Hothouse Analysis

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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Hothouse, Brian Aldiss second science-fiction novel, harks back to classic British chronicles of afar distant future such as Olaf Stapledons Last and First Men (1930) and especially H. G. Wellss The Time Machine (1895). In Wells’s story, the devolved humans have nothing to fear but the Morlocks, while in Hothouse Nature has taken much more violent evolutionary turns. At the same time, in its gleefully bizarre inventiveness and mixture of mythic elements and scientific extrapolation, Hothouse foreshadows the 1960’s New Wave, when Aldiss and others would conduct more radical experiments in applying techniques of modernist literature to science-fiction writing. The novel anticipates Aldiss’ later work, such as the Helliconia series (1982-1985), in its epic sweep and its mix of science fiction and fantasy. The first American edition of the novel, retitled The Long Afternoon of Earth, cut more than ten thousand words, including episodes of the morel probing Grens racial memories and the discovery of an ancient human dwelling and a propaganda machine.

Hothouse can be read as a gruesome comedy of puny humanitys helplessness in the face of a Nature “green in tooth and claw” or as a visionary work, awed by the universes mysteries and the role of humanity in the scheme of things. Freudian, Jungian, and feminist readers could all make much of Grens adventures: his breaking away from a matriarchal society, his narrow escapes from various devouring mouths of Nature, his ruthlessness while controlled by the masculine-seeming morel, the storys switch to the courageous and maternal Yattmurs viewpoint, and Grens final choice to take his family back to the jungle.

However one interprets this vivid, often grotesque saga, it is clear that Aldiss is pushing most definitions of science fiction to the limits. The book is traditional science fiction in its speculations on how the laws of evolution might cause new life-forms to develop, yet it makes no effort to account scientifically for some of its weirder features, such as the cliff of eyes, the mystic cave, or the jets of green energy shooting toward the sun near the novels end. To be sure, straight science fiction may have mythic or mystical elements, as in Arthur C. Clarkes Childhood’s End (1953), but Hothouse also has much in common with the fantastic journeys of other kinds of literature. One important model is Homer’s The Odyssey (transcribed sixth century b.c.e.). Gren may be a rather pathetic hero compared to Odysseus, but he does encounter his own Sirens and Lotus Eaters, not to mention assorted monsters, before he gets back to his jungle home. Another source is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Hothouse has plants as whimsical as Lewis Carroll’s and a character who fades in and out of visibility like the Cheshire cat. Aldiss also seems at times to indulge in allegory, another fantasy tradition, with the morel evidently representing a spirit of ruthless imperialism in humankind. Whether it is orthodox science fiction or not, Hothouse remains one of Aldiss most fascinating and disturbing works.