Hothouse is a novel by British author Brian W. Aldiss. Originally published in 1962, it won many awards, most notable one being the Hugo award for best short fiction (that same year). Originally it was published as five separate short stories but the award was granted to all of them. Some have complained that the novel is a bit episodic and that is certainly true. Probably this is due to the fact that it was originally published (and written) as a serious of story. However, I feel that these stories work quite well together. Despite some minor flaws ( I will get into them in this review), I still consider this novel to be well worth reading. It is a highly successful SF novel that still has many fans. It is one of those books that haven't age, a true classic of the genre. If SF part doesn't put you off, you might enjoy this one. So, let's talk about it, shall we?
“Science Fiction had made itself a part of the general debate of our times. It has added to the literature of the world ; through its madness and freewheeling ingenuity , it has helped form the new pop music, through its raising of semi religious questions, it has become part of the underworld where drugs, mysticism, God-kicks, and sometimes even murder meet ; and lastly , it has become one of the most popular entertainment in its own rights, a wacky sort of fiction that grabs and engulfs anything new or old for its subject matter, turning it into a shining and often insubstantial wonder.” ― Brian W. Aldiss
This book might give you a tan, if you’re the suggestive type. I mean if you really imagine yourself being in this hot, hot, hot world. I’m only kidding, but really I don’t know, maybe it is even plausible, people do it with self-hypnosis, don’t they? When I was in high school, I read mostly SF (when it came to books of my own selection). We had to read a lot of classic for school (our state school curriculum is such) so I guess that a part of me was looking for something different. But it could also be that, back then, I loved SF for the same reasons I love it now (for the power of its imagination, depth of its philosophy and in some case for its science- I’m not really fluent in science but I do know something about it and probably I awe that something to SF). Anyhow, I do remember enjoying reading this novel way back and it stayed in my mind ever since. I even remember discussing this book with friends, especially that fungus concept (I’ll get into that later). So, imagine how happy I was when my brother gave me this book for Christmas and it was such a pretty edition too. Now I can re-read it whenever I feel like it.
Hothouse is set in future. Far, far away kind of future- with practically no ties with our civilization as we know it. Here are the facts of this new world that bears almost no resemblance to our own. The Earth has stopped rotating (that part is not very plausible but hey you can’t have it all) a while back hence life on Earth is now very different from our own. The sun has been growing and growing, until it has grown enormous. So, as the Sun approaches its natural end, the life on Earth is mostly plant life engaged in a crazy frenzy of eating and being eaten, speedy growth and decay, something like a tropical forest on steroids. It’s a jungle of the wildest sort and the writer does a great job describing it. Is there a place for us in this crazy place?
What happens with the humans? Human beings are small in size, they’re only a fraction of our present size. That’s not the most significant change at all. Human evolution seems to have taken a back tour, so mentally these humans have returned to the early days of human civilization- organized in tribes ruled by matriarchs and being driven mostly by their instincts. These humans don’t ponder much, when they face loss and death, they shrug their shoulders and move on. They live in a fast-paced jungle where there is no time for mediation. Not if you want to survive. Consequently, our protagonists have little time to experience any deep thoughts, being mainly preoccupied with staying alive. That's the beginning of the story.
The story that develops soon after the start, makes this novel quite a page-turner! It is all very exciting stuff. Right from the beginning to the end, the novel is action packed- there's always something going on. The character's development is somewhat limited, possibly due to them being somewhat limited in terms of intelligence themselves. However, there is some character development, so it is not like it is only action, all the time. It is true that these tiny humans start of as being little more than animals, but they do progress to some extent and they're likable. They do the best they can and in many ways, they hold onto their humanity- that’s the feeling I got anyway. Their lives often end tragically- yes, there are some tragic moments but there is stubbornness in them that doesn’t seem to be all due to survival instincts. I felt there is more than instincts to them, more complexity. In other words, I felt that the characters of Hothouse had soul and I liked them.
So, what do you do when you have this premise in which humans aren’t highly intelligent but you still want to make an interesting dialogue? Well, you invent a way in which one of the protagonist suddenly becomes smarter (and with no help from personal evolution because that wouldn’t make sense in the story). The fungus (or the morel)- what a brilliant idea! The morel is a sentient fungus that enhances the intelligence of creatures it forms symbiotic relationships with. I guess it could also be called a parasite. It isn’t exactly friendly. The whole concept of this smart fungus fascinated me. There is even an indication that that is how people became smart in the first place- and it was a cheeky and fun (if not a credible) idea. As a thing, character or villain- I don't know what to call it-it's well-though and incorporated into a story. Those parts when the fungus tried to take over the life of one of the protagonists was probably my favourite part of the novel.
One of the things I absolutely loved about this novel were the vivid descriptions of this future world. I had a feeling like I got a tan while I was reading this book. The author is so wildly imaginative when he writes about different life forms. I think that biologists would enjoy this one. You almost feel like you’re watching a really great nature documentary. It feels that real! There is originally both in the setting and in the story. That feeling of life growing fanatically in the final days of a dying sun- it’s there, you can feel it. That is what I loved the most. I really felt a part of this world.
Hothouse is not exactly hard sf, but it's really fun to read. It has many twists and turns. It makes you feel for the characters. It develops a great and exciting story. I've read somewhere that the editor sought scientific advice about the scientific aspect of the book ( the part about the planet standing still) and that he had been told that the orbital dynamics involved meant that it was nonsense, but the image of the earth and moon side by side in orbit, shrouded with cobwebs woven by giant vegetable spiders, was so outrageous and appealing that he published it anyway. He made the right decision! This novel is a gem. It is amazingly original and widely imaginative. Highly recommended to all SF fans! It is such a unique work in this genre. Well deserving of the Hugo Award.