BOOKS & AUTHORS
So, what in the world is going on in Brian Aldiss’ Hugo Award-winning 1962 stories that eventually got collected as Hothouse?Note that I wrote in, not with. I just finished the book the other day, though it took me ages to get through it and that’s given me a lot of time to ruminate on the parts I’d already read. The book is strange, in ways that I found both fascinating and frustrating. (But, honestly, the reason it took so long has more to do with my son’s newly developed Spider Man-like climbing abilities than the book itself.)
First, the fascination: I mean, this is a “dying earth” story, but nothing like Vance’s. This dying Earth is a wild, chaotic, overgrown jungle world: a single banyan tree has spread out, much like Pando, to cover all of Eurasia. (Well, I think. The narrator asserts this earlier on, but the characters visit other ecosystems in later sections of the book, and it’s hard to know exactly where the action is taking place except that they seem to pass through England at some point.) Most of the life in this world is deeply hostile toward all other life-forms—natural selection is applied to every living thing on a constant basis—and as a result the ever-patient and relentless vegetable and fungal kingdoms have kicked the living crap out of the animal kingdom.
In this world, humans have shrunk to something like a sixth our size, and “regressed” to a “primitive,” matriarchal society. Yeah, yeah, I see the alarm bells going off, but it’s not written in a particularly misogynistic way: this is just a sense I get, but Aldiss’s narrator doesn’t seem to present the matriarchal nature of the humans we meet as particularly terrible, as much as he sees the hidebound, custom-driven society as problematic. On the positive side, it seems to be a working strategy for surviving the hothouse world, but on the negative, it cripples characters intellectually to live in a society where questioning the assertions of a leader is not allowed.
It’s easy to see why Hothouse was cited as an influence on the Gamma World roleplaying game, anyway: Aldiss has hilarious fun throwing in ancient technology that also inadvertently reveals some of the forgotten, lost history of humanity (like a sort of propaganda drone that gets launched and starts exhorting those below to resist “monkey labour”: apparently anticipating by just one year the Planet of the Apes franchise (Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planète des Singes came out in 1963).
My frustration with the book has nothing to do with the dated science. Yes, the idea of the moon being stuck in geostationary orbit around the Earth and bound to it by cobwebs of enormous vegetable spiders is nuts, but it’s a poetical image and a really outrageous one. The fact James Blish gave Aldiss hell for it seems to me to be a classic case of criticizing a writer for writing the kind of story he or she wanted to tell, rather than the kind of story you wish to be told instead. This is as clueless as watching Annie Hall and then criticizing the film’s lack of superheroes, or complaining that T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets just isn’t as erotic as you’d hoped.
No, for me, it’s much more about other elements in the book. One is inconsistency. This book was a “fixup,” the term used in 50s and 60s SF for books produced by stitching together short stories that were originally published separately, albeit as a series. Inconsistency is a lot more forgiveable in a context like that: you might not remember the (supposedly omniscient) narrator asserting that only five forms of animal life still exist on Earth by the time the protagonist encounters a sixth and a seventh, several stories later.
Even so, the book has an odd shape for something crafted out of stories: we end up following one group of characters off into the wild airless yonder, and then drop them and return to another group. By the time the first group’s story setup paid off, I’d kind of given up on the idea we’d see them again at all. (Which sounds like a complaint, but it isn’t: it was a surprise and a delight, if one that felt a bit rushed.)
But there’s other things that puzzled me, too. The symbiotic (and later parasitic) relationship between Gren and the morel fungus that takes him over, for example, feels like a metaphor for something, but for what? And what about Gren’s behaviour, both when he’s under the influence of the morel, and when he isn’t? He undergoes a metamorphosis, but it’s an unusual one, particularly toward the end of the process when Gren is essentially cocooned inside the depths of his own mind and the morel is in complete control of his body. When he emerges, he’s changed but not at all in the ways that we’re taught to expect: what’s refined in his character seems to be only the intellect, and it is difficult to say whether this is a good thing for him—even he has his doubts about that.
Adam Roberts and Rich Puchalsky (who summarizes Roberts’ ideas here, along with his own criticisms, but you can also see Roberts’ thoughts in his The History of Science Fiction if you’re curious) both have interesting things to say that help answer my question: yes, the evolutionary science grates if you’re living in 2016, and yes, the idea of the book as a metaphor for science fiction (and the morel fungus as corresponding, within that metaphor, with the “novum” or the “idea” element in SF) is compelling.
But that also leaves open other questions: for one, is Aldiss saying, then, that as much as SF may transform our minds, it also can harm us the way the morel parasitically cripples and controls Gren? Gren suffers pretty terribly under the control of the morel, essentially becoming a monster for a while. Some of his suffering is surely just growing pains, as he becomes more aware of the fact the universe doesn’t always behave as he’d wish… but some is because the morel exhibits astonishing arrogance and occasional cluelessness or cruelty. Then again, if you’ve hung out with geeks, maybe you’ll see something familiar in that… I have know geeks who, as adults, were as horrible as (if not more horrible than) the jocks who beat them up in grade school.
Then there’s the instances of Gren’s violence: why is he so overtly nasty and cruel to the tummy-belly men? Why can he not fight the morel when it decides to infect his own child? What about the moments when he’s violent toward his mate, Yattma? Rich Puchalsky argues that the morel carries Gren into modernity… so is this just another symptom of that modernity—the violence toward the vulnerable and toward women by men being part of the downside of modernity? That seems pretty questionable to me—male violence is pretty clearly liked to male hormones and sexual dimorphism in humans probably hasn’t helped things—but it also sounds like something that would be progressive and interesting for a 1960s SF author to say in the 1960s. It also feels somehow like a conscious attempt to reverse the relatively stifling and oppressive matriarchy under which the first band of humans we see in the book live, and from which Gren exits early on.
(It’s not that I object to the depiction of unsavory things in a book, mind you: it’s just that I’m not sure what Aldiss intends by the depiction: I’m at a loss interpretively, not morally, about how I’m supposed to see the character’s actions in context. Normally, I’d say this is a book from the late 60s and maybe it’s just a product of its time—and undoubtedly in some ways it is—but I’m not so sure about that when it comes to the violence. It feels like it’s consciously put there for a reason. I suspect on some level the morel fungus has had a mixed result on Gren… the intelligence boost and greater critical faculties it gave him came at a price, and part of the price is that he became much more unpleasant as an individual. Not only that, but in addition, as Gren becomes more intelligent and far-seeing, everyone around him seems slowly to come into sharper focus, and so do their assorted flaws and defects. It’s a great way to depict Gren’s growing intelligence and consciousness, but it does mean most of the others he interacts with seem increasingly annoying as time goes bay… at least until the turning point of the novel.)
Finally, the thing that got me thinking about posting this in the first place: there’s an oddly childish (read: fairytale-like) flavor to a lot of the neologisms in the story. The sharp-furs and tummy-belly men are the most extreme example of this, as they speak like little kids who’ve been drugged on psychotropics and force-fed tons of Lewis Carrol and books written in baby talk. But even the humans of Gren’s tribe have a bizarre language, and the names they’ve given to the horribly violent, ever-predatory creatures that surround them sound suspiciously like names little kids would invent for the individuals in his collection of stuffed animals. I’m not sure if the terminology is a repudiation of the cool-neologism-fetish of SF, or some kind of commentary on the infantilization of the humans in the book, or something else entirely… but it has a strange effect on how one reads the text. Or, at least, it did for me.
Which I suppose is to say that the book left me unsettled too, if for somewhat different reasons than it did Rich Puchalsky. I think it’s a fascinating text, and it’s really eye-opening to see it in the context of things it spawned: as a teenager I spent many hours Gamma World-ing my way through the detritus left behind by it, for example. The symbiotic mutation Gren undergoes while under the influence of the amoral morel is fascinating, and so is the world… but it does sometimes drag on that every damned creature in that environment is a ruthless, horrible predator. It feels a little bit like an New Wave era metaphor-in-advance for neoliberal economic policies and their effect on the live of regular people, actually.
Still, there’s no denying the book is is an interesting read… even if I have the feeling it’d never win a Hugo today.
I’ve been listening to Leo Damrosch’s biography of Jonathan Swift, and it’s been fascinating. The secrecy with which he conducted his life, and the resulting uncertainties that surround it; his involvement in politics as an anonymous pamphleteer and poet… and, at times, as a man wanted for charges of sedition; and his tone and voice in his letters, including those to Stella (a woman some believe to have been secretly his wife, but also, unbeknownst to him at first, his first cousin), and those to a young woman whom he knew nicknamed Vanessa, with whom he seems to have been involved with romantically. From Damrosch’s prologue:
In the letters they had a private code. The man suggested that “a stroke thus —— —— —— —— signifies everything that may be said.” In her letters from then on, the dashes flew thick and fast: “I have worn out my days in sighing and my nights with watching and thinking of ——, ——, ——, ——.” Only they knew what words were meant.
Evidently, the word coffee was part of the same code. In a number of letters from the man over several years, “coffee” has a suggestive aura: “I wish I were to walk with you fifty times about your garden, and then—drink your coffee”; “I drank no coffee since I left you, nor intend till I see you again, there is none worth drinking but yours”; “Without health, you will lose all desire of drinking your coffee.” At one point the absence of her coffee is so disturbing that it interferes with his work as a writer: “I am not cheerful enough to write, for I believe coffee once a week is necessary to do that.”
I find it funny, reading the above passages, to think that anyone could believe the coffee references were anything but code… but apparently some people have insisted on it, including Irvin Ehrenpreis, author of another major Swift biography from the 1980s. Ehrenpreis gets some respect from Damrosch on the stuff he gets right, but Damrosch calls him to task on his less-credible claims, interpretations, and assertions… and his apparent desire to impose on Swift some vision of what Swift ought to have been like.
It’s a tremendous biography, and if you’re interested in Swift and in early Georgian England and Ireland, well worth your time. Still, it’s this passage below that finally got me to sit down and post something about the book… a letter Jonathan Swift sent Alexander Pope:
The timing is interesting: Swift sent it just as he finished his masterpiece, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World—what we today call Gulliver’s Travels—and he had this to say:
…the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it; and if I could compass that design, without hurting my own person or fortune, I would be the most indefatigable writer you have ever seen, without reading. (…) I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one: so with physicians—I will not speak of my own trade—soldiers, English, Scotch, French, and the rest. But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell, and so I shall go on till I have done with them. I have got materials toward a treatise, proving the falsity of that definition animal rationale, and to show it would be only rationis capax. Upon this great foundation of misanthropy, though not in Timon’s manner, the whole building of my Travels is erected; and I never will have peace of mind till all honest men are of my opinion. By consequence you are to embrace it immediately, and procure that all who deserve my esteem may do so too. The matter is so clear that it will admit of no dispute; nay, I will hold a hundred pounds that you and I agree in the point.
It’s the misanthropy, though not in Timon’s manner that, it seems to be, is both the crux and the challenge to be found in Swift’s literary example.
Timon (of Athens), of course, was a full-on misanthrope, hating people both in the general and the particular. He hated Athens so much that he was actually rooting for outsiders like Alcibiades, because he thought that was the best hope of Athens getting destroyed and all its inhabitants killed. It’s sort of like hating humanity so much you’re rooting for nuclear war, and somehow that crosses the line from misanthrope to asshole. (And yeah, my whole point is that there is a line.)
You might argue Timon’s position is a more self-consistent one, in philosophical terms, but one suspects it’s not better for the world, or one’s own happiness or lucidity…
Or, for that matter, readability. Imagine a Jonathan Swift who’d written Gulliver upon the foundation of a misanthropy after Timon’s manner: that book would not be remembered today except among historians, I think.
There’s a bit of Erroll Morris’s incredible, wonderful documentary Vernon, Florida that comes to mind—“You can go to extremes on aaaaaanything! Aaaaaaanything!”—but I can’t find an excerpted clip anywhere online, so I’ll leave it at that.