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2016-02-24

Hothouse

Hothouse

by Brian Aldiss


Dune is one of my favorite books of all time. So when I had a chance to read Hothouse, another classic ecological science fiction book, I was excited. At first, the book seemed interesting enough. The distant future, the sun is at its hottest, the radiation has made plant life abundant and animals have mostly died off. Humans still exist, but they are barely surviving primitives living short and brutal lives. The book centers around members of one particular family group's struggles. Plotlines start to split as the group breaks apart. Adventures are happening and it seems like a conflict between a sentient fungus and humanity is about to abrupt in world-changing significance.

This is where the book goes wrong, one group of survivors story is dropped never to be mentioned again. The second group only shows up in the final pages of the book and is of very small import to the story. One of the main characters dies and is she is forgotten by the next page. More and more new species of plant crowd the book, the fungus's ambition putters off into a series of disasters. And you eventually get to the point where you are left with unlikable characters whose only redeeming quality is luck. Interesting worlds that move by so quickly, you feel like nothing before matters. Bizarre dead-end plot lines, random bits that the author added and never used (an ancient Mechanical Bird used for propaganda sounded interesting, but goes nowhere but add non-sequiturs about events that sound far more interesting than what the characters are up to).

In the end, a deus ex machina dolphin/squid/something sea creature concludes the book in a series of expositions that leave the characters' journey pointless and the book itself feeling like a waste of time.

Going back to Dune, I think where this book fails is that Dune explores a full and exotic world that's detail makes you want to dive back in for more. It captures the spirit and still over 50 years later draws people in. The characters are also compelling and you genuinely care about what happened to Paul and lament the death of Duncan or Leto. Hothouse instead leaves you feeling like you just  rode past the world on a high-speed train. There were people waving, but you don't really care about them.

I learned two things after reading the book, first: the book was intended to be a pastoral. I can see that with the emphasis on man's return to nature but unlike City by Simak, which has also been described as a pastoral, the world doesn't seem simpler and intriguing. It seems chaotic, complex and often as a black void filled with horrors. But the book's matter of fact approach to the forest doesn't seem to support the horror either. Second, the book was originally a series of short stories in magazines, again like City or another of my favorite books, Foundation. In the latter books, the author worked hard to string the narrative together - City with its format as a folklore collection, Foundation as a serialized novel. Hothouse, however, just has jumps and starts where tone and plot change dramatically. The character of Gren provides a constant backbone. But it's one you learn to hate as Gren's is so unlikable of a central character.

I was provided a free digital review copy by the publisher through NetGalley.