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.