Monday, January 26, 2009

Brian Aldiss' Hothouse

On an implicit recommendation within Adam Roberts' Palgrave History of SF, I recently finished reading Brian Aldiss' early work Hothouse. The consideration of this important book is my excuse for an extended ramble on science in SF, other works by Aldiss, grand narrative, and the unreliable omniscient narrator.

Hothouse was written in 1961 as five short stories, winning a Hugo in 1962 as short fiction, and later emerged through the SF "fix-up" process as a novel. It's apparently been recently re-issued. It manages to encapsulate everything that I feel, as a reader, about Aldiss' work in general. On the one hand, it's brilliant work by a skilled writer with literary ambitions, and deserves serious attention by literary critics. On the other, it's annoying.

Do you get the feeling that I'm going to spend more time on the second of these than the first? Since the only people who read this blog probably already know my writing style -- at any rate, first, why should everyone interested in literary SF read this book? Because, as Adam Roberts points out, it's a giant metaphor for SF. The novel is set in a future-world overgrown jungle planet, actually the Earth after the Sun has expanded. Its hapless humans have shrunken in size and in mental capability, though the last may be more a matter of lost culture and knowledge than anything else. As is proper for an SF jungle from this era, everything, including eerily aggressive plants, is a predator on everything else. (Wiki informs me that Aldiss' military service in jungles in Burma may have helped to inspire the novel, and also that he put together an anthology of Venus-jungle stories called Farewell, Fantastic Venus!.) But this is only background; the heart of what makes this a literary novel is "the morel". The morel is a parasitic fungus that acts like an auxiliary brain of sorts; when it attaches itself to a human, it can not only render them more intelligent and inform them of the contents of its own memories, it can dig through and interpret their ancestral memories as well. Again per Roberts (although any misrepresentations of his idea are mine), it acts as a cognate for the concern with "ideas" of SF itself.

The protagonist, Gren, isn't just informed and made more intelligent by the morel -- as well as being controlled by it in ultimately destructive ways -- he's also brought by it into modernity. He is changed from a person reacting within a tradition of inherited social structure to someone with a familiar, contemporary mindset that the world is shapable, controllable through thought and effort. Therefore, it's saying something about colonialism, too, which Aldiss had first-hand knowledge of from India and Indonesia. Gren's mate manages to detach the morel after it attempts to parasitize their child as well. But even after it's gone, Gren has been changed by it -- when someone from an advanced civilization wants him to do something, his choices aren't limited to refusal or agreement, he now knows how to argue.

The morel manages to later take over one of the "travellers": huge, mobile plants shaped like giant spiders that spin webs that extend from the Earth to the Moon. It informs Gren that the universe has cycles of growth and decay, evolution and devolution, and that life is about to pack up and leave the Earth. The morel offers to give Gren a ride on the traveller; other, former members of Gren's tribe are going to go along inside it, to find a new habitable planet around another star. But Gren refuses. He points out that the morel has said that the catastrophe won't occur for several human generations, so why should he care? He is "tired of carrying and being carried." He tells the morel to "fill a whole empty world with people and fungus" if it wants to. His son's grandson will live in the jungle, as he has. So he goes back to the (eventually) doomed Earth.

SF that rejects the primacy of thought, ideas, adventure, even survival -- that makes this a literary experiment. As such, it's a highly interesting one. And that "tired of carrying and being carried" is highly evocative. It works on a physical level, since Gren carries both the morel and later the sodal, a sort of person-sized intelligent aquatic creature that is proud of its knowledge, and Gren also uses the morel to be himself physically carried by various other creatures. It's also metaphorical, in the sense that people in modernity not only carry around the omnipresent mediation of their worldview, but are carried by it; the kind of people who read SF novels are probably thoroughly familiar with the concept of living off one's intelligence even if they don't personally do it. But it's also about SF, and how it likes to describe itself as "the literature of ideas," so that books are carried along by the quality of their ideas, and carry a sort of simulated science forward to their readers. Aldiss is registering some of the discomfort with traditional SF tropes that would animate the New Wave, which is usually said to begin three years after this, in 1964.

But onwards to criticism that I haven't basically cribbed from Roberts, which, sadly, is the negative part. I'm not trying to trash the book, but I don't see any value in shiny-sunny criticism that accentuates the positive and ignores the rest. I learned more from figuring out what I thought was wrong with this book than I did from appreciating what was right about it.

Why, exactly, do I find this work annoying? It starts with that jungle. The book was written before the era of popularized evolutionary biology a la Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene in 1976, and it shows it. Therefore, species and their evolutionary changes are always being anthropomorphized in purposeful-sounding ways; for instance, species "copy" other species' evolutionary adaptations. By itself, that's minor, and could be fixed by mentally substituting concepts of convergent evolution and so on. Where it can't be fixed is that Aldiss wants to tie the changes going on to a grand narrative of cycles of growth and decay. Evolution simply doesn't work like that.

But why should that matter? The idea of webs stretching from (tide-locked) Earth to Moon doesn't work in terms of physics, and I'm not bothered by that, even though I have a degree in astrophysics. I think that's because it's merely an incidental detail -- I don't really look for SF to have scientific accuracy. But I distrust grand narratives. Aldiss has Teilhard de Chardin'd up the place.

Why is that more serious than any amount of misplaced physics? Because it conflicts with his rejection of the SF-idea. One essence of contemporary science, as I understand it from my minimal experience of it -- I've done about as little science as you can do and still be said to have done some science -- is acceptance of randomness. Which, in its biological aspect, more often takes the form of historical contingency. The SF books that I've read that really made me sit up and say "Wow, this seems like actual science" were those from the chill, invigorating Arctic breeze of Stanislaw Lem: Solaris and, say, The Chain of Chance, or The Investigation. The SF-idea of science is almost always elsewhere tied to a narrative that neatly explains. Aldiss giving in to this, even as he calls it into question, seems like a highly troubling flaw. Nor is this something that seems to me to be dismissible as an artifact of its time. Olaf Stapledon, who wrote mystical, evolutionary SF, wrote earlier, and his work always had the saving grace in this respect, for me, of acknowledging accident -- the human race in his Last and First Men (if I remember rightly) fails to make some evolutionary jump, and who knows why? It's not part of some cosmic cycle or plan, it's just an accidental failure, so, goodbye.

Nor is this a feature of Aldiss' work that is limited to Hothouse. It appears, for instance, in one of his other major biological works, the 1980s Heliconia trilogy, one of the batch of series that depend on worlds that have unusually long seasons to drive the plot as well as provide a background of larger-than-human-scale cycles (e.g. Paul Park's Starbridge Chronicles, George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series). But the biology in Heliconia seems to keep creeping into mysticism; at one point, the residents of the Earth think good thoughts to change the Heliconians' world-wide relationship to their communicable ancestral spirits, which seem to have some material existence. Who can say that such things are impossible? It's not the impossibility that I object to, but rather the way in which things keep getting swept up.

Worse, it's a problem that in another way affects the most splendid failure in SF, Aldiss' Report on Probability A. That's a book that certainly deserves its own post, but in short, it's an "anti-novel" consisting mostly of repetitive, obsessional, purposefully banal descriptions of what static, solitary characters are doing and surrounded by. Three men are observing a house with a woman living in it, and themselves being observed by extra-planar observers, who wish to know why they are doing it. Sadly, this last question is not un-answerable. By the end of the book -- does this count as a spoiler? it could just be my misinterpretation, I suppose -- a too-plausible theory and too much dwelling within the head of one of the three has made it far too likely that the three simply are attracted to the woman, another man's wife, who may or may not have been slightly leading them on, and that they are hanging about obsessionally as much because they can't figure it out as in unrequited attraction. How much better the book would have been if the reader had had no real idea, by the end! Why did it have to be explained? That just makes it into a novel again.

There's one other thing that troubled me about both Hothouse and Heliconia, the unreliable omniscient narrator. In Hothouse, it's probably because it's a fix-up of multiple short stories, but still-- in the beginning of the novel, the narrator confidently tells us that there are only something like five specific non-plant species surviving on the Earth, all of the other niches having been taken by mobile plants. This isn't the narrator passing on the knowledge of Gren or his tribe; it's the narrator just telling us. And it's not vague: the narrator lists each of them. Then each succeeding part of the book adds more animal species that aren't among those five. If Aldiss was going to dump all this worldbuilding detail on us, couldn't he at least make it consistent through the book? But instead it seems to change according to what theme he's on at the moment. When he wants to impress with the idea of a plantosphere, there are only five non-plant species. When later he wants to do a picaresque, well, there have to be more creatures for the protagonists to run into. And later, when he wants to get into Stapledonian replacements of one form of humanity by another over time, there's a whole lot of different species of humanoids. I can accept an unreliable narrator, but when that narrator appears to be the author that's a different matter. In Heliconia, too, details of his biology seem to keep changing slightly from one omniscient description to the next.

But wishing that Aldiss had had a more picky editor is a comparatively minor problem. More generally, this kind of thing is always going to be a problem for SF; an author as omniscient narrator who tells you what a character is thinking can almost always be assumed to be right -- after all, the author wrote the character. But SF, which tells you about a world in addition, is susceptible to contradiction by our changing knowledge of what worlds are like. You can believe that Venus is a jungle, then a probe goes on a nearby fly-by, and it's farewell, fantastic Venus. This does not seem to me to be a feature of SF rather than a bug. The fantastic-venus stories are now, in my opinion, probably generally unreadable. If they had started out as fantasies, they wouldn't be. It's a problem that has not been generally apparent because SF self-identified as SF has only been around for a century or so. But Aldiss' failure to achieve internal self-consistency makes it emerge far sooner than it otherwise would. In this, of course, he also provokes thought about the genre that would not otherwise have emerged.

Aldiss is a giant of the New Wave -- as one of the founders, he got to be one of Moorcock's Granbrettanian gods, as Bjrin Adass -- and this book is well worth reading. But its problems seem to me to mix uncomfortably with its strengths, and can't be ignored.


  1. Very interesting post. When you say 'randomness' in science, do you mean chaos theory as such, or something more general?

    I don't doubt I have overvalued this novel somewhat. I first read it as a young adolescent and it bashed my brain about in fruitful and rather exciting ways then. But I take the force of your observations re: evolution, and Aldiss's patricular take on Grand Narrative.

  2. I don't think that you overvalued it, really; it's just a very uneven book.

    Perhaps randomness is the wrong word, although the whole Einstein-encountering-QM story comes to mind. But really what I meant is something like "lack of a narrative." If you're looking at something astrophysical, sure, you make up hypotheses about it and try to think up observations that will test them, but most often you never really figure out what's going on. Science in science fiction tends to always be all too neatly wrapped up, except for the Lem books that I mention. In biology, too -- well, there was one time I remember when a biologist named Alan McGowan was complaining about the game SimEarth. I wondered why; SimEarth seemed to teach people about evolution, after all. He wrote that it taught them an annoyingly wrong version of evolution, in which when you restart the process from beginning, you basically come out with something like a dolphinoid each time. But even though convergent evolution does e.g. make creatures that live in water on Earth streamlined, there's just no guarantee that if you ran the process again, you'd get something like a dolphin. There's a series of accidents, each preparing the ground for later accidents, and the whole chain is historically contingent -- it need not have worked out that way.

    Therefore, something like a grand cycle of growth and decay is a crutch. It subverts a collision with the actual narrative-destroying effects of science, and returns them to a story that everyone is familiar with.

  3. i wish they would make a film of the book. I read it years ago and loved it i felt it was very imaginative.

  4. Any idea what S-F magazine the "Long Afternoon of Earth" was originally published
    in? Maybe "The Magazine Fantsy & Science
    Fiction". I remember the original story was
    better as a stand-alone story than when it was incorporated into the novel. I would love to aquire a copy of this mag. Please
    contact me. Lloyd :