Arrakis. Dune. Desert planet.

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I call this one ‘Troll bridge’

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Brian Aldiss – Hothouse (1961) Review

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.

7.0/10

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Not so sure about these two drawings. I was in a strange mood.

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Patricia A. McKillip – Ombria in Shadow (2002) Review

“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.

8.0/10

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A fantasy drawing

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Theodore Sturgeon – More Than Human (1953) Review

9/10

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.

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