Let’s clear up a few things right from the start. You don’t read Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse for the plot, which is terrible. You don’t read it for the characters, who are shallowly drawn. And you don’t read it for the writing, which is distant and formal and anachronistic — typical Aldiss, in other words.
The only reasons to read Hothouse are: (1) its loving exposition of a hostile world in which vegetables have become predatory and humans tiny and vulnerable; and (2) its unrelenting, trippy weirdness.
The world-building is Hothouse‘s main draw. Indeed, in many ways it’s the book’s only draw. There’s no real plot, and not even a hint of character development. Instead, Aldiss’s “characters” essentially take a long tour from one bizarre environ to the other, allowing us to see through their eyes a cavalcade of wonders and horrors.
This aspect of the book is great. Aldiss’s imagination astounds. The sun is about to die. The earth has stopped spinning, leaving one side plunged in darkness and ice, and the other teeming with vegetation encouraged by twenty-four-hour sunlight. Animals have mostly been killed off by the newly evolved legions of predatory vegetables. Humans, shrunk to the size of small monkeys, barely survive. They are beset on all sides. Just in the first few chapters, for instance, Aldiss lovingly recounts a series of nightmare vegetables that bait, capture, and devour a traveling group of unfortunate humans in increasingly horrible ways.
Aldiss’s commitment to the terror and hopelessness of this world is impressive. This is not one of those optimistic tales of plucky humanity prevailing over hostile forces. Humans are doomed, both individually and as a species. Helplessness is their plight; “nothing now could be done” is the prevailing sentiment when some person in a careless moment falls victim to a predatory plant and waits in horror to be slowly digested.
But there is still wonder. Traversers — giant spider-like plants that can survive the vacuum and hard radiation of space — spin webs between the earth and the moon, unconsciously carrying plant spores and the occasional human being to the nascently lush lunar surface. The ocean has become filled with massive crustacean-like monsters, which engage in endless battles with land-bound plants over the beaches that separate their terrains. And the border between the sunlit half of the earth and its dark side is demarcated by enormous walls of ice and a vast twilight wasteland in which only a few hardy creatures can scrape out a living.
All of these remarkable environments are fascinating, and at its best Hothouse is just one crazy set piece after another. But at times, perhaps too many times, Aldiss’s fertile imagination veers into a bizarre trippiness. The morel is the most prominent example. Basically it’s a fungus that drops onto the main protagonist’s head and invades his brain. It’s alive and parasitic and highly intelligent, but it’s also hella weird, interjecting a wacky monologue as a separate voice in this narrative.
As weird as the morel is, it’s nothing compared to the Sodal Ye, an enormous fish-like creature with a gorgeous voice and prophetic powers that is carried around by an enslaved human whose body has been brutally adapted to the task.
And as weird as that is, it’s nothing compared to the occasional episodes when Aldiss apparently loses all touch with reality and churns out feverish passages like these:
‘Hear the clocks chime!’ twanged the morel. ‘They chime for us, children!’
‘Oh, oh! I can hear them!’ Gren moaned, twisting restlessly where he lay.
And in all their ears came a sound to drown all else, a chiming sound like diabolic music.
‘Gren, we are all going mad!’ Poyly cried. ‘The terrible noises!’
‘The chimes, the chimes!’ the morel twanged.
Aside from this somewhat disquieting weirdness, there are also aspects of Hothouse that are downright offputting. Aldiss occasionally plummets straight into sexism: “‘My fruit skin chafes my thighs,’ Poyly said, with a womanly gift for irrelevance that eons of time had not quenched.” And later, somewhat less offensively, “‘When we’ve explored, we will catch fish in the pool and eat them with fruit,’ she said, with a woman’s talent for producing comfort when it was needed.” Granted, Aldiss wrote this book during a different time, but even with this allowance these types of sentences are no less jarring.
More substantively, I really hated the tummy-belly men. The protagonists quite heartlessly abuse them — depriving them of comfort, leaving them behind, and ultimately driving them away. Through it all, the tummy-belly men keep up an endless stream of childlike antics and borderline retarded dialogue. The unceasing abuse of these annoying but nonetheless innocent and mentally damaged humans became (to me) ever more revolting as the story progressed.
I guess in a way that everything I’m saying here just reflects different sides of Hothouse‘s basic character. It is fundamentally a very uncomfortable novel, one that never lets you feel completely settled or at ease. Different aspects of that discomfort will appeal to or turn off different people. But there’s no question that it’s highly effective, even if not always pleasant.