It would be interesting to begin this review with the number of what-ifs Brian Aldiss based his novel Hothouse on, hyper-greenhouse effects, locked planetary rotations, sentient flora, etc. But by doing so, all of the hardcore science-fiction junkies would go running the other way. “That’s not possible.”, “It could never happen that way.”, “That’s not sci-fi.”, etc. And all of these comments would be true; Hothouse is fantasy through and through, and approached from any other direction will only lead to complaints and disappointment.
Aldiss obviously relaxed and wanting to have a little fun, Hothouse is a simplistic yet strangely beautiful tale of a group of humans living in the super-flora that has covered the side of the Earth facing the sun. The far-future planet no longer rotating, the half exposed to the dying sun’s radiation has evolved significantly. Vegetation and insect life have taken on innumerable fantastic and sentient forms in the greenhouse jungle, and humans, now smaller and greener, have been reduced to a middling role in the food chain. The jungle canopy and Ground too dangerous, small human tribes eke out an existence amongst the branches. Life as predator and prey not always easy, tigerflies, trappersnappers, vegbirds, and the plethora of other fantastic creatures fill the tale.
The setting the real main character, Aldiss allows the reader little personal knowledge of the characters involved. Tone half-myth/half-fairy tale, focus is on the movement of a particular tribe, including Gren, Lily-yo, and Yattmur. Tinted in the most simplistic yet human of colors, many die easily encountering the exigencies of the hyper-jungle. As such, readers looking for empathetic characters would do best to steer away from Hothouse. Though an adventuresome tale with a climax is told, Aldiss never loses focus on humanity’s position in the larger scope of life.
Like Helliconia, Hothouse is redolent with Gaian themes. Humanity continually subject to the elements, Aldiss never paints a pretty picture of survival in his jungled Earth. Every step presents a new danger as the winds of fate push and pull the small tribe’s fragile existence beyond its control. Choices never easy, the conclusion of the novel wraps up things in surprisingly affecting fashion given the light tone that permeates the story. Real insight into the relativity of human nature, the final page makes the book worth the while.
A certain playfulness flitting through the story, at times Aldiss relaxes a little too much, allowing the story to move beyond the scope laid out at the book’s outset. The last third in particular sees the unnecessary introduction of characters and scenes that could have been done without and the story’s message still rung true, not to mention been better structured regarding the overall timeline. Those looking for a dearth of the fantastic will not be disappointed by the imaginative digression, however.
In the end, Hothouse is an exotic adventure that, if approached any other way, cannot be enjoyed. Any examination of the hard-science backing the story will fall quickly apart. Somewhere between myth and fairy tale, the story is set in a fantastical jungle that imagines the Earth taken over by vegetation, the sun’s radiation mutating and evolving plant life into a wide variety of forms, placid to carnivorous. Aldiss’s imaginative scope—the land, the style of life, and the sentient flora—will stick in the reader’s mind after the book is finished, and is in fact the main reason to read the book. A cross between the anthropological side of Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy and the outright imagination of Jack Vance’s, fans of either author should enjoy Aldiss’s light but highly creative story.