Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Review of “Hothouse” novel by Brian Aldiss


Hundreds of millions of years in the future mankind, indeed animalkind, is in the decline. Humanity is evermore eclipsed by vegetable life, which thrives in the endless sunlight of an earth that has long since stopped revolving.

Written in 1962 as a series of five short stories and later republished as a contiguous novel.

Plot Summary:

Lily-yo is the leader of a matriarchal band of feral humans struggling to survive a merciless existence in the mid-canopy of a distant-future jungle where the entire sunlit surface of the earth is covered in interconnected Banyan trees. She soon abolishes the tribe sending the children off on their own and leading the adults on a ritual/journey/suicide in seedpods bourn into space.

Meanwhile, the children led by the in-fighting Toy and Gren head on a journey to establish a new colony. They are in for far more then they expected and soon encounter the various predatory vegetables writhing throughout the jungle, an intelligent morel (fungus) with an agenda of its own, several disparate animals competing for an ever-diminishing number of ecological niches and much more. To spoil the intriguing locals visited along the journey would ruin much of the fun, but suffice it to say that Aldiss adequately explores the possibilities of his influential, compelling landscape.


Aldiss has a powerful propensity for imagining and developing environmental extremes and his greatest strength lies in his imperturbable ability to evoke a sense of wonder and otherworldliness. In the first segment of the book Aldiss appears to explore and exhaust so much of his initial premise that the reader might begin to panic and worry that no material (or purely redundant material) will be left for the rest of the book. Fortunately, the author’s imagination is up to the task of generating original and interesting new niches for life to blossom.

That being said, the later sections aren’t quite as powerful and evocative as the early locals and the serialized, episodic nature is conspicuously choppy in terms of narrative flow.

Aldiss succeeds best at evoking grand imagery, but he doesn’t seem to have the patience for clear and expressive descriptions. The result is quick-sketched moments of beauty and wonder that lack specificity and atmosphere. (see Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for an example of vividly realizing a jungle setting). For instance, aural and olfactory qualities are rarely mentioned. There are few visceral description of the heat or textures nor is there much mention of the complicated dappled lighting that must inevitably have made life in the mid-canopy a perpetual twilight. The physiological reaction of the characters to their environment fails to make the reader feel physically present. In a particularly sloppy twist about a third of the way into the book, Aldiss gets around to mentioning that humans have shrunk to a fifth their original size, but never mentions whether the measurements he uses in his descriptions are relative to the characters’ size or the reader’s size (inches, feet and yards were all based on length of bodyparts). He seems to switch between the two scales inadvertently throughout the book.

This fits with the general style of the novel which clearly lays out a pattern of soft science. I think more rigorous thought and technical acumen could have only improved the novel, but it is first and foremost and globe-trotting survivalist adventure and not a scientifically grounded planetary survey. In fairness, Aldiss can often reasonably fall back on the built-in defense of his characters primitiveness and logically limited knowledge to explain away the lack of technical detail and the speckling of unplugged plot holes.

On the other hand, the author tends to use the prehistoric (or posthistoric in this case) savagery of his protagonists as too easy an excuse to avoid character development, dialogue and realistic reactions.

If I seem to be rather harsh, I should mention that taken as a whole, Hothouse is a remarkable and awe-inspiring novel with an exciting adventure at its heart. I found it to be a condensed, if less matured, alternative to Aldiss’s Hellconia series from the 1980’s which revisits similar themes but with a sluggishness that often overwhelms the scenes that should fill us with wonder.

Grade: B

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