Fiction Reviews


Hothouse

(1962 / 2008) Brian Aldiss, Penguin Modern Classics, 8.99 / Can$19, pbk, 288 pp, ISBN 978-0-141-18955-0

 

It is the far future, so far into the future that the Sun is much warmer and closer to it going nova. Yet human beings have still survived, though its technological society is long gone. Fragmented and reduced to a tribal existence, Man's remnants struggle to survive in a super tropic forest. A member of one such tribe, Gren, sets off to explore his world...

Originally Hothouse was published in 1961 in the US Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as a series of short stories. These were compiled into a novel in 1962 that was published in both the British Isles and US. However that US edition almost never happened and even so it was a shortened version. The editor had ruthlessly, with little sympathy to the story, cut 8,000 words and Aldiss said he would rather the US edition was not published in that form, though he did agree to cut 10,000 words of his own choosing. Fortunately, Hothouse won the World SF achievement award, the Hugo, in 1962 for the original short story series and so the proper version was soon released in the US. It has been reprinted virtually every decade since to the present on both sides of the Atlantic. (Of passing interest, there are 1970s and '80s editions with a rather good introduction on Hothouse and its author by Joseph Milicia.) It is therefore a delight that Penguin - rightly considering it to be a modern classic - have republished it with this 2008 edition. This new incarnation sports a new introduction by Neil Gaiman.

In part marking the re-print - and very much a rarity - the multidisciplinary science journal Nature carried an interview with the author. In it he corrects the often quoted notion that Hothouse sees the Earth and the Moon fixed by giant cobwebs. Brian says that his premise for the Moon being stationary was that it was so far in the future that it had become locked in a 'trojan' position. I mention this because the interview was probably heavily edited. In fact Hothouse does contain webs spanning the Moon and the Earth even if they are not the rationale for locking the Earth and the Moon. (Note of technical pedantry because this is the 'science fact & science fiction' Concatenation. The far future would ultimately see the Moon and the Earth locked with the Moon further out than it is today and the Earth with one face continually pointing to the Moon. This is not a 'trojan' fixing of orbits but one of reducing the Earth's rotational and increasing the Moon's orbital inertial momentum until the Earth has one face tidally locked to the Moon: this is actually different from 'trojan' orbital stability. However by that time the Sun should have gone through its red giant phase that may engulf the Earth.).

Hothouse has much within it that might be considered allegorical. I will not unpick these but the 'fisher' folk - who are humans - with their symbiotic (or is it parasitic?) relationship, being tied to a parent tree by an umbilical, resonates with that of the relationship between powerful states and their individual citizens. When I read this I thought of communist states but I see that Joseph Milicia considers it to be representative of the white man's burden: of the responsibility that European's had had to the native citizens of their less-developed colonies. Either way, it works.

The novel also resonates with today's environmental concerns. (We sometimes forget that there actually have been such concerns for the past few decades and not just present times. Remember: the Stockholm UN Conference (1972); Limits To Growth 1972; The World Conservation Strategy and the Bradnt Reports (1980), Brundtland (1987), UNCED Rio (1992)... and not just the post-Kyoto era (1997 onwards)). As such Aldiss taps into a core concern of modern times and is appropriate for a 'modern classic' series. Indeed as Hothouse works its way to its conclusion there is a nod, not just to humans being a transient part of Earth's natural system but, to a greater panspermia.

As with the Gollancz SF Masterwork series, it is well worth checking out the Penguin Modern Classics for other SF and F offerings.

Jonathan Cowie


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