morel, Gren and Pyly decides to "liberate" the tummy-bellies from the tummy-trees:

"We can save them all from this humiliating way of life," Gren said. "They don't want to be saved," Yattmur said. "They're happy." "They're horrible," Poyly said.

The result is a grotesque parody of "white-man's burden," with Gren becoming responsible for the fawning creatures, only to abandon them later. Herein lies a bitter endictment of coloniaslism.

The most disturbing feature of the morel is its cruelty. It is not sadistic, but is perfectly willing to use pain as a means to getting its way, and Gren suffers most from its forceful attempts to push events in a specific direction. Gren is finally saved from the morel’s hold by the Sodal Ye. In the end - and this is why I find the character of the morel so attractive - it seems at its most typical (or perhaps Western?) when, in the face of some frustration, it exclaims "We must do something."

All things considered, Hothouse follows a human quest to understand the nature of the world, to find a home where "home" is an easily invaded village that must in any case be abandoned after childhood. Jungian supporters will very likely find the symbolism in awakening and homecoming particularly alluring. The story is pushed forward by Gren's odyssey, further and further into the unknown, and whilst the vision of life on earth here is predominantly gruesome and sardonic, Aldiss’s exuberant inventiveness is more than exhilarating! Whilst the morel and Gren takes centre stage, other themes in the novel are of equal significance, such as the apocalyptic events in the final chapters, and the afterlife journey of Lilyyo and her companions earlier in the story. Together with the primitive horrors in the natural world, nature's tooth and claw so to speak, they all stress the primal urges of growth and decay, propagation and dissolution. Gren’s ultimate success does not alter the fact that life is pretty damn grim for the inhabitants of Hothouse – Alexander Pope’s epigraph to the book is considerably apt in this regard:

See dying vegetables life sustain, See life dissolving vegetable again; All forms that perish other forms supply. (By turns we catch the vital breath and die) Like bubble on the sea of matter borne, They rise, they break, and to that sea return.

Hothouse is indubitably my favourite GMRC read thus far, even upstaging James Gunn's The Listeners. I highly recommend it. Read as a story of a hero’s education or psychological growth, it is immensely rewarding and weirdly elegant.