Sunday, December 16, 2007

Review - Hothouse

Ed Emshwiller
1962 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

by Brian Aldiss
196 Hugo Winner for Best Short Fiction (kinda)

So what would an early Hugo be without controversy, confusion, and a sketchy publishing history.

In 1962 the short fiction award went to "the Hothouse series": a set of five linked novellas that formed one complete novel. You'll note that in 1961 the novel award went to A Canticle For Liebowitz which was a set of three linked novellas. This is something that never is repeated again. All short fiction awards from then on go to specific stories but in 1962 there was essentially a second winner for best novel.

Only the Hothouse series isn't really available as a novel. Rather than being converted to some extended fix ups for publication in books they were actually abridged for publication as The Long Afternoon of Earth. All five novellas were published in their entirety in the UK but in the US they have only been collected a handful of times by specialty publishers for limited runs.

So you'll have to jump through some real hoops to read the complete thing. The leather bound edition that I have is the cheapest copy that I could find which should tell you something about it. The question then becomes is it worth it?

Hothouse descibes a far distant future where the earth has become tidally locked with the sun so it does not rotate any longer. Plant life has overrun the hemisphere that faces the sun and the continents are covered by one large banyan tree. Life has evolved to be incredibly aggressive and the plants have become mobile carnivores. Only a handful of animal species survive and the descendants of humanity are the weakest of these eking out a cautious existence in the branches of the tree.

To call the book "not scientifically accurate" is a small understatement. On the other hand the book is about a journey that consumes the lifetime of one of these people. He becomes hag-ridden by a fungus with plans for planetary conquest, encounters strange monsters, travels to the underworld, and witnesses the strange transition of life itself. In short, the book reads a lot more like a distinctive fantasy novel than science fiction. Unfortunately Aldiss spends a lot of time on the unsupportable science aspect of things but when he's not the fantastic atmosphere of Hothouse is conveyed very well.

I have to admit that I didn't find many of the characters likable but I did find them interesting. They're primitive and Aldiss doesn't fall into the trap of presenting them as modern people. This does make them hard to connect with. On the other hand the constant tension and peril (there's a lot of sudden, brutal deaths to characters as you read) pulls the story along well. Even the fungal version of Sauron is interesting in how he drives the humans toward his goals.

Aldiss does at one point have the travelers find the remains of our present day civilization and this is the section that I had the most trouble with. It's two billion years in the future. Continents don't last two billion years but somehow a building and a power source does.

For me Hothouse was worth it. It is a very interesting book though if I wasn't making a point of trying to collect everything that's won a Hugo award then I wouldn't have wanted to pay as much as I did for my copy (thirty-five dollars; I got lucky in finding it so cheap). If you can find Hothouse then go for it but I can't say anything about the abridged version The Long Afternoon of Earth.