In the last few years, I’ve run into a new genre label. "Cli-Fi," for the uninitiated, refers to science fiction stories built on global warming scenarios. Many of these works are formulaic, and as predictable as a Meryl Streep Oscar nomination, but the best of them—say Ian McEwan's Solar or Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind-Up Girl—transcend genre labels and rank among the finer literary offerings of the current day.
But the 21st century has no monopoly on cli-fi. Some of the most influential examples date back to the 1950s and 1960s, when British science fiction authors developed many variations on the climate change novel. J.G. Ballard wrote several dystopian novels based on cataclysmic weather, most notably The Drowned World (1962) and The Burning World (1964), and similar themes play a role in Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956), Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1959), and Brian Aldiss's Hothouse (1962). None of these books puts the blame on rising carbon dioxide levels, and instead remind us that there is more than one way to cook a planet. But each succeeds in making the atmosphere into a major protagonist in its unfolding drama, with all the potential for paranoia and claustrophobia implied by such a state of affairs.
Of these works, Aldiss's may be the most audacious, and the least easy to define. Some have even argued that Hothouse is not even science fiction, rather a surreal fantasy novel. Certainly the science here is dodgy at best. Could the position of the Moon, still visible in the sky, really form "one angle of a vast equilateral triangle which held the Earth and Sun at its other angles"? Could the revolution of the Earth really wind down to a "standstill, until day and night slowed, becoming fixed forever"? Could an enormous spider really stretch a web between the Earth and the Moon? No, no and no. But such is the science behind this cli-fi classic.
Even if you get beyond these unconvincing attempts to offer a scientific underpinning to Houthouse, you will soon encounter other elements beyond the usual conventions of pulp fiction. The story unfolds more like a Homeric epic, or perhaps an Old Testament story, with counterparts here to an exile from a Garden of Eden and the wandering exploits of a chosen people seeking a homeland. At other times, Aldiss seems to take a page from the Darwinian playbook—perhaps the last thing one would expect to find in a quasi-Biblical narrative—and in the process anticipates Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) with a bizarre evolutionary account of how reflective thinking might arise in a pre- or post-historical human society.
The book begins in the midst of a massive jungle, dominated by a single banyan tree that has spread over an entire continent. (Aldiss was inspired by a visit to the Calcutta Botanical Gardens, where he saw the so-called Great Banyan, a single tree that has set down new roots and expanded to cover some four acres.) Here a small human community struggles for existence in a hothouse environment alongside countless types of hostile vegetables —plant life that has turned predatory in the struggle to survive.
The sun is in its final days, turning into a red giant. Temperatures have risen, and all human cities have apparently disappeared. Civilization has returned to the tribal stage, and scientific knowledge replaced by ritual, superstition and taboo. Tiny matriarchal communities survive in the branches of the banyan tree, avoiding the ground level where vegetative predators are too dangerous. Here again, Aldiss is implausible—in the opening pages of Hothouse, various angry plant attacks the tribe of Lily-Yo every few hours, and almost every step is fraught with danger. How anyone could survive in such a setting for a month, let alone long enough to grow up and reproduce, is inconceivable. But what Hothouse lacks in credibility, it compensates for in suspense and creativity. I feel safe in proclaiming that no sci-fi novel offer more ways to die at the hands (branches? roots?) of plant life. In the crazy world of this novel, vegetables can attack you from the air like a bird, swallow you up like a whale from the deep, trap you in a cage like a hunter, tie you up like a cattle-roper at the rodeo, or kill you in any number of other inventive ways.
Needless to say, Lily-Yo's tribe has a high mortality rate. The group initially consisted of ten members, but the deaths (which start on page one) come so fast and furious that you might think that Aldiss had drawn on Agatha Christie's And Then There Was None as a role model. Eventually the group decides to break-up before everyone succumbs to the marauding plants, with Lily-Yo and the adults climbing up to the sky (literally to the moon on a big spiderweb—I kid you not!) and the youngsters setting out on their own to establish a separate tribe.
Gren, the rebel without a cause in the new generation, soon splits from the rest of the next-gen Lord of the Flies cadre, and embarks upon a series of journeys and adventures that make Gulliver’s look like a boring bus tour by comparison. He finds a mate along the way, a herder named Yattmur, and before long the couple are blessed with a baby boy named Laren. But by this point in the story, an invading fungus (who looks a bit like an over-sized mushroom) has shown up, as bossy and disagreeable as a sit-com mother-in-law. This new arrival has attached himself to Gren's head, and not only refuses to leave, but even takes over the young man’s brain.
Yes, this sounds ludicrous. But Mr. Aldiss has never been much for restraint in his stories, and when he tries some new or different effect, he gives us the full monty. With Hothouse, he not only has described a world in which high temperatures have allowed plants to run amok, but he also found a way to impart the rising mercury levels to his readers, who encounter a story that resembles a feverish dream, a nightmare in which even the bizarre and implausible take on a sort of inner logic and inescapable momentum.
Aldiss tries to raise the ante in the final pages, and reaches towards a grand, cataclysmic conclusion—in which his main characters must choose between acceptance of the Earth's impending destruction or embark upon a (once again implausible) plan of rebirth and regeneration. Few readers will find this resolution satisfying or convincing. Aldiss needs to turn to science to find a solution to his characters' pressing problems, and in this novel nothing is weaker than the explanations and hypotheses. For this reason, those who look to Aldiss's cli-fi classic in search of thought-provoking "global warming" scenarios are likely to be disappointed. Our author has, instead, delivered a hot and humid fairy tale, one even grimmer than the Grimms' grimmest.
Yet you shouldn't let this deter you from reading Hothouse. Aldiss is an engaging author even when he is an unconvincing scientist. In other words, treat this book as a travelogue, a kind of apocalyptic National Geographic from a future hell. Forget about understanding the science; instead enjoy the predatory scenery.
Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.