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The novel that couldn’t stop embarrassing itself.
A billion years in the future, the Earth and Moon have stopped rotating. The dayside of the planet is covered by thick jungle. Mile-long spiders move along webs between Earth and the Moon. Humans are small now, and green, and live in the shells of giant nuts. They are one of a few animal species left, another one being their friends, the intelligent termites. This is the triumph of the vegetable world, with moving plants, telepathic fungi, plants like bees and like oysters. A world of wonders.
Hothouse was written in the transition period between the Golden Age of science fiction in the 50s, where hard science and plausibility were strict values, and the New Wave that was about to come, where style and experimentation came to the fore. Understandably, Hothouse was criticized at the time for being implausible by other writers like James Blish (mile-long spiders walking to the moon!), but implausibility was its goal. Aldiss wanted to dazzle with ideas that broke out of the mold. For the time, that was fresh and exciting, just like the science fantasy of Roger Zelazny and the madness of J.G. Ballard. It can still be exciting.
A story, you ask? There is one, but a rather basic one. This is mostly a word of warning. As the village leaders age, young man Gren leaves the group together with his followers, and they set out through the jungle in search of a new Eden. Aldiss describes this split of the group as a natural occurrence, the way a bee colony splits. Humans here are simply one of many species in the jungle and our role as stewards of the planet has long ago ceased. The story is simple because humans and their thinking has become simple; a property of the central conceit of the book. These simple humans were quite hilarious, except for the stupid tummy-belly men. That Lewis Carroll nonsense went on for far too long.
I do not share Aldiss’s sense of humor. The baby-talking tummy-belly men are the worst thing ever printed on paper, by anyone. If I was any less enamoured with the rest of the novel, I would have burned it.
On their way, they learn that the world isn’t entirely what they thought it was. Some of the billion-year history in Hothouse can be understood from Aldiss’s descriptions of the journeys that the humans make. It’s a world full of danger; nearly every page has some creature trying to eat another. There’s a parallel here to Aldiss’s earlier book Non-stop (1958), which also explored unknown ecosystems and held secrets. And Aldiss’ focus on the strange evolution of life makes this a precursor to his later Helliconia trilogy.
Fascinating stuff, very entertaining. But then again, I am a biologist. I want to submerge myself into this grand feat of worldbuilding. This is one of the best, most elaborately described far future Earths in the genre. It is also nightmarish to the point of exaggeration, and often uncomfortable and unsettling. Many elements in this book suffer from repetition, including the struggle for life.
There is another flaw in this book and that’s that the stories don’t really go anywhere. Originally written as five short stories (for which Aldiss incidentally won a Hugo), pasted together the book still feels fragmented. We follow the humans as they stumble from one danger to the next, always in fear of imminent death. It’s very episodic and occasionally too repetitive.
Yet, every episode is filled with enough invention and wonder, making Hothouse still a remarkable read. We get a pretty thorough view of this future world and all the myriad ways in which humans have entered new roles in the ecosystem. Intelligence still exists, but it has fallen mostly in other hands.
Fun and unique, trippy, very flawed, childish and goes on for too long. It’s hard to wrap your head around it. I kept lowering my rating as I neared the end. And now I never want to hear about tummy-belly men again.
“In that house who could assume that even fire and water would not conspire?”
The main character of this novel is the shadowy city Ombria itself, and the Byzantine dealings of its royal house. But first there is Lydea, mistress of the prince. When the prince lies dying, Lydea is thrown out of the palace by the heartless regent Domina Pearl (“the black pearl”), and crawls back to her father’s tavern to beg for a job. In her mind though she hasn’t left the palace and she’s afraid that Domina will murder the young boy Kyel who’s heir to the throne.
Ombria has secrets. There is a second city, made of shadows and of the past, running beside and underneath Ombria, with hidden entrances all around. Meg, who used to think she was wax but recently learned she is in fact human, runs errands for the witch Faey who inhabits this shadow-world. One of her jobs has her delivering magical items to Domina Pearl.
And there are more protagonists; no obvious main character. All their stories revolve around Ombria’s royal palace: vast and ancient, creaking, full of shadows and hidden passages. McKillip creates something similar to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast here, only with a less quirky tale around it. Ombria is a city that cannot shake its past. Is, in fact, dragged down by it. Both the palace and the shadow world are dominated by two hags, Domina and Faey, who suck the life out of it. This is how McKillip creates myth out of reality. She embodies the lifeless past in the form of old hags and shadows.
No wonder that our protagonists, Lydea, Meg and Ducon, are young people and stuck in the way. Most of the story follows their paths and plots, and occasionally these intersect in interesting ways. Thus the city renews itself, but the young have to fight for it, and McKillip has some nice plot twists up her sleeve. Look very hard and you can see allegories for the old trying to control the young, but none of it feels forced or predictable. In fact, the allegory starts to muddle as the story changes shape and alliances shift.
Ombria in Shadow is a finely realized story full of believable, layered characters and touching conversations. There are brilliant descriptions here, of Faey’s workshop of magic, for example, where Meg has to assist her. The smelly streets of Ombria are another, and the bowels of the royal palace. The story itself strangely fails to escalate; the same handful of characters do a lot of running back and forth, but the story slowly glides forward at the same pace, and even though it talks about deep history, the small cast makes it feel like a small story. And when the resolution arrives, it is a bit confusing. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining, has a sense of wonder and is definitely worth reading.
Starting More Than Human is like a weight settling on you. Both for the flowing, dense, poetic writing that settles on you like a blanket, and for the grisly subject material that leaves a pit in your stomach. Cursed with cover art often featuring creepy babies, More Than Human is not a book to make you feel happy. It is, however, one of those books that is always mentioned on any ‘best SF of all time’ list. Let’s find out why.
In the first of three parts, named The Idiot, we are introduced to a couple of remarkable characters. One of which, the Idiot, is a man without consciousness who lives like an animal, but who has telepathic powers to make people act to his deeper desires. What’s even more remarkable is the confident, compelling, almost dictating narration by Sturgeon. At first it sounds a bit stiff and old-fashioned, but there is quality and poetry to it.
There’s also Janie, a smart 5-year-old who can move objects with her mind, a hyper-intelligent baby and two twin toddlers who can teleport. Piecemeal-like they are introduced to us in episodes full of harsh humanity. There’s lots of shocking tragedy going on in these few pages, with characters that feel very realistic. In the end all these “freaks” end up together to form a “gestalt” person. Alone they cannot function, but put all their gifts together and they become a functioning unit, even something more than human.
In parts two and three, we jump forward through the years and see them make a very curious household. And just to highlight Sturgeon’s writing skill again, these parts have entirely different tones and rhythms. Part two, for example, is faster paced, with sharp dialogue; part three more romantic. Where the story is going is never really clear, so be prepared for that if you’re an impatient reader.
It’s a story of mental growth over the years. Throughout the book, what the telepaths are up to is less important than the sense of belonging they find in each other’s company. They are all lost children, but pulling them apart is even worse. There’s an investigation of loneliness running throughout the novel, and what friendship and belonging means. The greatest threat is them losing each other.
It was all the rage in the golden age of science fiction to put telepathy in your novel. Sour-faced people nowadays claim that that isn’t science fiction but nonsense. But who cares when the writing is good? No one managed to approach the topic in such an intriguing way as Sturgeon. For its short length, he raises many questions through a form of short story writing that pulls you in. This one is by rights seen as one of the essentials in SF history. It aimed ambitiously high in both writing quality and thoughtfulness.
But not yet. Not yet. For the moment I am struggling with a burnout and that affects my concentration so much that watching movies or even series is a bit too much for me right now.
I have made a list of all the movies and series I want to see, when I am able again. These include the marvel and Disney films, Game of thrones, star trek and more. It’s stunning how much content you miss after a break of only a couple of months.
Books are alright though, so I will be posting book reviews for a while. I try to stimulate my brain by making drawings, so these will show up here too, occasionally. The regular programme will return eventually.
A reread of Douglas Adams’ The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series is the perfect remedy when you’re feeling down. That is, of course, if his humor appeals to you. For me, reading Adams is easy; writing a review of his work is hard. His work is so focused on comedy that some would not even classify it as science fiction, and comedy is so subjective that it is very difficult to argue whether it is in any way “good” as literature. The funniest thing of all is to read 1-star reviews on Amazon of people who found it boring and stupid, or couldn’t follow the plot.
Having said that, I think his brand of comedy is brilliant. He has a similar style to Terry Pratchett’s, but may be even more talented in playing with the English language to produce the unexpected, brain-tingling sentence. Between the lines, Adams takes playful stabs at things he finds silly, such as bureaucrats, philosophers and digital watches.
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979)
It is not just Adams’ way with words that is admirable; the story of Arthur Dent and his journey through the stars is very inventive. This opening novel to the series has a very strong start, with Dent’s house being demolished and his flight with Ford Prefect aboard the Vogon ship. Then onwards on board the Heart of Gold with Beeblebrox, Trillian and Marvin. The invention of the Hitch Hiker’s Guidebook we may take for granted now but it is a stroke of genius. It allows Adams to insert endless silly jokes and at the same time build his universe and push the story along. Many of Adams’ famous quotes come from this first novel: about towels, about the babel fish, about space itself.
The story moves fast, there’s never a dull moment and is tantalizingly unpredictable. The unpredictability is what keeps it interesting, not the plot. The movie covers about the same territory as this first novel. All in all, a great comedic success. 9.5/10
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)
The second novel starts a bit weak, but gets progressively better and better as it goes along. At first, it is the Zaphod Beeblebrox show, and not all of it is as engaging as the first novel. Zaphod jumps from one scene to the next, some of it a bit too silly and some conversations dragged a bit, but it has one highlight in the Total Perspective Vortex. I missed Arthur and Ford.
The plot has lost its momentum now. In the first novel there was at least the matter of Earth’s destruction, but now Arthur wants a cup of tea and Zaphod wants to eat. It’s a real jumble. At first, it also seems as if Adams ditched the Hitch Hiker guide entries. The second half of the novel is much better, though. Arthur and Marvin are back, the Guide is back, and the jokes are hitting harder. The book stumbled but got back on its feet to hit a home run. 9/10
Life, the Universe and Everything (1982)
The third novel makes a valiant effort to get a plot running, but isn’t all that memorable. Compared to the previous books, this one is not so much hilarious as just odd. It starts with odd things happening on a cricket field, and then Slartibartfast takes Arthur and Ford on an odd mission, which takes Slart half the book to explain. Meanwhile, Zaphod is depressed and Trillian still has no character.
The clever passages have given way to general weirdness and confusion. Highlights still include Marvin talking to a living mattress, Wowbagger the immortal alien and a party that never ends. 8/10
So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish (1984)
Quite a departure from the other novels, Arthur is back on Earth and falls in love, and that’s most of the novel. Adams tried to turn Arthur into an actual character and basically ignores the rest of the series. Not the content many people were hoping for, but at the same time a certain enthusiasm is back in Adams’ writing. At least at the start. It’s quite a funny tale in and of itself, but after reading the first three novels it feels like an abandonment of the series.
Easier to appreciate in a reread. I suppose it is written very much for British people so they can feel very British about themselves. 8/10
Mostly Harmless (1992)
I was going to say that this one is the odd one out, but the fourth book was also the odd one out, so this one is even odder. Written eight years after the previous entry and at a time when Adams was increasingly struggling with depression, it is very different in tone. Occasionally funny, but also increasingly cynical. The good ending of book four is gone.
One big mistake is that Trillian, Arthur and Ford all have separate adventures and on their own they are just not as funny as when they’re interacting. Ford’s is frantic, but not funny, and Arthur’s is occasionally humorous but relentlessly depressing. 7/10
Phew. This reread was an eye opener. It wasn’t as funny as I remembered, the second time around. The best parts are the first novel and the second half of the second one. The rest of the series steadily declined in hilarity and quality. After each novel, it is best to ask yourself whether you want to continue.
Douglas Adams has often commented that he finds it hard to actually write. Now, when he is inspired, he is brilliant, but when he isn’t, it’s immediately noticeable. It means that he is forcing it, line by line, or too influenced by his moods. Publishing the series in a single omnibus edition didn’t really did justice to the parts that are genuinely brilliant.